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Nishmat Kol Chai

By: Rav Ari Shames

If you have been a part of our readership in the past you have already heard of the 3rd of Adar, celebrated by the Shames family. For those of you who have joined more recently I am copying what I have written in the past:

I would like to dedicate this shiur in gratitude to Hashem for a great miracle that He performed for my family two (now six) years ago. My wife and five of my children were involved in a very severe car accident that included the car they were in flipping over several times and some even being thrown from the car during the flipping. Through the direct intervention of God, all family members in the car walked away with only scratches and one broken arm. Road trips to the north of the country now include making a special bracha when we pass the spot of the accident, and we have adopted the 3rd of Adar as a family holiday from that point forward (the specific customs are still a work in progress). All of this is so that we do not take for granted the great gift that Hashem gave us.  

As part of our marking of the event I would like to take us off the parsha topic and dedicate this shiur to learning the tefila of Nishmat Kol Chai.  This special tefila is noted as very relevant for anyone that has been saved in a miraculous manner.

Nishmat is the tefila that we have at the conclusion of pesukei dezimra on Shabbat and Chagim. In fact it is actually an expanded version of the Yishtabach bracha that we have the every day; on these special days we add the Nishmat before the actual final bracha.

Here is a translation of the tefila-

The soul of every living being shall bless Your name, Lord our God; and the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King. From eternity to eternity, You are God, and other than You we have no King, Redeemer, or Savior, who liberates, rescues, sustains and shows us compassion in every time of distress and anguish. We have no King but you, God of the first and of the last, God of all creatures, Master of all ages, extolled by a multitude of praises, who guides His world with loving-kindness and His creatures with compassion.

The Lord neither slumbers not sleeps. He rouses the sleepers and awakens the slumberers. He makes the mute speak, sets the bound free, supports the fallen, and raises those bowed down. To You alone we give thanks. Were our mouths as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of jubilation as its myriad waves, if our lips were full of praise like the spacious heavens, and our eyes shone like the sun and moon, and our hands as outstretched as eagles of the sky, and our feet as swift as hinds – we still could not thank You sufficiently, Lord our God and God of our ancestors or bless Your name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands, and myriad myriads of favors You did for our ancestors and us. You redeemed us from Egypt, Lord our God, and liberated us from the house of bondage. In famine You nourished us; in times of plenty You sustained us. From the sword, You saved us; from plague, you let us escape; and from serious and lasting illness you spared us. Until now Your mercies have helped us, and Your kindness has not forsaken us. Therefore the organs You formed within us, the spirit and soul Your breathed into our nostrils and the tongue You placed in our mouth – they will thank and bless, praise and glorify, exalt and esteem, sanctify and do homage to Your name O our King. For every mouth shall give thanks to You, every tongue shall vow allegiance to You, every knee shall bend to You, every upright body shall bow to You, all hearts shall fear You, and all our innermost feelings and thoughts shall sing praises to Your name, as is written:

All my bones shall say: Lord, who is like You? You save the poor from one stronger than him, the poor and needy from one who would rob him. (Psalms 35)

Who is like You? Who is equal to You? Who can be compared to You? O great, mighty and awesome God, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth. We will laud, praise, glorify You and bless Your holy name as it is said:

Of David. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name. (Psalms 103)

O God, in Your absolute power, great in the glory of Your name, mighty forever and awesome in Your awe-inspiring deeds, O King –who sits on a high and lofty throne.
 

Much has been written about the authorship of this particular tefila including a debate that goes back to the middle ages revolving around a possible non-Jewish (or more accurately, an early Christian) source for Nishmat. This suggestion was already torpedoed by students of Rashi.  The bottom line is that it is not clear who composed it nor when it was composed. It is also fairly clear that it is not one organic tefila but rather a tapestry of different works that were fashioned into what we have today. Part of the tefila appears in Pesachim when the Gemara discusses seder night, and what should be said after the festive hallel. We are told to say “birkat shir” which is defined by one opinion in the Gemara with Nishmat.

