It was at a wedding some ten years ago. We interrupted our meal to say the evening service. I still remember where I was sitting during the prayers because I recall noticing that in the seat next to me sat a Rabbi who I knew to be of great note and prominence. I couldn't help marveling at the intense devotion he seemed to place on every single word of the prayers -- especially the Shema.
I had recited the Shema prayer -- Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One and the three following paragraphs -- at least 32,850 times in my life; three times a day, for 30 years since my Bar Mitzvah. Adopted directly from the Torah itself, it is, arguably, the most important prayer we own. And so, it is said (or should be said) with maximum concentration and focus.
"I wish I could pray like that," I thought, eyeing the Rabbi.
The short service concluded moments later and I pivoted to my left to return to Table 27 and my recently abandoned salmon almandine.
"Excuse me," said the Rabbi, standing in my path. "Do you have a moment?"
I couldn't imagine what a person of his position would want to speak to me about.
"Why...er...of course," I stammered.
"I just wanted to tell you how impressed I was with the way you were praying. I happened to be sitting next to you and I just couldn't help noticing it, so I thought I would mention it."
I could feel the blush seeping into my cheeks. But the best was yet to come.
"That's why," he continued, "I was mildly surprised at your recital of the Shema."
I knew it was too good to be true. Momentarily, I imagined myself back in 5th grade, on the receiving end of the principal's recriminations. The facial blush intensified, but now for a very different reason.
"My recital of Shema? Was there some sort of ...er...problem?"
"Well, you should excuse my candor, but I couldn't help overhearing you pronounce some words incorrectly. I know you might be hurt by my criticism, but you seemed like the kind of person who might want to know that. So, in a way, it's actually a compliment. Would you like to know your errors?"
"Why, of course," I countered.
If he was right, that would mean that I would have recited over 30,000 incorrect prayers in the past 30 years!
Frankly, I couldn't imagine what he was talking about. How could I be making a fundamental error in something I had said so many times before? If he was right, that would mean that I would have recited over 30,000 incorrect prayers in the past 30 years! Could it be?
The Rabbi opened up a siddur and pointed to the very first word of the first paragraph.
"If you don't mind, say this word for me," he said.
"VioHAVta," I uttered cautiously.
"I'm sorry," he replied. "The correct pronunciation is ‘ViohavTA,' with the accent on the last syllable. The difference may seem subtle, almost miniscule, but the accent, in this case, actually changes the meaning of the word! The way you said it, the word means, ‘And you loved (God);' in the past tense. The correct meaning of the word is a commandment, ‘And you SHOULD love (God)'. That word needs to be accented on the last syllable."
Stunned is not the word. He was, of course, correct. I never realized that by pronouncing the word with the wrong accent, I was, in fact, saying a completely different word.
Even if the Shema means nothing to you, imagine attending a State dinner with, among other dignitaries, the President of the United States. After the sumptuous meal, you express your appreciation to the President and the First Lady and make special mention of the extraordinary blueberry pie a la mode that they served for dessert. But instead of saying ‘dessert' you pronounce it ‘desert' (as in Sahara). How far would you run in embarrassment? Now imagine making the same mistake every single day!
"It never dawned on me that changing just the accent of one word could actually alter its meaning."
"Don't be too hard on yourself," the Rabbi reassured me. "Many people make the same the mistake. As a matter of fact, the other few words that you mispronounced were of the same variety -- subtle, but quite wrong."
What an unusual encounter. There I was, a full grown 43 years old man, receiving a grammar lesson from a Rabbi on the dance floor of a wedding hall.
I remember feeling embarrassed, but much more than that, I felt an immense sense of gratitude. This man had cared enough about my prayers, to make certain that I would say it correctly for the rest of my life. What a gift! How fortunate I had been to correct an error I had been making for so long. I pictured my soul rising before the Heavenly tribunal one day and finding out that never, not once, in my lifetime had I ever said the Shema prayer correctly. That easily could have been me.
FIVE WEEKS LATER
I was again reciting the evening prayers, but this time it was in my synagogue. Mindful of my newfound discovery, I was still careful to pronounce my words correctly and grateful that I was now on track. Suddenly, from the seat right behind me, the words rang out.
"VioHAVta es Hashem...
Some other fellow was making the exact same mistakes that I used to make!
I cranked my neck about 80 degrees and tried to appear nonchalant. He appeared to be about my age, and although I had seen him many times before, we had only a ‘nodding' relationship. You know the type -- the two of you have crossed paths so many times that you are embarrassed to ask each other for your names.
The evening prayers were to last about six or seven minutes more, but as far as my concentration was concerned I was already finished. My mind began racing.
"Should I approach him after services, just as the Rabbi had done to me?" "What if he resents my criticism?" "Maybe it's not really my business?" "But I appreciated it so much. Should I not pass on the gift that I received?"
In a flash, services ended and everyone headed for the exits. When I got outside, I took a very deep breath and cleared my throat. Apparently I cleared it rather loudly because my ‘friend' turned around. Now I was trapped.
"Yes?" he questioned.
I was much more anxious than I should have been. After all, I was about to do him a big favor. And he seemed like a friendly fellow. Why was I so nervous?
"I really hope you don't mind my saying...you see, I was at a wedding a while ago and I was saying the Shema and this Rabbi...you probably don't know him -- actually I didn't know him either... "
(This wasn't coming out the way I had hoped it would.)
"Anyway, so he was listening when I was saying Shema and he corrected me on the pronunciation of a few words. And I was so grateful. So, tonight I kind of overheard you making the very same mistakes."
"Really? Maybe you heard wrong. I didn't make any mistakes."
Uh-oh. That was definitely NOT the response I was expecting. I didn't know whether to pursue the point further or jump ship. I had to make a split second decision. I pressed on.
"Well, I guess I could have been mistaken, but I'm pretty sure you said ‘VioHAVta' when it should be pronounced, ‘ViohavTA' " –
"Listen, I don't know what you're talking about, but I gotta run. Thanks anyway."
Was it my delivery? My choice of words? Or was he just being overly defensive?
Quickening his pace, he headed to the corner, made a left, and disappeared into the night. I stood on the pavement in front of the synagogue. It was November, but winter had arrived early in New York. I wondered what had just happened. Was it my delivery? My choice of words? My timing? Or was he just being overly defensive?
I wish this story had a happy ending. I really do. But the truth is that for years, since that very cold November night, my ‘friend' turned away from me whenever we met. No, he didn't even nod. I tried to apologize, explain, inquire -- but he always cut me off.
"It's okay," he said. "Forget about it. Nothing happened. It's fine."
But it wasn't fine. And we both knew it.
Of late, things sort of returned to normal; a polite nod or an incoherent mumble are occasionally exchanged. But too friendly, it isn't.
The worst part of this tale, though, is that his reaction has discouraged me from passing along the gift I received to others. Perhaps it shouldn't, but it has.
But all is not lost.
I can still write articles. And I can still pray.