One of the many beautiful tefilot that we recite on Shabbat and Yom Tov is Nishmat Kol Chai.
I find the following passage to be particularly striking in its spiritual depth and scope:
“Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as the female deer of the woods, we still could not thank You sufficiently Hashem our G-d and G-d of our forefathers, and bless Your Name for even one of the thousand thousands, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors You performed for our ancestors and for us.”
This prayer focuses our desire to praise and thank the Almighty for the innumerable wonders and miracles He performed for our forebears, and for us. Yet we may well ask, what is the matir (permission) for finite man to praise, bless and thank the infinite Creator, for as the text suggests, all of our efforts will ultimately fall short of achieving their goal? My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (the Rav), believed that the answer may be found in a careful understanding of a famous verse in this week’s parasha, Beshalach: “My strength and song is G-d, and this is my deliverance; this is my G-d and I will enshrine Him (zeh kali v’anvahu); My father’s G-d, I will exalt Him (Elokei avi v’arom’menhu). (Shemot 15:2)
The Rav notes that each of the two sections at the end of the pasuk — “zeh kali v’anvahu” and “Elokei avi v’arom’menhu” — contain an aspect of the matir to extol Hashem. He suggests that the word v’anvahu “can be understood as a compound of the words ‘ani’ and ‘hu’ (I and he). We have an obligation to imitate G-d, and by offering Him appropriate praise we learn about and appreciate His attributes. [The desire to be like Him, to fashion our deeds after a Divine design,] is understandable if seen against the background of a relationship based on a passionate love. This emotion expresses itself in an overpowering longing for the complete identification of the lover with the beloved.” (From “Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition.”)
The desire to “to be like Him, to fashion our deeds after a Divine design,” is known as imitatio Dei. According to the Rambam (Maimonides) it is included in the Taryag Mitzvot (the 613 Biblical Commandments): “The eighth mitzvah is that we are commanded to emulate G-d, blessed be He, to the best of our ability. … This is explained in the words of the Midrash Sifri, ‘Just as G-d is called merciful, so too, you must be merciful. Just as G-d is called kind, so too, you must be kind. Just as G-d is called righteous, so too, you must be righteous. Just as G-d is called pious, so too, you must be pious.”
Hence, for the Rav, when we fulfill our “obligation to imitate G-d and offer Him appropriate praise, we learn about and appreciate His attributes.” This, then, is the first matir for mankind praising Hashem.
The Rav maintained that the second reason we may praise G-d is to be found in the expression, “Elokei avi v’arom’menhu,” since “we ourselves did not originate the custom of praising Him; we do so based upon the tradition of those who came before us, we rely on their precedent.” When we extol the Holy One blessed be He, we are following the path forged for us by the great ones of Kenneset Yisrael and Adat Yisrael, two terms that the Rav defines in his work, “U’vikashtem Misham (And From There You Shall Seek)”:
“Knesset Yisrael (the Community of Israel) — its definition: the inextricable connection between the first and last generations of prophet and listener, of Torah scholar and student, of the Revelation of G-d’s Divine Presence in the earliest lights of dawn, and the eschatological vision on that day to come. The Community of Israel is also Adat Yisrael (the Congregation of Israel). It incorporates in its innermost being the ancient and true testimony of the myriad visions that have never been obliterated in the depths of the past, the continuity of history, and the unceasing transmission of the Revelation from generation to generation.”
Thus, in the Rav’s estimation, the second matir for praising Hashem is our indissoluble link to Kenneset and Adat Yisrael, and the knowledge they have transmitted to us since the dawn of Jewish history of how to recognize His indescribable glory during the prayer experience.
With Hashem’s help and our heartfelt efforts, may we find the strength and wisdom to walk in His ways, and follow the example set by our Sages, so that we may give the Master of the Universe “song and praise, lauding and hymns [and thereby recognize His] power and dominion, triumph, greatness and strength, praise and splendor, holiness and sovereignty, blessings and thanksgivings, from this time and forevermore.” V’chane yihi ratzon.