A couple of articles ago I started writing about the prayer NISHMAT KOL CHAI, in my opinion the best prayer ever written by our Sages. We’re now up to section three. The first part is about the duty of every living thing to extol God, our Maker. This leads to the second topic, which is: But it’s impossible! We just don’t possess the skills required to satisfactorily praise our Creator. Theoretically, we could just have ended the prayer there and gone home, secure in the knowledge that we’re just not up to the task. But not us! We carry on. The third part of the prayer explains why we can’t just walk away from the effort.
This segment of the prayer, which was probably written by the Geonim about a millennium after the first section and, perhaps, six centuries after part two, begins:
You redeemed (GA’AL) us from Egypt and liberated (PADAH) us from our status as slaves.
These were two different aspects of the Exodus. The first was more spiritual and involved leaving Egypt for the Land Overflowing with Milk and Honey, where we get to fulfill our national destiny. The second feature is more technical and involved the change of status in society, from slave to free members of a community. PIDYON, whether of an animal or a first-born child, always involves a shift of position or status relative to the world around.
The next acknowledgment of Divine largesse is: In famine You nourished us, and in plenty you sustained us. Throughout most of history, humanity lived on the brink of starvation. Societies lived on a season by season fight with famine. So, whenever we have emerged from our latest bout with hunger; we acknowledge God’s role in this escape from death.
However, when we have experienced a period of plenty, we also must remember to acknowledge God’s magnanimity. This second obligation is often harder than the first. Our Sages have taught us that the test of wealth is a greater challenge than that of poverty. When things are tough it’s all ‘Please, please, God help!!’, but when things are going well, it’s all ‘My strength and the power of my hand accomplished all this.’
Plus, ‘From the sword you saved us; from plague you let us escape; and from severe and enduring diseases you spared us.’ God, you have been there throughout history when bad guys have tried to annihilate us. Not only that, but You have been there to help us through invisible enemies, like disease.
We divide diseases into two categories: DEVER and CHALAYIM RA’IM U’NE’EMANIM. The first is regular outbreaks of diseases, perhaps even plague. Don’t confuse it with the fifth plague of Egypt which only afflicted livestock, perhaps anthrax. Here we are talking about a serious outbreak of an epidemic.
The second phrase is very difficult to translate and comes from the TOCHACHA or curses found in KI TAVO (Devarim 28:59). The ArtScroll Sidur renders it: from severe and enduring diseases You spared us. The problem is the word NE’EMANIM, which literally means faithful. What’s ‘faithful’ about disease? Rashi suggests that the disease does exactly what God wanted it to do. There are those who suggest these diseases follow a set course and the sufferer recovers or doesn’t according to this plan. Rebbe Nachman believes that these are diseases which occur because the person had a blemish in their EMUNA, faith.
This brings us to the next statement in this third section of our prayer. Here we declare:
Until now Your mercy has helped us, and Your kindness has not forsaken us. Do not abandon us, Hashem our God, forever.
In other words, here (spatially), and now (temporally), we are always depending on You, and You have always come through. This relationship based on Your benevolence has worked for the Jewish people from the time of the Exodus until today. We know that we could never continue without Your support.
The words ‘mercy’ and ‘kindness’ in Hebrew are RACHAMIM and CHESED. The first is really compassion and empathy. It derives from the word for ‘womb’, RECHEM, and means that God ‘mothers’ us. The term CHESED denotes generosity and benevolence, and always implies going beyond all expectations.
The terms for ‘forsake’ and ‘abandon’ are AZOV and NATASH. The first describes creating a physical space between us and God, while the second is more akin to withholding moral and psychological support. God is always there for us throughout our long history, both with substantive help and emotional assistance.
This brings us to the passionate and poignant climax of our prayer:
Therefore, the organs that You set within us and the spirit and soul that You breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue that You placed in our mouth – all of them shall thank and bless and praise and glorify, exalt and revere, be devoted, sanctify and declare the sovereignty of Your Name, our King.
AL KEN, therefore, we must praise You. We can’t stop ourselves from this endeavor. Our physical body and all its constituent parts (EIVARIM), together with our life force (RUACH) and immortal soul (NESHAMA) instruct our communicative tools (LASHON, tongue) to just go for it, and declare how awesome You are. We couldn’t stop ourselves from this enterprise even if we wanted to. Yes, we have explained that we clearly understand that we’re not really up to the task, but neither can we desist from it.
So, these body parts and communication organs let ‘er rip, and we express seven forms of praise (YODU, BARICHU, SHABICHU, FA’ARU, ROMIMU, YA’ARITZU, and YAKDISHU). These terms aren’t exactly synonyms, each contains its own nuance. Each one rising to higher rung in the spiritual ladder reaching to the heavens. Then, when our spirit alights from this stairway to Heaven, our spirit enters the Celestial Throne Room and we coronate our God, King and Sovereign. We do it, because our whole self can’t escape this categorical imperative.
We’ve acknowledged all the difficulties, but we introduce the final part of this wonderful prayer by admitting that we have no choice, we must do what our soul demands, and that is to praise our Maker. Just as Paul Watzlawick explained that humans cannot not communicate, we Jews cannot not praise God
Our next article will address the final section of the prayer. We will explore this beautiful prayer’s methods and advice for fulfilling this mandate, this Mission Impossible. It’s a difficult task, but we do the best we can, because we must.