Nishmat: How do We Pray?

When I first moved to the Vancouver area about a month ago, I was awestruck by the distant sight of Mt. Baker. For the first few days, I did not notice the mountain off in the distance. The first time I saw it when I was crossing the bridge felt like a new revelation of the natural beauty of this area. Since the smoke rolled in two weeks later, I would struggle to look for the mountain. I knew that it was there in the distance, but the most I could do was believe that I saw a shape through the haze. I knew that there was a mountain beyond my view, so could hold onto a small sense of wonder knowing that something was beyond my view. This past week, I was biking back across the bridge on a clear day, and was once again able to see the mountain and felt new inspiration and wonder at the view.

Nishmat kol chai, from the Shabbat morning service, is one prayer that leads us to express the wonder at the beauty beyond our sight. In the first line, we express that the breath of every living creature blesses the name of God. By invoking every living creature, Nishmat shifts the perspective beyond the prayers of other languages and human actions, and invites us to see the swaying of plants and the rumblings of animals as their own sort of prayer of thanksgiving. At once, our words are inadequate since there is no way that we can also express all the gratitude due to everything in the world, but we can also find comfort that as our words are incomplete, the rest of creation is there to fill our missing thanks.

The poet develops this imagery throughout the middle of the poem (Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals p. 104):

אִלּוּ פִינוּ מָלֵא שִׁירָה כַּיָּם וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה כַּהֲמוֹן גַּלָּיו וְשִׂפְתוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁבַח כְּמֶרְחֲבֵי רָקִיעַ וְעֵינֵינוּ מְאִירוֹת כַּשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְכַיָּרֵחַ

וְיָדֵינוּ פְרוּשׂוֹת כְּנִשְׁרֵי שָׁמָיִם וְרַגְלֵינוּ קַלּוֹת כָּאַיָּלוֹת אֵין אֲנַחְנוּ מַסְפִּיקִים לְהוֹדוֹת לְךָ ה’ אֱ*לֹהֵינוּ וֵא*לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ

(Ilu finu malei shirah kayam ul’shoneinu rinah kahamon galav, vesiftoteinu shevach kemerhavei rakia ve’eineinu me’irot kashemesh vekhararei’ach

ve’yadeinu ferushot kenishrei shamayim veragleinu kalot ke’ayalot ein anachnu maspikim l’hodot lekha Adonai Eloheinu Velohei avoteinu)

Could song fill our mouth as water fills the sea and could joy flood our tongue like countless waves

Could our lips utter praise as limitless as the sky and could our eyes match the splendor of the sun

Could we soar with arms like an eagle’s wings an run with gentle grace, as the swiftest deer

Never could we fully state our gratitude for one ten-thousandth of the lasting love that is Your precious blessing, dearest God, granted to our ancestors and to us.

The poet uses beautiful language to express how even clever use of words is not enough to fully express all the wonder and gratitude we may feel towards moments of beauty in this world, but our own limits of language are not the only block on our ability to pray. During the past week, we have seen the depth of ugliness that exists through in hate towards others. Prayers that express the beauty of the world can fall flat knowing that the same colors and views can hold images of violence. Our words sound false knowing that the language can also dehumanize others.

Nishmat is a prayer to teach us how to pray. Even with the ugliness of the world, we know that there are stories of courage that act as a wondrous moment of brightness during a dark time, but we may not know how to express thanks or wonder. Learning to praise those moments while acknowledging the pain in the world is a constant challenge in prayer. We can remember those stories which give us hope, and we can try to be thankful for them so that we are ready to celebrate the good in the world once the smoke clears and we can sense it clearly.

When I have led this part of the service, I often sing these central lines to a common melody for the song Tzamah Nafshi, a song that traditionally introduced this prayer. I felt like the words, “My soul thirsts for the living God,” matches the desire to be able to fully express the thanks for all that is good in the world while acknowledging that its full expression is still beyond our grasp. The tone of longing is for both our own desire to express the inexpressible and for that beauty to become more apparent.  You can take a listen here: