Vice President Joe Biden invoked an unexpected source Thursday in his acceptance of the Presidential Medal of Freedom: the Sages of the Talmud.
“There’s a Talmudic saying that what comes from the heart, enters the heart,” Biden said in his emotional address, addressing President Barack Obama. “Mr. President, you have creeped into our heart…and you occupy it.”
Biden’s referencing of a Jewish maxim was decidedly unusual given the secular context of the proceedings. There was no particularly Jewish audience for the Vice President to pander to. The wisdom of the Sages, apparently, simply came to his mind.
In truth, the origin of the maxim is somewhat ambiguous. Though invoked “in the name of the Sages,” it apparently cannot be found in the Mishna, Talmud, or Midrash. The website of Ohr Somayach, a network of yeshivas in Israel specializing in Jewish outreach, suggests that the phrase may be based on a saying of King Solomon in Proverbs: “As water [reflecting] the face is to the face, so a man’s heart is to [his fellow] man.”
The teaching is also reflected in an anecdote relating to Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, better known by as the Chofetz Chaim, one of the leading Jewish figures of the 20th century. The story relates that the Chofetz Chaim pleaded with Polish officials to rescind a decree banning kosher slaughter. Though the Chofetz Chaim’s plea was delivered in his native Yiddish, the Polish official to whom it was directed said he did not need a translator, as the Chofetz Chaim’s heartfelt words had deeply moved him despite his inability to understand them. The decree was rescinded as a result.