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prayer pings #23 the ineffable

The inadequacy of language. Experiences and feelings so stirring, so deep, so strong that they elicit primal sounds, but not words. Not because language is an insufficiently developed tool, but because the feelings we are feeling originate in a place outside the reach of human artifice.

Twice in a very short span, as the Psukai D'zimra of Shabbat reaches its glorious crescendo, we acknowledge - not sadly - the incapacity of language to describe things. Were our mouths as full of song as the sea, and our tongues as full of exultation as the multitude of its waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the firmament, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of heaven, and our feet as swift as hinds, we would still be unable to thank You and to bless Your name O Lord our God and God of our fathers, for one thousandth or one ten thousandth part of the bounties which thou hast bestowed upon our ancestors and upon us. (Quoted at length both because it is stunning, and to entice you to be in shul in time to recite these glorious words.)

And just a page later, as the siddur enumerates our obligations toward God, to thank, laud, praise, glorify, exalt... it literally runs out of Hebrew verbs, resorting to a Hebraicized Greek verb לקלס (whose root is kleos, κλέος), to complete the list. The message is in the medium. There are times when our exercise of language simply leaves us searching for more.

We are all familiar with it. Can you actually find the words which describe the satisfaction of selflessness? Or the joy of having earned another's implicit trust? Are there words which express what you feel like upon having risen to a particular moral challenge that had laid you low so many times before? Can you articulate with language, what your spouse really means to you? Or where in the hierarchy of precious things you place your child?

Can you quantify the wonder... of being a living thing?

It was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who introduced the term "the ineffable" into our spiritual lexicon. The ineffable. It is the wordlessness we experience when we sense "the mystery which inhabits the magnificent and the common". It is the conscious state of speechlessness, which is our bridge to everything that we can neither see nor hear nor touch. We surrender to it with wonder.

Even the Siddur - rarely accused of verbal parsimoniousness - points enthusiastically to something way beyond that which words can express.

~Rav Yosef

Wed, August 21 2019 20 Av 5779