Beshalach: Praise the Lord

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27 Jan 2010

Those who pray are quite familiar with the lines – we say them three times a day. In all likelihood that probably breeds some degree of ignorance/passive acceptance. And yet in those lines; more precisely, in two specific words, can be found a window into the great paradox of the particular aspect of prayer known as shevach – our obligation to praise our Creator.

The Jews have successfully crossed the sea. Moshe leads them in song. After poetically describing the Egyptians’ fate, Moshe steps back and declares [15:11]

Mi kamocha ba’eilim Hashem-Who is like You among the mighty, Hashem?! Mi chamocha ne’dar bakodesh nora tehilos oseh pheleh – Who is like You, adorned in holiness, Awesome in praise, doing wonders?

In these lines, which Chazal chose as a lead-in to our morning and night amidah, much defies our comprehension.

a. Who are these eilim, the mighty ones that form a basis of comparison with Hashem?

b. The phrase mi kamocha appears nowhere else in chumash in reference to Hashem

c. The word kamocha [כמוכה] is spelled in a manner found nowhere else in Tanach.

We leave these questions for another day. Let us simply note two items and raise a question:

First: the striking written presentation of Az Yashir. In Rabbinic terminology, it is written ariach al gabei leveina 1 [mortar atop brick] with the verses appearing like brickwork with intermittent white spaces between them. (even differing from the column-like structure of Ha’azinu).

Second: the phrase mi kamocha is striking in its directness. It is a statement of exalted, albeit ambiguous praise. God, who is like you…the notion being that God, or more precisely You are incomparable, yet we do not define any particulars.

Finally, after Moshe’s two mi kamocha questions, he calls God nora tehilos, poorly translated as the Awesome of praises, a phrase that seems redundant (isn’t awesome a praise?), generic (why not just praise Him?) and unintelligible – an adjective (awesome) and noun (praises) in search of a conjunction (Awesome because of praises, Awesome from praises).

We commence with Rashi:

Awesome in praise – it is fearsome to relate Your praises, for one might fall short [in his praises], as is written: “For You, silence is praise[Tehillim, 65:2] ”

The notion goes as follows: Human praise of God is ultimately an utterly pathetic and woefully futile endeavor. It is also a dangerous business. A classic gemara illustrates the point [Berachos, 33b]:

A certain [reader] went down to lead the congregation in prayer] in the presence of R. Hanina and said, O God, the great, mighty, terrible, majestic, powerful, awful, strong, fearless, sure and honoured. He waited till he had finished, and when he had finished he said to him, Have you concluded all the praise of your Master? Why do we want all this? Even with these three that we do say,had not Moses our Master mentioned them in the Law and had not the Men of the Great Synagogue come and inserted them in the Tefillah, we should not have been able to mention them, and you say all these and still go on! It is as if an earthly king had a million denarii of gold, and someone praised him as possessing silver ones. Would it not be an insult to him?

Note, says Rambam [Moreh Nevuchim, 1:58] the precise conclusion of the gemara. The peasant’s praise of the King is not off because of some undercount. (He had a million and you thought he had a thousand) No! He praises a King with silver when the King possesses gold. It is not a difference in degree, but of a completely different kind! In other words, our limited understanding of God stymies us and manifests itself in a completely inadequate vocabulary.

Therefore Talmudic license limits our ability to articulate positive praise of God to Biblical formulations. In effect, we fly on the wings of our Biblical predecessors. For Rashi then, the proper translation of nora tehilos would be too awesome for praise.

Ramban goes the other direction. We must praise Hashem. God-praise is really for us! Nora Tehilos speaks of God who is feared by very same thing for which He is praised. A God who acts with vengeance against the wicked evokes both fear and praise. An oppressive king may evoke fear, but certainly not praise. A sweet king may evoke praise but in that kindness, we do not feel fear. In Divine style fear and praise merge and God’s total mastery is highlighted through His praises – even as we are limited in our comprehension. For Ramban then silence, is not really an option.

Between Ramban and Rashi stands Ibn Ezra:

All who praise Him are fearful when praising His name, for who can make all His praise be heard and [yet] they are obligated to praise His name for He alone does wonders

In Ibn Ezra’s comment, we feel the immenseness of our conundrum. To remain silent in the face of Divine kindness is to quash our need and thwart our obligation to recognize God’s great gifts. We must praise God and express our unceasing thanks. That is Ramban’s position. And yet [ergo Rashi/Rambam] the moment we open up our mouths in praise, we limit Hashem and on some level profane Him. Perhaps this is the deep intent of Moshe’s mi kamocha line. After waxing in praise of God, Moshe recoils, recognizing the sheer impossibility of the task and surrenders, posing a rhetorical question.

Who is like you among the mighty? Who is like you .. There is none like You. Therefore Hashem, I must praise you. And yet you are nora tehillos. I can’t praise you properly.

A stunning Shach insight melds Ibn Ezra’s point into our very text. Why is the Torah’s presentation of Az Yashir riddled with blank spaces? It is a graphical illustration of the notion that even as we pile on bricks of praise, we acknowledge the feebleness of our attempt; we therefore embed into the ultimate praise text of Az Yashir the white space – an acknowledgement that so much more is left, unsaid and incomprehensible.

HaKetav VeHakabalah finds a beautiful third way. First he dissects the word nora:

The word nora derives from the word or (light) that when attached to the material is called a ner (candle). The permanent utensil for such light is called a menora. God is called naor – meaning that He is filled with the light of His essence.. and this is what is meant by the term nora .. for the praise of Hashem constantly increases and waxes [in contrast to the praise of man].

Then he merges it with tehilos to forge a fascinating man/God contrast:

When one commences in praise of man, that which has yet to be said becomes less and less. [In contrast, to praise of ] Hashem – the greater intellectual consideration of God’s deeds [for man], the more awesome and wondrous [and scary God] becomes for man – for just as light is constantly renewing itself so too our appreciation of God.

It is true that our praise is not adequate, but God is Nora Tehilos, meaning that God becomes increasingly greater (and, to some degree, a bit more inaccessible) davka after we assess our blessings and praise Him. For example, we might think of the eye [and its complexity], and then consider the heart [and its brilliance] and then consider the brain [and its speed]. At some point, we must shudder. There is so much more. Godpraise highlights His awesomeness. It is a neverending cycle.

A final thought. To the unreflective, God’s intimacy might be a given; to the contemplative who recognize God’s greatness, the ever increasing chasm between Hashem and His creations makes His desire to be karov, those who call all the more remarkable. From an earth-centered universe to a me-pod generation, many in our world are too busy with ourseleves to have time for God.

How ironic it is that davka in contemplating God’s gifts and His desire to be close to us can our greatness be found.


1 Cf. Megillah 16b – this is also true for Shiras Devorah [Shmuel 1,2] and Shiras David [Shmuel 2, 22]

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.