Why Do We Praise God?

By Joel Grossman

Although I am not a complainer, as my wife Fran will surely attest, I have learned three things that I did not know when I first agreed to give this address. First, I was under the assumption that this dvar torah and the others in this series of Big Issues would be given as the regular dvar torah in the Library Minyan during Shabbat services, replacing for that week a dvar torah based on the parsha. Given that we are dealing this week with the minute details of building the Mishkan, followed soon by the Book of Vayikra and the laws of the sacrifices, I thought that was a pretty good idea. I had no idea that I would be booked on a Thursday night for an hour and a half talk.

Second, I had no idea of the identity or the caliber of the other speakers in this series. All but me are either rabbis or professors of Jewish studies. I am a little out of my league.

Third, when I agreed to do this I had no idea that my speech would be first!

Given these three points, I was planning to call in sick tonight, or fly to Brazil, or perhaps both. But for better or worse, here I am.

My topic tonight is phrased as a question and it is a question I have thought about a lot. Of course, once you ask the main question, why do we praise God, you immediately come up with a long list of sub-questions:

  • Is there a God, and if not, why do we bother praising Him?
  • If there is a God, why would He need our praise? Of what value is it to Him?
  • If there is no value to God in praising Him, is it of value to us?

I will touch on all of these questions as we proceed, but let me say from the outset that the purpose of this talk tonight is not to answer any of these questions. Rather, the purpose of this talk is to identify the questions and to discuss them. Sometimes—and I think this is one of those times—the questions are actually more valuable than any potential answers. So the ultimate purpose of this talk is not to answer the question “why do we praise God?” but is to ask you to join me in asking this question and work toward an approach, or more likely several approaches,  to an answer or to many different answers.

Now, here is what I am talking about, examples of praise of God that seem to me extraordinary, if not excessive. Let’s start with a couple of prayers that you are very familiar with. In the Amidah, and you can follow in the Shabbat siddur on page 123b– we begin by blessing God who is our God and the God of our ancestors, and then we say ha-el hagadol hagibor v’hanorah el elyon—God who is great, mighty, awesome, exlated. Why? Does he require this excessive praise as an admission ticket for us to be able to continue the prayer.

In the Kedushah, which is said to be an earthly reenactment of the angels prasing God in the heavens, we praise God, and at the end of the kedushah we say this: l’dore vador nagid gadlecha, ul’netchach netachim kdushatcha nakdish, –translation, we will declare your greatness through all generations–and then we say this:  shivchacha Eloheinu mi’pinu lo yamush l’olam va’ed—Your praise will never leave our lips, in other words we will be in a constant state of praising God for our entire lives. Why would that be?

An even more striking example of praise is in the the prayer Nishmat, which is a bridge between the psukei dzimra sevice and the shacharit service on Shabbat and holidays. Please open your siddur to page 104 and look at the second paragraph (ilu finu etc). As poetry, this prayer is unsurpassed. But is it excessive, or even necessary.

Another example, from the Book of Psalms, Psalm 147 which is found on page 98 of the siddur. “Tov zamra eloheinu, na’im nava t’hila.  It is good to praise God.  A similar phrase is found in the Psalm for Shabbat: tov l’hodot l’adonai.”

And the prayer continues, a couple of lines down: Great is our ruler, vast God’s power; beyond measure His wisdom.

And if you will turn the page to Psalm 99  you find the Psalmist instructing us, the sun, the moon and stars to praise God, sea monsters and even the mountains and hills, the trees and the birds, all are instructed to praise God.

Sometimes the Psalmist compares God to idols created by humans. In Psalm 115, which is part of the Hallel service recited on Rosh Chodesh and holidays, the Psalmist compares God to idols in these words, page 134:

“Their idols are silver and gold…”

My final example is the very familiar ashrei prayer, page 96, also from Psalms, which we recite three times a day, twice during the morning prayers and once work at mincha. I will focus on ashrei because I think the words of ashrei are part of the question, as are the words of the other prayers quoted before, but I also view the words of the ashrei as a path toward possible answers. For now, let’s just focus on the line that begin with the letters gimmel and daled–Gadol adonai u’mhulal m’od, v’ligdulato ein cheker.  (translation) and dor l’dore yeshabach maasecha, ugvurotecha yagidu (translation) which certainly sounds a lot like the prayer at the end of the kedushah, ledor vador nagid gadlecha.

I could give you, and I am sure you could give me, many, many more examples of this kind of effusive praise, which fills the prayer book and the book of Psalms.

We cannot know, of course, whether God needs or even wants our constant praise. My own conception of God, and the assumption which I am making for the balance of this talk, is that God wants us to perform mitzvoth, to be a light to the nations, and to work towards tikkun olam, but that our continual praise of Him is not important at all.

