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PRAYER PINGS #17

Maybe it has gotten harder to do than it used to be. Or maybe we're just not as good at it as Jews used to be. One way or the other, it's a hard task for us, one which demands a thoughtful and careful approach.

The Ashrai is the glorious centerpiece of the פסוקי דזמרא , the morning Psalms. And although its fourth verse is not typically the headline grabber, it does epitomize a challenge we face.

Elaborating upon the prior verse's claim that "Great and much-praised is God", the fourth verse reveals the source of this great volume of praise: דור לדור ישבח מעשיך - Each generation praises God's works to the next generation, and of God's mightiness they speak. God is much-praised in the world as a result of this multigenerational song. It is the product of a conscious effort of transmission from parents to children.

What the fourth verse takes for granted, is for us a continual challenge. Perhaps it is the modern condition, included in which is the Modern Orthodox condition, that makes this task not simple. For one thing, we don't often find ourselves explicitly praising God's works in ordinary conversation, neither with one another nor with our children. (We do it in davening, but this is often too formal to count for these purposes.) For another, we - and our children too - struggle with how to distinguish God's works from the workings of happenstance, or from the work of our own hands. And as a result we hesitate to praise these works as God's. Which often renders what was a core experience of the Psalmist's religious life, a muted shadow of itself in ours.

But we can, with a thoughtful approach and with some good luck, endeavor to make it otherwise. If it doesn't come as naturally to us to explicitly identify the moon's cycle or the falling rain as God's work, what about the countless neural connections in the brain which make every act of learning and communicating possible? Or the emotions that parents and children feel for one another, emotions that daily drive effortless self-sacrifice and devotion to the other? Can we not explicitly praise these as the works of God?

If it doesn't come as naturally to us to identity historical events as being the work of God (and indeed endeavoring to do so often introduces hosts of insoluble philosophical and theological challenges), can we not praise God for instilling the human courage that has led people to defy power and change history, or for granting us and our children our daily capacity to persevere in the face of obstacles, and to continue to pursue the good even when it is neither easy or convenient to do so?

This is in our mouths and hearts to do, to borrow a phrase from Moshe Rabbenu.

One generation praises God's works to the next. This is not only how God becomes much-praised. It is also the lynchpin of our people's continuity.

--Rav Yosef

Mon, August 19 2019 18 Av 5779