Our society has a real problem with praise. Praise, when justly deserved, is essential in developing a good sense of self-esteem. One of the problems I have found in my work with couples is that too many of us—myself included—have a hard time giving our partners sufficient praise. But when we do acknowledge the good our partners do and tell them how much we appreciate them, it not only raises their self-esteem, it strengthens the relationship. So if you’re in a relationship, find something to praise your partner with every day and you’ll find that it’ll come back to you tenfold.
With our children, however, we may be praising them too much. This may not be politically correct to say, but research has shown that, “Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence.” (“What Makes Great Teaching,” Sutton Trust and Durham U UK) Children who had been given effort-based praise were more likely to show willingness to work out new approaches and tended to attribute failure to lack of effort—not ability. So I’m not so sure telling our children that they did a wonderful job when it really wasn’t so wonderful…or handing out a trophy to every player in little league even if their team came in last…is such a good idea. Praise is so important, but only when deserved.
Who deserves our praise more than anyone? Gd, of course. But praising Gd isn’t as simple as it may seem. The Song of the Sea, where Moses sings praise to Gd after the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex. 15:11) begins: Ashira la-Hashem ki ga-o ga-a, which is usually translated as, “I shall sing to Hashem, for He is highly exalted.” The word ga-o, however, literally means “higher.” The doubling of the word to ga-o ga-a literally means “higher than high.” We have heard of cleaner than clean and brighter than bright in the Mr. Clean commercials. How about higher than high? Rashi thus comments: Ki ga-o ga-a al kol hashirot (For He is exalted beyond all praise). In other words, Gd is higher than high, beyond anything we can say about Him.
If this is the case, is it permitted to compose prayers of praise to Gd? The answer may surprise you. Let me illustrate with a story from the Talmud (Berachot 33b). A student was leading the prayer service, and in the 1stblessing of the repetition of the Amidah which quotes the words of praise from today’s Torah reading, Ha-Eyl hagadol hagibor v’hanorah (the great, mighty and awesome Gd), he added, “the glorious, the potent, the feared, the strong, the powerful, the sure and the honored Gd.” His teacher, Rabbi Chanina, waited until he had finished and then admonished him, asking: “[Are you done?] Did you complete all the praises of your Master?” In other words, we cannot even begin to say how amazing Gd is. Saying some words of praise and leaving out others diminishes Gd.
Let me explain. If a young man wanted to arrange a blind date for a friend, the friend would probably ask, “What is she like?” If the response was, “Well, she has a good personality,” the friend might make the assumption she is probably not very attractive because if she was, this would have been mentioned. Suppose he was told 3 more things about her, such as she is very smart, her father has money, and she goes to a certain school. What she looks like still would be a mystery. The omission is in itself a statement.
What the Talmud is saying is we dare not reduce the qualities of the Infinite Gd to a few adjectives. But if praise of Gd is one of the 3 major categories of prayer—the other 2 being petition and thanks—how can we ever offer prayers praising Gd? The Talmud is teaching us that we must be more careful with our praise of Gd than with our petitions or thanks. We can request what we need, and we certainly should thank Gd and show appreciation for the blessings He showers upon us, but prayers of praise are generally forbidden because, as Rabbi Chanina asks, “Did you complete all the praises of your Master?” Since we cannot possibly say all there is to say about how amazing Gd is, we’re better off not saying anything for whatever we say diminishes Gd by what we leave out.
But the Siddur is full of prayers of praise? Let’s go back to the Song of the Sea. The most famous verse in the song is: Mi chamocha ba-eylim Hashem; mi kamocha ne’edar bakodesh (Who is like You Hashem among the powers of the world; who is like You, glorious in holiness); norah t’hilot, osey feleh (too awesome for praises, doing wonders?) These last 4 words: nora t’hilot, osey feleh (too awesome for praises, doing wonders) contains the key.
There are 2 ways in which it is permissible to offer praise to Gd. The one given in this passage in the Talmud is the key to almost all of the Siddur. Rabbi Chanina tells his student: “Had not Moses mentioned the 3 words of praise in [from today’s Torah reading]—hagadol, hagibor, v’hanora (great, mighty, and awesome)—we would not be able to recite them!” You may not have realized this, but the prayers of praise we find in the Siddur consist almost entirely of quotes from the Bible. So when we say these prayers we’re not making up things to describe Gd, we’re using the word of Gd to describe Him, and this we are permitted to do.
We find the 2nd method of permissible praise in Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed: “Here let it become clear to you that every description [of Gd] that we describe Him with is either a description of action or…negation.” Maimonides writes in technical philosophical language, so let me explain by returning to the example of our blind date. When the friend asks the young man what this girl is like, if the answer is, “She has a great personality,” the friend understands something about her from what is not being said.
But what if the friend is told she is a great girl and then shares a story or 2 about her? Maybe this girl was once passing a homeless person and she stopped and bought him a meal, or perhaps she volunteers as a “big sister” to an orphan. In telling what she has done, we need not mention her attributes. Even though Gd is nora t’hilot (too awesome for praises), as the end of this verse notes, we can describe Him as osey feleh (One who does wonders). We can describe the wonderful things Gd does.
With this in mind, after the opening words in the “Song of the Sea,” Ashira laHashem ki ga-o ga-a (I will sing unto Hashem although He is above all exaltation, He is higher than high.)—how?—the verse continues, sus v’rochbo rama vayam (a horse and a rider [meaning the Egyptians] He threw into the sea). Moses praises Gd by telling us that He saved us from the Egyptians by drowning them in the sea before they could harm us. In other words, we can praise Gd by describing the wonderful things that He does—like creating the world, freeing those in bondage, healing the sick, raising up those who fall, etc. And so we have prayers in the Siddur that describe Gd by describing His acts of kindness and compassion.
When we praise Gd by describing His acts it elevates us who were created in His Image. If Gd creates, we can create. If Gd heals, we can heal. If Gd is kind and compassionate, we can be kind and compassionate.
When we give just praise to our loved ones, it also elevates us who love them, because they—who are worthy of praise—love us. Our praise raises their self-esteem as it strengthens our relationship. So find a moment every day to praise your loved ones. Tell them how good they look in that shirt or dress…or how proud you were of a kindness they showed to someone…or just how happy you are to have them in your life. Say words of praise every day to your loved ones and to Gd and it’ll come back to you tenfold, maybe even a hundredfold. Amen!