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By Rabbi Dovid Markel
A group of peasants was once sitting in a tavern professing their love to his majesty, the Czar. In a drunken stupor, one individual turns to his fellow and remarks that were he to have had a flock of sheep, he would give it to the czar, were he to have had mink pelts he’d give them to Czar. He continued in such a manner, enumerating the various possessions that he would bequeath to the czar until finally, his friend asked him; “If you had a chicken, would you give that to the Czar?” Sheepishly, his friend responded that “no,” he would not give my chicken to the Czar, “because a chicken I actually have.”
In the Nishmat prayer recited on Shabbat and Yom Tov, there is what seems to be an interesting contradiction in the prayer. The prayer begins with the statement: “Were our mouths full of song as the sea, and our tongues with exultation as the multitude of its waves, and our lips wth praise as the wide-extended firmament; were our eyes shone with light like the sun and the moon, and our hands were spread forth like the eagles of heaven, and our feet were swift as hinds, we should 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 fathers and upon us.”
Notwithstanding the expression that we cannot possibly praise God, the prayer continues: “Therefore the limbs which You have spread forth upon us, and the spirit and breath which You have breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue which You have set in our mouths, behold, they shall thank, bless, praise, glorify, extol, reverence, hallow and assign kingship to your name.” It seems odd that the moment after we have conveyed that we cannot praise God, no matter the breadth of the praise, that we praise Him in a fairly average manner.
Indeed, the question of the Nishmat prayer is an axiomatic question in an individual’s service of God: What value can there be in the finite service of man, to a God deserving infinite praise? How can a transcendent being possibly connect to an infinite God?
The essential answer to this question though is conveyed in the above story of the peasant’s chicken; just as it is absurd that the peasant was unwilling to give the czar his chicken, and his reluctance to give it is indicative of disingenuousness, the same is with us. If we are willing to give God infinite praise, then surely we should give Him the limited finite praise that we are able.
The statement that God is deserving of infinite praise, conveys two points: (a) we are not deluding ourselves into being convinced that we have adequately praised God, and (b) perhaps more importantly, when we realize that God is surely deserving of an infinite service, then we will surely bequeath to him the totality of our finite selves—for if in truth God is deserving of an infinite service that we cannot give, then surely we should serve with the totality of our finite selves.
In truth though, because God desires our finite service, infinite, Godly value is applied to it—so that a finite act is in truth an infinite act that connects us to an infinite God that transcends the limitations and definitions of infinity and finitude.
At the edge of a ravine
A man stands at the precipice to an infinite chasm that traverses an endless space. No matter how far he jumps, he will not only never get to the other side, but it as if he has yet to begin. However, if there is an individual on the other side that can jump an infinite leap, he can bridge the gap between them and traverse the unbridgeable void.
The above is an account of our relationship with the Almighty. In relation to objective value, man’s finite service is valueless in relationship to an infinitely transcendent God. No matter how many rungs we climb the ladder of holiness, it as if we have never truly become closer to God. It is only because God bridges the infinite chasm that our service is given infinite value—as He desires our actions and connects with us through them.
For although God is infinitely transcendent he is always present and immanent. This is the inherent paradox in a Jews experience of G-d expressed in Tinukei Zohar (57) that “the infinite light of G-d is completely transcendent to the highest heights, and lowers itself to no end.”
What is expressed in this is not that God is transcendent and immanent, which is in truth the ultimate duality but a deeper point that the transcendent expression of the essence of God, is ever present, immanent, experienced, and relatable in our service to God.
Herein, lies perhaps a focal difference between the pantheistic immanence of Spinoza, and the immanence as expressed in Chassidic thought. Not only does the pantheistic thought of Spinoza not elicit the desire to climb the rungs to approach God, but more so, the experience of immanence as a dualistic experience of God and apart from God’s transcendence is antithetical to Chassidus’ motto that there is nothing apart from G-d’s indivisible unity. In Chassidism, there is not immanence and transcendence, but in truth, both emanate from the singular reality and point of the essence of G-d.
A person is to realize that while he should not delude himself into thinking that he can climb the heights of infinite transcendence to grasp God, concurrently he can experience God in the very moment he is in. This realization elicits both the desire to refine one’s self and deepen their spiritual connection by way of climbing the infinite ladder to God and effectuates that man should see the essence of G-d in each moment.
The verse (Tehillim 16:8) proclaims: “I have placed the Lord before me (lenegdi) constantly.” In Tanya (Iggeret HaTeshuva, Ch. 11) it explains regarding the word neged in the context of repentance: “Before me,” is the term negdi…Rashi defines the term as “at a distance.” It would seem that the word lenegdi in the context of placing God before me constantly has the same meaning—that we should place God at a distance.
On the one hand, we are to realize that God can be experienced in literally every moment of existence and on the other realize that he is distant and transcendent. When we realize both sides of this coin we will have the consummate service of the Almighty—seeing and experiencing Him in each moment and reaching endlessly higher to be close with Him.