There are many great prayers in our Siddur, but most of the truly exceptional ones come from the book of Psalms. However, our Sages did write one outstanding prayer, which truly moves and inspires the supplicant, and it’s called NISHMAT KOL CHAI, ‘the soul of every living thing’. Rabbi Avraham Twerski OB”M wrote, ‘It’s almost criminal to comment on the Nishmat prayer.’ I don’t know if it’s a crime, but it is a bit of a CHUTZPA. The prayer is so perfect, so well-constructed, that it’s very hard for any of us to add to its impact. But I’ll try.
Well, Rav Twerski went first and continued:
It is the ‘prayer of prayers’, complete with every aspect of prayer: praise of God, expression of faith, trust and hope; man’s humility together with his greatness…To comment on Nishmat is like trying to improve on a breathtaking sunset or a majestic waterfall…The reconciliation of self-esteem and humility could not be better done (From Bondage to Freedom. P. 188).
With that recommendation from a Torah scholar and acclaimed psychiatrist, let’s take a look at the prayer itself. The prayer contains three parts. The first section, which I will attempt to explain in this article was written during the period of the Tannaim (Rabbis of the Mishna, 100 BCE-220 CE), and is first mentioned in the Talmud as the BIRCHAT HA’SHIR (‘blessing of song’) to be said after the recital of Hallel at the Pesach Seder. The full prayer was eventually completed and included into the SHABBAT and Yom Tov services by the period of the Geonim (600-1000 CE).
We begin by declaring that all living things bless (TAVARECH), glorify (TIFA’ER) and exalt (TROMAM) God, our King all the time. We separate those with NESHAMA or Divine soul from those with mere life force. The soulful group are, of course, humans, but we can also feel or intuit that all of life is expressing God’s greatness. It’s been asked how come we only recite this prayer on Shabbat and holidays. The easy answer is that we have more time to devote to our prayers, but many believe that the true reason is that only on these special days, imbued with holiness, do we have extra spirituality (NESHAMA YETEIRA) to do this prayer justice.
Next, we describe God’s uniqueness. God is the infinite power (EL) for all eternity, MIN OLAM V’AD OLAM. Some suggest that phrase means both in this realm and the World to Come. Without our God, there is no Deity.
We then list the unique activities of God. This list could fill an entire article, but I’ll present the basic translation of these heavenly activities: Redeemer (GO’EL, change of one’s spiritual status), Savior (MOSHI’AH, rescue spiritually), Deliverer (PODEH, change one’s technical status), Rescuer (MATZIL, save from physical harm), Provider (MEFARNES), Empathizer (MERACHEM, often ‘shows compassion’).
God performs all these roles through every type of difficulty we may encounter. The prayer specifies two kinds of danger: TZARA and TZUKA. The first is usually translated ‘trouble’ and, of course gives us the Yiddish TZOROS. It really means to be constricted within tight places, ‘between a rock and a hard place’. The second is usually rendered ‘distress’, but really comes from the word for a precipice and describes most of Jewish history: a real ‘cliff hanger’.
We continue: You are our only Deity, and this was equally true for our ancestors (HARISHONIM) as it is for us now (HA’ACHRONIM). You, God, are the sovereign for all living things and control all events. You direct our world with kindness (CHESED) and compassion (RACHAMIM). You have been the Master (ADON) throughout all the generations, and, therefore, You are to be extolled with all manner of praises.
Then comes a weird description or, perhaps, request: Please, don’t sleep or slumber on your watch. Really? We’re afraid that God, Who has no physical needs, might doze off on the job! The famous approach to this conundrum is to explain that we are begging God not to turn away from us (HESTER PANIM). But I think that we must look at this phrase in the context of the next phrase: Who arouses the sleeping and awakens those in deep slumber.
God, You never stop paying attention to this world and us. Please, teach us to have a similar standard of focus. Here’s our dual problem: first we get physically tired and, then, we get mentally distracted. We want to remain alert to our responsibility to worship You through our words and deeds. All too often, we tire of the task or lose our concentration. We beg You, Who never sleeps, help us stay on task!
Now, there is a list of specific gifts bestowed upon humanity by God: gives speech to the mute (many authorities believe that means to grant humanity, because humans are the beasts who speak), releases the bound, supports the fallen (or ‘the falling’, better to get there before reaching rock bottom), and raises up those who are bowed (posture tells us a lot about a person’s situation). This fascinating list is, perhaps, a wish list for conferring human dignity.
As we end this first third of our prayer, we introduce a new concept: thanksgiving. Up until this point we’ve talked about lavishing laudations, which is great. Now, we add MODIM, thanksgiving. To give thanks requires an admission of debt. This creates a bond much stronger than praise. Since the destruction of the first Temple, we have been Yehudim, which implies more than the importance of the tribe of Yehuda. It means we admit our debt and connection to God.
Rabbi Norman Lamm OB”M, described the message of this prayer in his commentary on the Haggadah:
Gratitude is a state of mind, a psychological attunement to God, a climate of conscience, a cast of character, a matter not so much of having something as of being someone. Ultimately, the ability to achieve this higher form of gratitude is an integral aspect of character (The Royal Table, p. 122).
And is the definition of being a YEHUDI. This is a great place to end our exploration of the first third of this amazing prayer.