In our first article about the prayer Nishmat Kol Chai, we talked about the amazing praise due to God. In the second section of this most eloquent paean to God, we express our inadequacy to the task. After we have acknowledged the obligation or spiritual need to praise God, it’s equally important to recognize the difficulty, if not impossibility of the task. To a certain extent we end up being very much like the United States Navy Seabees Construction Battalions of World War II, whose famous motto was: The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer. But before embarking upon the mission, we must first acknowledge the level of difficulty.
The second part of the NISHMAT prayer is first referred to by Rebbe Yochanan as the thanksgiving prayer that we present to God when rains finally come to end a drought. Our praises are in some way echoing the works of nature to give glory to God. But we recognize that our powers to praise are weak indeed, compared to the glory of natural phenomena, to glorify God. This section of the prayer emphasizes the difficulty our puny skills face in the effort to laud the Lord.
This part of the prayer begins with six body parts necessary to the praising process, and each with a level of difficulty qualifier: 1. Our mouth would need to contain as much praise as the sea contains water, 2. Our tongue would need to sing joyously as the legion of waves upon the ocean, 3. Our lips would need to be as full of acclaim as the expanse of the sky, 4. Our eyes would need to be as bright as the sun and moon, 5. Our arms would need to stretch like the wing span of the griffon vulture, 6. Our legs would need to be as swift as a deer.
Phew! We’d basically need to have super powers to sufficiently honor and acclaim our God. The first three items in our list make a fascinating assumption. All noises made by nature are praises to God. According to the Midrash, praise of God began on the second day of Creation, when the oceans made the first audible noise in the universe. Fascinating.
In 1979, I had the honor of meeting Arno Penzias. For those not going ooohh!, let me explain. Dr. Penzias escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 at the age of six. He became a research physicist at Bell Labs in New Jersey and in 1964 (together with Robert Wilson) discovered the background radiation created by the Big Bang, for which they won the Nobel Prize in 1978. As a result of this proof of the Big Bang or Creation of the Universe, he became a believing Jew (but not Orthodox, a daughter later became a Conservative rabbi). In the short talk he gave, he called that cosmic ‘noise’ the Hymn of Creation. All nature lauds Him!
Closer to P’SHAT or literal meaning, I believe that these terms are a form of hyperbole, emphasizing the skills and power required to do justice to the splendor of our Creator. It’s as if to do justice to God’s grandeur we must emulate the power of natural phenomena.
The last two items on the list, ‘outstretched arms’ and ‘fast feet’ appear to reflect earlier Jewish customs, when Jews would prayer with arms extended to heaven. Also, it appears that Jews did jump around during davening at some point. In a Tosefta, it is told that Rabbi Akiva would start davening in one corner of the room and find himself finishing his prayers in the opposite corner. This may be the source for our swaying or ‘shockling’ during davening, more on this phenomenon in the next article.
However, even if we could emulate or recreate these natural phenomena, we would still not be able to fulfill satisfactorily our need to L’HODOT, give thanks and recognition to God. This term MASPIKIM means to be sufficient to the task. It appears quite often in the negative in Rabbinic texts to describe an inadequacy or an insufficiency.
How come we can’t do God’s greatness justice? Simply because God’s TOVOT (good deeds, favors), NISIM (miracles, open or hidden) and NIFLA’OT (amazing wonders) are so abundant, perhaps, infinite. To express the innumerable gifts of God, the Rabbis pulled out their numeric stops. They used the terms ALFEI ALAFIM and RIBEI RIVAVOT. These terms translate as ‘thousands of thousands’ and ‘myriads of myriads’. A ‘myriad’ is the Greek word for 10,000. In the ancient world these were the biggest numbers they had available. Today, we’d have to say billions of billions, and sound like the late Carl Sagan in his television series Cosmos. Maybe, we should go for trillion of trillions, like in America’s Gross Domestic Product or debt.
These amazing acts of supernatural power were exhibited both for us and for our ancestors. We have a huge accumulation of amazing stuff to praise, and, unfortunately, limited resources at our disposal to do them justice. We have a duty to thank God for miracles performed for us in our lifetimes and for miracles we know about that God performed for our ancestors (Shulchan Oruch, Orech Chayim 219). And that doesn’t even include the miracles attested to by the Torah and our Sages.
That’s the dilemma presented by the second section of the Nishmat prayer. We are like a family in debt without the assets to repay the obligations. Will God repossess the wonders performed in the world on our behalf? We owe God so much, and we allocate so few assets to servicing this debt. What are we to do?
So, that’s actually where the second section of Nishmat ends. We acknowledge the problem, but have not yet offered any remedy to deal with the predicament. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the next article, and see how our Sages moved forward with this plight.
As Jews we have accepted the assignment to glorify God, but seem unable to fulfill the pledge. Next, we’ll deal with what we must do in the face of the impossible.