Tefillah Tuesday: Upon Your Heart

Place these words of mine upon your heart and upon your soul.

As I noted last week, the first two paragraphs of the Shema come from Deuteronomy, which has its own distinctive spiritual orientation. Most of the Torah explains how a Jew should behave, while Deuteronomy provides Judaism’s classical emphasis on how we think. Devarim is rich with reference to memory, study and avodah shebalev, worshipping through the inner life, the heart and mind. Teach your children. Speak of these words when you go to sleep and awake. Remember what your experienced on the day at Sinai, don’t forget. Remember what Amalek did to you, don’t forget. This instruction is very near to you, in your mouth and heart. This is the characteristic vocabulary of Deuteronomy’s mental and spiritual religion.

Similarly, the second paragraph of Shema speaks not only of obeying the commandments, but, more deeply, of internalizing Moses’ teachings, placing them על לבבכם ועל נפשכם/al levav’chem v’al nafshechem, “upon your heart and soul.” Don’t just do the commandments, Deuteronomy seems to be saying. Absorb them. Let them shape your religious personality.

But that preposition is a little odd. Place them upon your heart? Why upon? Why not place them within your heart, בלבבכם/bilvav’chem?  Isn’t that the real goal?

  1. Menachem Mendel Morgenstern [1787-1859] , the “Kotzker Rebbe,” had a brilliant interpretation of this odd phrase. The stony heart is usually sealed shut, he observed. You cannot necessarily succeed at placing the Torah within. But if you place the holy words upon the heart, there will be moments when it breaks opens. At that holy instant, the Torah will fall in, to be absorbed into the depths of a person’s being. [This teaching can be found in Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim 2.278. Buber’s Hebrew version, אור הגנוז records it at p. 397, and cites the report to the Kotzker’s grandson, R. Shmuel Bornstein, the Sochatchover Rebbe, in his work Shem MiShmuel. Alas, I don’t possess this book and it is not online.]

When I daven these words, I am conscious that sometimes I say Shema without being spiritually attuned. Sometimes my heart is shut, calloused, insensitive. But I still say Shema every day and reflect that the spiritual discipline of davening gently places the holy words upon my spirit. “You may not be ready for us now,” they tell me. “But we’ll remain here, waiting for you, until you are open to us. Then we will become part of you.”