One of the opportunities the pandemic has afforded me is that though I can’t go to shul anymore, I can take my time when praying at home. This has been particularly useful in focusing on sections of the service I normally skip or speed through in trying to keep up with the minyan. Most notable of these sections is the Pesukei D’Zimrah.
At first glance, Pesukei D’Zimrah reads like a repetitive and never-ending series of exaltations to God. The sections contains an opening prayer, several lines from Chronicles, the last six of King David’s Psalms, the entire song the Jews sang after the splitting of the sea, and more! If you’re wondering why God needs so much praise you can check out my previous post on the topic. But in my efforts to understand the nuances of the section, I started studying the Hebrew words for praise and found something rather enlightening.
Hebrew Has No Synonyms
Praise God! Hallelujah, Amen selah! Glorify! Bless the Lord! Sing praises!
These exaltations in English all register the same sentiment in our minds (or at least in mine). But in Hebrew those each have distinct meanings and implications. So I want to focus on one of them. שבח or shevach. Simply translated as praise, the word shows up all over our prayers
Rabbi Shimon Schwab in his book Rav Schwab on Prayer makes an important clarification that shevach is connected to the להשביח meaning to improve something. What does praise have to do with improvement? The Rabbi continues, saying this aspect of praise is actually rooted in the very idea that bitachon (trust in God – something I have been writing about lately) is connected to– gam zu la’tova – the perspective that everything is for the good.
We have a tradition that says that we are supposed to make a blessing over our misfortunes in the same way we make a blessing over good things. (Berachos 54a) Why? By trusting that God runs the world and that he wants what is best for us, it starts realigning our perspective that the annoyances, upsets, and difficulties aren’t so bad after all. At first it gives us a buffer point with are anger and eventually allows us to redirect those feelings to a connection with Hashem. The praising of the our situation improves our perception as a whole. There are a plethora of scientific studies that show strong correlations between happiness and gratitude.
But in addition to our perception and own feelings we elevate the world around us. Haven’t you ever been around someone who didn’t let the petty stuff get to them? Don’t they just have an attractive positive quality? Have you ever had your order screwed up at a restaurant and instead of biting the waiter’s head off, you smiled and said, “No worries” and witnessed the stress and worry melt away from your server?
When praising Hashem for those things we find difficult, we come to realize often times, those things aren’t that bad. And even if that’s not the case, many times a salvation can come out of nowhere. Regardless of whether we are spared the misfortune or not, the real key is coming to see the misfortune as good, whether we can do that immediately or with retrospect. But as that muscle gets developed, the aim is to get to a place where we know it is going to work out even if we don’t see it. To praise God from that place is the elevation Rabbi Schwab is talking about, and simply put may be the most transcendent and transformative praise we have available to us.