So if God doesn’t need or want our praise, the only justification for all of these prayers would be that we need it for ourselves. Somehow this effusive praising of God is to our benefit. How might this be? Well, once again this could depend on your conception of God and his involvement in our day to day lives. When the Psalms were written, of course, our people lived an agricultural life and they felt God’s presence keenly. Rain, good crops, healthy animals all seemed to be within God’s control. We live very different lives today, of course, and the day to day natural world is not as crucial to us. Once in a while, as is happening right now with our awful drought here in California, we might remember what that life was like.

But going back to what we get out of praising God,   we might compare praising God to praising an earthly ruler, or your boss at work, someone who is in a position to give you something that you want. And since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, let us remember how we sometimes praise the person we love.

Here is my very favorite love poem, full of praise for the object of the poet’s desire. It is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d
And every fair from fair sometimes declines
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ows’t
Nor shall death brag thou wanders’t in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou grows’t
So long as men can breathe or eys can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Once again, you and I could both come up with many more examples of lovers praising each other, but it would be hard to top this one. Who else do people praise? Their rulers. In countries ruled by kings or queens, the ruler is generally called Your Majesty. We have heard the term so many times that we probably no longer notice how full of praise it is. Prime ministers or other high-ranking officials would be referred to as “Your Excellency.”  And judges are spoken to as “your honor,” perhaps not quite as grandiloquent as ‘Your majesty’ but not bad.  Before we speak about why we praise God, let’s ask why we praise our lovers or our rulers. It seems to me that we praise them pretty much for the same reason: we want something from them. We are, to use a cliché, buttering them up so they will give us what we want. In the case of lovers whom we praise excessively, we want love. In the case of rulers, we may want favors or favorable rulings.

Not so with God, at least with any conception of God in Judaism. It is hard enough to know whether God hears or wants our praise, but God surely has no interest in continual and even excessive praise.

Do we praise God because we want something from God? Do we hope that our praise will result in God granting us wealth, or good health, or romance? While I cannot answer these questions, or the ones I asked at the beginning, I want to present three approaches to praising God. The first approach is love, the second is awe, and the third is gratitude. As you will see, there are no hard lines dividing these three, and they spill over into each other.

Love is often the root source of praise. As in the Shakespeare sonnet we read earlier we often praise the one we love, for his or her beauty, or kindness or wisdom. And of course we are commanded to love God. The first paragraph of the Shma begins with the words v’ahavat et adonai elohecha, b’chol levavcha uvchol nafshecha uvchol meodecha.  That is a tall order, and a mitzvah very hard to fulfil. Not only must we love God, but we must love God with all of our heart and soul and might. Can we do this? Can anyone be commanded to love another person or –even more difficult–commanded to love an invisible being who resides in a completely different dimension?

I believe that praising God is a path toward the fulfilment of this mitzvah. Even if the praise is recited by rote, even if you are reciting the ashrei in the morning service while thinking about a problem you have at work, or trying to make yourself to have your car serviced, you are saying wondrous and magnificent words about God, and maybe, even if just a very small percentage of your consciousness is actually focused on these words, the repetition and the cadence and the rhythm of the prayer may break through.

It is very hard to deal with the concept of loving God, but for me, at least, it is much easier to think that loving God is loving the ideals that God represents. One of my favorite verses from Ashrei—2/3 of the way down on p. 96,  is the model of being a loving person—tov adonai lakol v’rachamav al kol maasav—God is good to all, and his compassion extends to all of his works. This is such a  beautiful concept to emulate–being good to everyone. It is a remarkable challenge, but we can learn to emulate this, to be good to everyone we come in contact with.  And the second part of the verse is equally important, to have a sense of rachamim, of compassion for everyone. This is love; maybe not romantic love in the Romeo and Juliet sense, but love of others, compassion for others. So when we say v’ahavta et adonia elohecha, love God, perhaps we can get there by loving and emulating the ideals that we express when we praise God. These three words—tov Adonai lakol—God is good to everyone—are words to think about every day.

Now within these words, of course, is a huge unanswerable question: how can we say God is good to everyone when earthquakes and hurricanes destroy cities, and when cancer and heart disease attack so many others? Can the phrase Tov Adonai lakol –God is good to everyone—be reconciled with what we see around us every day?

Another line from Ashrei raises similar questions: poteach et yadecha u’masbia lchol chai ratzon.  A few years ago, after having recited Ashrei thousands of time, I learned for the first time of a custom that some have of opening one’s hand when reciting the line poteach et yadecha u’masbia lchoel chai ratzon, you open your hand and satisfy every living with favor. I also learned that on weekdays, if one is wearing t’fillin, it is customary to touch the t’fillin on your arm at the word yadecha and touch the tfillin on your head at the word masbia. I adopted these customs as a way to force me to pay attention a little more.

