At the end of Pesukei D’zimra we say that Hashem is bocher b’shirei zimra – He chooses songs of rejoicing. If he chooses, there must have some alternative that He could have chosen. What was it?
At the beginning of Shemone Esrei, we say, “Hashem, open my lips and my mouth will say your praises.” Why only praises? We have many requests to make during our Shemone Esre. Why don’t we ask Hashem to help us with our requests?
“She conceived and gave birth to a son and she said, ‘This time I will thank Hashem,’ and she called his name Yehuda and she stopped giving birth.” Leah’s response to the birth of her fourth son in this week’s parsha, is the subject of much astonishment. “This time I will thank Hashem.” Only this time? Did she not thank Hashem after the births of her first three children? Different answers have been suggested but I would like to suggest the following explanation.
After the birth of her first child, Leah was surely grateful to Hashem. The joy of motherhood is universal and she undoubtedly was very thankful for her blessings. Her verbal reaction was somewhat different however, expressing her belief that Hashem had seen (ro’oh) her affliction and her hope that her relationship with her husband would now be strengthened. Therefore she called her son Reuven. After the birth of her second son she felt again that her blessing, which she undoubtedly appreciated, was a sign that Hashem had heard (shoma) about her personal problems and she called him Shimon. Following the birth of her third son, Leah must have been overjoyed, but another thought entered her mind; that now Yaakov would spend more time with her. After all she only has two hands so how can she go out alone with three children? Perhaps Yaakov will hold the third child’s hand? And she called him Levi, expressing her hope that Yaakov will now accompany her (melaveh) when she goes out. (Chizkuni)
But after the birth of her fourth child she was not only extremely happy but also no extraneous thoughts came into her mind. When she said, “Now I will thank Hashem” she meant that now, for the first time, she had unadulterated thanks for Hashem. And now that she had worked up to this high madreiga that the thanks she felt to Hashem were completely pure, she felt she could call her fourth son, the future king of the Jewish People, Yehuda. It would have been inappropriate for any son of hers, one of the future holy tribes, to have a name which did not completely reflect her inner feelings. On the superlative level that our matriarchs lived, it could be considered as a form of falsehood. Only now that her response was totally unblemished by personal thoughts and she felt pure gratitude to Hashem, could her son be called Yehuda.
There is a difficult passage in Hallel with many suggested explanations: “Praise Hashem, you nations; praise Him, you peoples. Because He has been kind to us and the truth of Hashem is forever, Hallelukah.” Everybody asks why the nations of the world should praise Hashem because he has been kind to us? The Rashbam at the end of parshas Ha’azinu gives his understanding: “Harninu goyim amo ki dam avodov yikom. O nations, sing the praises of His people for He will avenge the blood of His servants.” The shira of Ha’azinu has now reached the stage that Hashem has redeemed the Jewish People. He is showing them visible kindness and giving them a wonderful reward for their loyalty to Him, so much so that the nations of the world are now jealous of the Jews. Why are they so blessed by Hashem? How does one earn such blessings? And the shira answers with invaluable advice. You can also be the recipients of Hashem’s blessings by following the Jewish People’s example. What is the secret of their success that Hashem blesses them so? They continually praise Hashem. They have lived through difficult times but they are always praising Hashem. The Rashbam interprets the posuk in Ha’azinu as follows, “Praise Hashem as His People does. Hashem showers blessings upon His People because this is what they do; continually praise Him. As the posuk in Hallel says, “Praise Hashem, you nations, praise Hashem, you peoples because this is the reason Hashem has been so kind to us. Follow our example and you too can be the recipients of Hashem’s kindness.”
Dovid Hamelech appeals to Hashem to help him in many chapters of Tehilim but his emphasis throughout is thanking Hashem. In the closing chapters we thank Hashem for our food, rain, winds, the sun, moon and stars. Everyone joins in – young and old, men and women, kings and commoners. In the final chapter our thanks to Hashem becomes so intense that we want to play all types of musical instruments in His honour. The last posuk says that every single neshomo should thank Hashem and as Chazal comment, we should thank Hashem for every neshima – every breath we breathe through His kindness.
Who gains from all this? We do. According to non-Jewish studies, we are the happiest people on Earth. It isn’t surprising. When things go well we are naturally happy. When things appear not to be going so well we are still happy because we say, “All is for the best.”
There is more. The more we thank Hashem, the closer our relationship to Hashem becomes, because He is the source of everything. And the closer more we come to Him, the happier we are. Tefila is a very meaningful way of coming close to Hashem, when we realize that only He can fulfil our requests. Hashem loves our tefilos. But He loves our praising of Him even more. This is because tefila implies that we are lacking. Praising Hashem is saying that we lack nothing. You give us everything that we need. Of course there are situations that we have to cry out to Hashem to help us and this is what He wants. But in our everyday lives, we should be satisfied with what we have rather than asking for more. When we don’t have something, its absence is the best situation we could possibly be in.
This is why we ask for Hashem’s help to praise him at the beginning of our Shemoneh Esrei and not help in making our requests because praising Hashem is a higher level of Avodas Hashem than making requests. Hashem is bocher b’shirei zimra – He chooses our praises rather than our tefilos because praising Him brings us closer to Hashem than beseeching Him. Pure praise, untarnished by any thought that we are in any way lacking, bring us to the highest level of deveikus B’Hashem. This was the level reached by our matriarch Leah when she called her fourth son, Yehuda.
Written in honour of the chasune of our granddaughter Freide Rothschild of London and Yitzi Kohn of Melbourne.