Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Nishmas
Recently, where I work, we changed our computer system – replacing an outdated one, with new, state-of-the art, Israeli software. During the transfer period there were a few people from the Israeli company here to help with all the changes, and on a number of occasions we asked them to help with our minyan for Mincha. One of them in particular, a very nice Israeli with very limited English and a long ponytail, had virtually no knowledge of Yiddishkeit – but he was curious, and liked the Mincha part of the day. He would sit there and read the siddur we gave him quietly to himself, and one day he said, "I had never seen a siddur before. These tefilos are so beautiful – I like this one especially." He showed it to my somewhat surprised Litvishe boss, pointing to Hoshanos that are said during Sukkos. He said that in his opinion, we should say it every day. My boss, who couldn't imagine how a non-religious fellow could perceive the words of davening as beautiful, gave him the siddur as a gift for which he was extremely grateful, and a couple weeks later the fellow returned to Israel.
Our lives are so busy, and it is so hard to focus on davening, that we can easily fall into the habit of rattling off meaningless words without ever thinking about them – in fact, it is almost impossible to expect otherwise. For this reason I have always said that the rule of "tofasta meruba lo tofasta" (one who tries to do to much ends up with nothing), should be applied, and the average baal habais should focus on a couple tefilos that he can find especially meaningful and connect with, and focus hard on those. If we expect to focus on the entire davening, we often end up with nothing – but if we have a couple "hot spots" that we look for, this is an easy and achievable goal for everyone.
For example, every Shabbos, I look forward to Nishmas. I am sure I am not alone in connecting to this tefilla and indeed, it is one of the primary Tefilos of Shabbos. Mishna Berura quotes Chayei Adam that on Shabbos one is obligated to say "Nishmas Kol Chai" [The soul of every living thing - found before Yishtabach on Shabbos], called "the blessing of song" in Maseches Pesachim 118. It further notes that is better that one should skip Tehillim in order to say it.
I feel myself getting closer to it right from the start of Shabbos davening - it is the most beautiful tefilloh in the world to me; I wait all week for it. Nishmas is really the basic premise of davening altogether, and the wording always moves me.
In Nishmas, we praise G-d and bless His name; we recognize Him as exalted, all-powerful, our King, our Redeemer, our Savior, first and last, Master of all, Director of the universe, Who never sleeps nor slumbers. We state how we cannot express His greatness or our gratitude; that "even if all our mouths were filled with song as the sea is filled with water, our tongues with melody as the roar of its waves, and our lips with praise as the breadth of the firmament, and our eyes radiant as the sun and the moon, our hands spread in prayer as the winds of an eagle and our feet as swift as a deer – we still could not thank and properly glorify Hashem."
And we proceed to thank and appreciate G-d for His kindness, the miracles and wonders He performed for us and our ancestors before us. We thank Him for taking us out of Egypt, for sustaining us and never abandoning us. And then we come to the summation: "Therefore, the limbs which You have arranged within us, the spirit and soul that You have breathed life into our nostrils and the tongue which You have placed in our mouth – they shall all thank, bless and proclaim the sovereignty of Your name, our King." From here, we go on beautifully in this way culminating with Hamelech – "O King who sits upon a lofty and sublime throne."
From this tefiloh we learn how to pray, and to involve our entire body in prayer. This is the basis for swaying during davening.
In Nishmas we begin by proclaiming G-d's greatness, and how we are incapable of expressing it, so how can we then say that all our limbs thank, bless and proclaim?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe once explained this to a visitor with a parable:
A peasant once did a favor for a king and as a reward the king gave him a gift. The peasant had no true understanding of the value of this gift, but being a gift from the king, he knew it must be quite valuable. Later, the peasant sought to ask the king for a favor, but to meet with the king one must bring a fitting gift. What can a peasant like him give a great and mighty king? The peasant brought the gift that had been given to him by the king previously; surely it was a fitting and kingly gift.
So, too, we do the same. In Nishmas we express Hashem's greatness, and our inability to express it. We offer Him this gift that He gave us – this body – this is our gift. I think of this story every Shabbos, and even during my weekday davening. Halevai, that I could live with this thought always.