Jonathan Muskat

The Transformational Power of Pesukei D’Zimra

One of the new types of learning that I started during the COVID pandemic was to teach short tefilla nuggets about different parts of tefillah.  I started with the beginning of davening and now I am up to Yishtabach.  I share a short tefillah nugget daily after shacharit and I also record a five-minute nugget on a weekly basis.  As I was busy learning and sharing different tefillah nuggets on Pesukei D’Zimra, I often kept returning to a common theme, namely that God is beyond any praise that we can offer.  We do our best to praise Him, but we fall short because God is perfect.

Let me share with you a few examples of this recurring theme.  First, in Baruch she’amar, we recite the phrase “u’v’shirei David avdecha nehalelcha Hashem Elokeinu,” that with the songs of King David, we will praise God.   Rav Soloveitchik explained that we say this line to justify why we are praising God.  We assert that we simply are following in the footsteps of King David and reciting psalms that he composed, but we would not have the audacity to compose praises for God ourselves because anything we try to do definitely will be inadequate.  He also explains that that is why in Ashrei, we say “dor l’dor y’sha’bach ma’asecha,” that from generation to generation we will praise God’s deeds.  Again, we simply are following in the footsteps of our ancestors from previous generations.  Furthermore, this is why the closing bracha of Pesukei D’Zimra, the bracha of Yishtabach, begins with the word “yishtabach,” which means that God is praised, even without us praising Him. This one word suggests that on one level our praises are, in fact, unnecessary.

I found it fascinating that we continue praising God even though we state that our praise is hopelessly inadequate and we spend much of Pesukei D’Zimra trying to justify our praise of God.  And I wonder why we do this.  Why don’t we simply make a statement that God is beyond all praise instead of praising God and essentially acknowledging that it’s inadequate?  What do we gain by engaging in inadequate praise?

I think that the inadequate praise is not for God, but it’s for us.  The goal of the praise is for us to develop feelings of gratitude.  The more that we consciously praise God, the more that we appreciate what we have.  In our lives, there will be so many opportunities for us to praise God and to complain to God and Chazal are telling us what we have to do.

Just think about what we have been through.  COVID pandemic, leading into the Meron tragedy, followed by the Israel-Gaza conflict and the rise of anti-Semitism in this country.  We have plenty of material about which to complain.  As we went through these challenges, my family and I had the tremendous zechut to marry off two children and to bar mitzvah another one.  God has given me plenty of material about which to thank God.

I remember a year ago during COVID when I ventured out to bike ride for the best time on a bike path by Jones Beach, with my mask, extremely nervous about possibly contracting COVID.  As I was biking I decided to listen to music and I played the Joey Newcomb song, “Thank You Hashem,” over and over again.  And I needed to do that.  Because I was feeling depressed and lonely and hopeless and sad and wondering when Netanel would get married and how Elisheva’s courtship with Daniel would survive the COVID distancing rules and I wasn’t even thinking about Daniel’s bar mitzvah.  And then I listened to the song, “Thank You Hashem,” and my mood brightened a bit.  So I listened to it again, and my mood brightened a bit more.  And I must have listened to that song ten times in a row and I forced myself to count my blessings –  my beautiful family, my special community and so many other blessings that I am fortunate to have – and I returned from the biking excursion exhausted but very happy.

That’s what we do every morning during Pesukei D’Zimra.  We think about this great world that God created and focus on the good.  Everything is about perspective.  Some people walk around with little simchat ha’chayim and perhaps for very good reason because of all the problems that exist in this world, but Chazal tell us that there’s a better way.  There’s a better way even during COVID, even during the Meron tragedy, even during the Israel-Gaza conflict, and even during the rise in anti-Semitism in this country.  We don’t ignore sickness and evil and we fight these challenges whenever we can, but every day when we wake up we offer praise to God that is grossly inadequate for God, but is transformational for us.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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