Tefillah Tuesday: Today

You may remember Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the popular 2003 book on the importance of precise punctuation for deciphering texts clearly. Depending on comma placement, that book title could refer to a panda’s diet, or the scene in the Godfather where [SPOILER ALERT] Michael Corleone kills Sollozzo and McCluskey in Louie’s Restaurant in the Bronx. (“Try the veal. Best in the city.”)

Something like that goes on in the ואהבת/Ve’ahavta, concerning the word היום/hayom or “today.” The Hebrew phrase is:

 והיו הדברים האלה אשר אנכימצוך היום על לבבך/vahayu hadevarim ha’eleh asher anokhi metzavekhahayom al levavekha …

Depending on comma placement this could mean:

·     “These words which I command you today, should be upon your heart;” or

·     “These words which I command you, today they should be upon your heart.”

The first of these is the standard interpretation, has spiritual beauty, and in all fairness, is probably the correct semantic meaning. But I love the second. Let me explain each of them in turn and unpack how davening each can beautiful and spiritually uplifting.

In the first possible interpretation, the stress is the Moses is speaking these words today. As the 11th century commentator Rashi says here to Deuteronomy 6.6 [quoting an ancient Midrash, Sifrei Devarim 33.2], “let these words not be like an antiquated or boilerplate decree which no one absorbs, but like a brand new one, which everyone hastens to read.”

Yes, the Torah is ancient, and millions of people have said Shema for thousands of years. Maybe you yourself have said Shema thousands of times over dozens of years. But this midrash exhorts you to open up your heart as you daven and feel some sense of novelty and excitement. I’m sure Sir Laurence Olivier had to recite to be or not to be night after night after night. How many times has Dame Judi Dench recited out, out damned spot? But if they permitted themselves to be bored and lose their sense of empathy and emotional liveliness, they would not be artists. Tefillah is also a kind of script, and daveners are actors – not in the sense that we are only pretending, but in the sense that we inhabit the script we recite, bringing all our empathy and feeling to make the words live. Reciting the Shema, try to hear Moses himself commanding you these words today and feel it fresh.

The second interpretation is explicitly opposed in the Talmud. But I still like it. In tractate Pesachim [Mishnah 4.8, in the Talmud 56a], the Sages are reported as criticizing several customs of the Jericho Jews, among them that they “bundle” the Shema. What do they do wrong? One possibility is that they misplace their comma, like in Eats, Shoots & Leaves. They say that the words which Moshe commands you should be “today upon your heart.” One sage thinks this might imply that you should take them to heart today, but not tomorrow.

I don’t really see why that’s the obvious conclusion. I’d say it differently: It’s a spiritual challenge to take Shema to heart. It’s an everyday spiritual discipline to absorb the message of God’s oneness and to love God with both your hearts, even if it costs your life, whether in times of joy or sorrow. When I daven like the ancient Jericho Jews, I meditate on this message: May today be the I day I really take this to heart. May today be the day I succeed in living faithfully, as befits this holy teaching.