And of course, when I pay attention to this particular line of the ashrei it causes me great difficulty. We praise God who opens his hand and satisfies every living being. But that’s not true. Millions of people live in poverty and starvation. How can we praise God for sustaining everyone when it is obvious that everyone is not being sustained. Once again, the question is probably better than the answer, and the question might itself be the answer. When I read this line and –just for a moment perhaps—actually focus on the words I am saying, I react. That’s not true! People are starving!

Well, perhaps that is the point. Maybe God has provided the world with all that is necessary, but it is we humans who have not divided it evenly. I am reminded of many news reports where the UN or the US or some private charities send a huge amount of food to some place that has been devastated by an earthquake or by war, and somehow the food is not distributed fairly to those who need it most. Warlords with heavy artillery attack the warehouse where the food is, and the starving people in refugee camps, for whom the food was provided, get nothing.

So maybe this verse, seemingly praising God for sustaining all living beings is actually a wake up call. We praise God for the ideal God represents, a world where all can be sustained. I cannot say that I think about that every time I say the Ashrei, but I do think about it sometimes, and that is a value. Just as the verse tov adonai lakol—God is good to all—reminds me to treat all people with dignity and kindness, this pasuk reminds me that if not everyone has enough to eat I need to do something about it. And I come to love the God who makes me want to be good to all, and be sure that all are nourished.

A second path toward understanding why we praise God is wonder. For this path I thank Rabbi Heschel, and his book God in Search of Man. I own a very precious copy of this book, as my father was a student of Rabbi Heschel, and my father has marked up his copy of the book. As I read the book I notice certain passages that my father had underlined, or written a few words in the margin, or sometimes put an exclamation point in the margin next to a passage he particularly liked. This book never specifically asks the question: why do we praise God. But it surely provides a path toward understanding what praising God is all about.

In a passage underlined by my father, that begins Chapter 4 of God in Search of Man, Heschel writes: “Among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder.The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.”  Heschel goes on to say that in our modern society we have devoted ourselves to the belief that science can explain everything, that there is no mystery, and no wonder.

Heschel coins the phrase “radical amazement” as the way to approach the world. He writes: “Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature.”  Later in the chapter he elaborates:

“What fills us with radical amazement is not the relations in which everything is embedded but the fact that  (and here my father has underlined the text) even the minimum of perception is a maximum of enigma.” The sense of wonder –of radical amazement—is what we so often lose sight of while we are busy taking things for granted. This is the path of awe, the path of wonder. The many prayers and psalms in which we praise God’s wondrous creation lead us down the path of awe and wonder.  Our praise of God –which so often refers to the Creation of the world—is a way to stop and smell the roses, to watch a sunset, to note how trees or flowers are growing, and to be awestruck by the ocean or the mountains.

We have spoken of love, we have spoken of wonder. The third path is the path of gratitude. When we praise God, even when we do effusively as in the Nishmat prayer, we practice gratitude. In the passage we read before from Nishmat we say that even if our mouths were filled with song like the sea, and our tongue with jubilation like the waves, etc etc etc, we could never thank God enough for the thousands upon thousands of gifts he bestowed upon us and our ancestors. This is what gratitude is all about. And if there is one thing we could all use a daily reminder of, it is gratitude. We say to God in many prayers odcha—I will thank you, or modim anachnu lach, we are grateful to you. It is through praising God that we come to this sense of gratitude. And of course this is what we must carry over to our everyday lives. Just as we must learn to treat others as God treats them—tov adonai lakol—just as we must learn to view the world as Heschel does, with radical amazement, so also must we learn to be grateful. Grateful to God, grateful to other human beings.

I want to conclude with a story about my father, which my brothers and my mother and I learned only after he died. If you were at the shloshim memorial for my father, you might remember the story. After my father’s death my mother, my brothers and I spent some time going through his file cabinets. Among other things, we found a copy of a short letter he had sent when he was a chaplain at a VA Hospital. As a chaplain, my father wore a beeper in case he was urgently needed, and apparently at some point his beeper wasn’t working. There was a person who worked for the VA whose job to service beepers. My father sent him the beeper, the man fixed it,  and he sent it back in good working condition. And then my father wrote this man a letter, and happily, he kept a copy in his files. The letter said Dear So and So, thank you so much for taking the time to fix my beeper. It works beautifully now, and I really appreciate your expert work.

When I read this letter my first reaction was—who writes a letter like that! This is the man’s job, after all, he doesn’t need to be thanked. But my father taught me a very valuable lesson, even after he died, he taught me to be grateful. Perhaps after a life devoted to God, and reciting all of the prayers I have mentioned for so many years, my father had found the path from praising God to living a life filled with gratitude. As for me, I am working on it.

And it is with this overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I thank you for coming and listening to me tonight. And I would be especially grateful if you ask questions and share your views on this topic. Laila tov and toda raba.

of Temple Beth Am