I was talking with my father this morning about the notion of prayer. He’s not one I’d consider super religious. But he expressed that he did feel a sort of comfort when going to Temple on the four services he attends between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He also expressed that he had considered brushing up on his Hebrew reading so he could better connect with the service. When I asked him what was stopping him from doing that, he gave me an answer that, seven years ago, before I became religious, had gone through my head too. Why do we have to spend so much time praising God?
One might find the question irreverent or ungrateful if you’re already religious. But even if you are, I think there’s something there. Why does the Creator of life, the universe, and everything need any of us to praise him? To have His ego stroked not just with each of the three daily prayer services that start out, “Hashem open my lips so my mouth may declare your praise.” But also with pzuka d’zimra, a section in the morning service with pages and pages of nothing but praise from King David’s Psalms, the reading of the song when the sea outside of Egypt was split, and other exaltations. And that’s just the start of it.
It seems like God is some dictator like Kim Jung Un, constantly needing military parades and sycophantic yes men validating their genius and supremacy. So, if God is real, and does all Judaism says He did and continues to do for us, why does He need our seemingly constant acclamation?
I’ll give you the stock answer you’ve heard a dozen if not a hundred times before.
He doesn’t. It’s for us.
Who Benefits from Praise?
God doesn’t need our prayers, He doesn’t need us to do mitzvahs, and He certainly doesn’t need our approval. But if we are able to praise God authentically and passionately, it would make us better people. Now to demonstrate.
Picture someone really great, someone you really admire. We’ll call them Person A. It could be Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, even Steve Jobs (if you love your iPhone that much.) Now picture another person (person B). Person B is a young, arrogant, and entitled hot shot who has had everything handed to them. Person B needs something from Person A, maybe a job, a recommendation, some funding, whatever.
Person B goes to the meeting completely unaware of what Person A has accomplished or what they have sacrificed to get there. How many lives Person A has changed nor how much pressure and responsibility they have to handle. Person B strolls in late to the meeting, is chummy once there, dominates the conversation, maybe starts texting. You get the picture.
Needless to say Person B probably won’t get what they want out of Person A. But the bigger question is, does Person A need this lazy, ignorant, and inconsiderate person to praise them? Of course not. Truly great people don’t care what others think about them. They are motivated by the drive to accomplish and affect change.
But if Person B did come to understand who Person A is and all they had to do to get there, not only would it change Person B for the better, it would likely make Person B understand themselves better and give them a clearer concept of the goals and work necessary to become great themselves.
Simply put, Person B has a lot to learn. And by giving Person A the respect they deserve does more for Person B than the other way around.
But Why So Much of It?
Clearly recognizing greatness and giving that greatness the respect it deserves benefits us. But why do we need to praise God so much each and every single day?
First thing to understand is that the myriad of praises aren’t a checklist.
It’s not that once we get through them all, we’ve hit some magic number and reached our praise quota for the day. Authentic, heartfelt praise changes us. Each Psalm and each prayer was meticulously selected by the Men of the Great Assembly when they composed the formalized service after we lost the Temple. The words are unique, specific, and intentional. Often times a reference to something specific. If you aren’t aware of their origins (I’m not myself) you’re missing a big piece of the puzzle.
Second, we easily forget.
One of the mitzvahs is to have an awe and reverence of God. Achieving and then living in that state cultivates a mindset of gratitude, connection, and purpose. But it’s really easy to fall out of that.
Let’s consider something more familiar, love. It’s easy to love a spouse when you first get married. But sooner or later we’re bound to take them for granted. If we make a list of all the things we love about our spouse and then spent five minutes a day reviewing them, it would radically change our relationships. The same holds true for our awe of Hashem.
Third, we have so much farther to go.
As I said in number 1, the praises of God reference specific things. How many of us have taken the time to investigate what those refer to? Have most rabbis done that? Probably not.
But a relationship with God has the potential to be infinitely deep. No matter how much we think we understand God’s presence in our lives, we’ve only begun to scratch the service. So why bother?
Well, there’s a lot to appreciate about wine. Overwhelmingly so. If you decide that your mission is to try to know everything about every varietal and vintage as soon as possible you’re going to be miserable. But if it’s a journey over the next twenty years, then you’ll discover the gems of French Cabernets. You may go through a period of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Eventually you’ll make your way to ports and maderas, and with each step you’ll start to care about how the wine is made, you’ll understand the nuance of climates and soils, and as a whole, each new area appreciation will deepen your enjoyment. Okay so you may never get to Rioja or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, but your palette will have grown so much by deciding to go on this journey.
It’s the same with our growing praise in our relationship with Hashem.
A Praiseworthy Practice
There are plenty of mystical reasons how praising God changes not only us but the world. The idea of meeda kineged meeda (Judaism’s concept of karma) insists the world reciprocates what we put into it. According to Ramchal’s Derech Hashem, praising God primes the world to properly receive our prayer. And what we do normalizes behaviors for everyone who sees us.
But the more tangible and identifiable reason praise is so important is that we are in a constant struggle to accept one of two realities. Am I God? Or is God God? Praise helps us appreciate just how much other factors have contributed to our success while at the same time reminding us of the good we benefit from each day. To be great, we have to recognize greatness. To deny praise means we think we know better. And that cuts us off from inspiration, gratitude, and reality. The former is super easy. The latter takes practice. Daily. And lots of it.