A second part of the tefila is familiar to us from a gemara in Brachot and Taanit where we find it as the text to be said upon receiving significant rain in Eretz Yisrael. Our naturally dry climate and fragile agricultural structure make us directly dependent on the annual rainfall. Most of tractate Taanit deals with the religious response to lack of rain and, as well, addresses how to thank God for giving us rain.

I would like to focus on two themes that are very obvious in Nishmat and, I believe, serve as important fundamentals when thanking God.

Mind the Gap -

The attempt to thank God for all He has provided for us is doomed to failure. This does not seem to be the most inspirational statement but it really is. The human being with all the best intentions is simply not able to adequately express enough recognition for the good that God does for them. This is stated quite poetically in the Nishmat.

Were our mouths as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of jubilation as its myriad waves, if our lips were full of praise like the spacious heavens, and our eyes shone like the sun and moon, and our hands as outstretched as eagles of the sky, and our feet as swift as hinds – we still could not thank You sufficiently, Lord our God and God of our ancestors or bless Your name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands, and myriad myriads of favors You did for our ancestors and us.

Rav Soloveitchik develops this theme extensively in a shiur entitled “Pesukei Dzimra”. The Rav explains that the bracha that precedes pesukei dzimra sets the agenda of setting out to praise God for all he has done for us. After attempting to do so we close with the final bracha of Yishtabach which is in a different grammatical form. Yishtabach means that God should be praised. The Rav saw this as a statement of despair at the failed attempt to accomplish what we had set out to do. After choosing some of the best poetry written by King David himself we feel simply inadequate in the end. God will be praised, ultimately, but not necessarily by my attempt.

The source of our frustration is due to the gap between the mortal and the Divine. We are simply not on the same playing field. As a matter of fact we do not even recognize the extent of that which God has done for us. There are multitudes of events that go on constantly that we do not even know about and therefore it would not cross our minds to recognize them. As we say in the Modim during the Amida we thank You for “your miracles that are constantly with us…morning, noon and night”. This frustration, if viewed properly, leads to additional awe and a sense of gratitude. Our inability to list or even be aware of the abundance of God’s gifts is, in itself, a thing to be thankful for!

The Universe -

Another significant element in Nishmat is the scope of appreciation. We read that gratitude will be offered by “all souls” and “all flesh” will exalt Him. “God and Creator of all things”, “He who runs the earth with kindness and mercy”.

 The universal aspect of thanking God is underscored many times. Our appreciation of God runs on two levels. On one hand it reinforces our commitment to Him as a chosen people, but possibly more significantly we express our gratitude as a member of the creations of God. Appreciation is a universal trait and one that is not even limited to the human beings. One simply cannot be a member of the club if one does not have a serious sense of recognition that they are not the focal point of it all, rather we are all creations and parts of a much larger puzzle. Every single element in the world is extremely fragile and our survival on a regular basis is exclusively through the grace of God.  

Now What? -

Now that we have understood the above messages, what do we do with that? The instructions are very clear:

Therefore the organs You formed within us, the spirit and soul Your breathed into our nostrils and the tongue You placed in our mouth – they will thank and bless, praise and glorify, exalt and esteem, sanctify and do homage to Your name O our King. For every mouth shall give thanks to You, every tongue shall vow allegiance to You, every knee shall bend to You, every upright body shall bow to You, all hearts shall fear You, and all our innermost feelings and thoughts shall sing praises to Your name, as is written:

All my bones shall say: Lord, who is like You?

We need to use what we have, what God has given us to praise Him. It is so simple yet so very hard. On a day to day basis we grow so accustomed to the basics of life, our ability to function in a normal and healthy manner. We become very complacent and smug, feeling invincible. And then it happens, a life threatening event, and we recognize how weak and fragile we really are. Those moments can serve as reminders as to who we really are and who He really is, but the trick is to try to get to a life and existence of appreciation without having to get a wakeup call from God.

I hope that our marking of this critical family moment and sharing it with you all will enhance all of our abilities to get where we need to go without bumps in the road.

Shabbat Shalom

 

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