Exposure to violence in media, including television, movies, music, and video games, represents a significant risk to the health of children and adolescents. Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.

—American Academy of Pediatrics, November 01, 20091

While later publications dispute this claim, and the matter is still subject to debate, the underlying assumption seems quite intuitive. If you’re going to regularly witness people killing each other, especially in graphic, real-life detail, it stands to reason that the shock will slowly wear off.

Desensitization is a great thing when treating people for traumas, fears, and anxieties.2 But when it comes to negative things towards which we should be sensitive, the risk of repeated exposure and steady moral corrosion is quite frightening.

As it happens, it works much the same way when it comes to our relationship with G‑d.

Circumcise Your Heart

Apropos the time when it’s read, just prior to the High Holidays, Parshaht Nitzavim contains a sequence of beautiful verses about the mizvah of teshuvah, including:

And the L‑rd, your G‑d, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, [so that you may] love the L‑rd your G‑d with all your heart and with all your soul.3

Earlier in Deuteronomy, we are told,4 “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart.” So which is it? Does G‑d do the circumcising or is it up to us?

And what is the “foreskin of the heart” anyway? It’s obviously not literal, so what does it really mean?

A Blocked Heart

In an insightful discourse, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the first Rebbe of Chabad, explains exactly what the “foreskin of the heart” is all about. As the name indicates, it’s a sort of blockage, an impure covering that stops the heart from feeling—a numbness and desensitization to what would otherwise electrify it.

You see, your heart is supposed to intuitively feel G‑dliness. It’s supposed to be attuned to the G‑dly soul pulsating through it. It possesses a certain spiritual sensitivity that should naturally make things such as prayer, Torah study, giving charity, and fulfilling all other mitzvot as appealing as ice cream, football, and a beautiful sunset.

But as life goes on, we develop a “foreskin on the heart”—a thick shell around that unique sensitivity, which numbs and desensitizes us. Prayer is uninteresting, Torah study is tedious, and the rabbi’s speech sounds far-fetched.

How does this happen?

In one word: decadence.

It doesn’t come from doing bad things per se. We’re not talking about evil. Not at all. We’re talking about regular people whose only fault is that they regularly engage in the banal niceties of everyday life: sports, music, art, eating, watching TV—you get the idea.

The more one sinks into this world, the thicker that shell around the heart becomes, dulling the natural spiritual antennae.

“You Do Your Part, I’ll Do Mine”

The only one who can remove this thick “foreskin” is you.

When you do your part, G‑d says, “OK, now I can help you get closer to Me.” Once you’ve hacked away at that coarse veneer and put your spiritual antennae back in business, you’re ready for G‑d to reach out and bring you into His embrace.

So when Parshat Nitzavim tells us that “G‑d circumcises the heart,” it is referring to this latter step. G‑d does not circumcise the foreskin over the heart, but the heart itself. The first step of “circumcising the foreskin” is our move. We must first clear away the garbage heap smothering our heart. Once we’ve done that, G‑d comes and gives our heart yet another spiritual tune up.

Get Your Heart out of the Muck

It boils down to this: if you’re finding everything on this website ridiculous, if you’re looking at your more Torah-observant compatriots with a mixture of disdain and scorn, if you’re showing up to shul or the holiday program and it’s bouncing right off of you, then Houston, we have a problem. And that problem has to do with ... you.

It’s not that you’re suddenly so much smarter and on the cusp of discovering the next big breakthrough in religious philosophy. This numbness that you’re experiencing is not a precursor to you becoming the next Maimonides, who’ll prove that everyone else really was primitive in their understanding of Judaism.

More likely, you’re just knee-deep in Netflix, ESPN, Spotify, Michelin-starred restaurants (or whatever it is that gets you going), and as a result, it’s just not reaching you. Torah and Judaism remain true, pure, and legitimately exciting; it’s you who has drifted off by desensitizing your heart and soul.

While that may sound like a harsh and dire accusation, it’s actually good news. Everything is not ridiculous, and most importantly, the solution is in your own hands. You don’t need an impressive lecture or a discovery trip to the Himalayas or South America for some Ayahuasca. What you need is a giant pair of scissors to snip off the ugly foreskin covering your heart.

It’s in your hands. Go ahead and do it.5