Yishtabach: Realization of our Limitations
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
The prayer of Yishtabach brings to a close Pesukei Dezimra, signifying the end of one theme of prayer and transitioning to the birchos kriyas shemah and amidah. The prayer itself has tremendous import, and according to some was authored by Shlomo Hamelech. There is an interesting Midrashic source for this prayer that helps shed light on the ideas one should have in mind when reciting it.
We find a source for this prayer in the Mechilta (Beshalach 1,2,3), spread out over three different episodes. In these midrashos, we see a common thread as it relates to the praises of Yishtabach. The first Mechilta explains that as Bnei Yisrael left Egypt, pursued by the Egyptians, they were singing and praising God. Specifically, they were giving “song, grandness, greatness, praise, and glory to the One with whom war belongs to.” (these praises are found in Yishtabach). In the second Mechilta, we see a slight deviation. God tells Bnei Yisrael He will fight for them, providing for them numerous miracles, and they should stand awaiting these demonstrations. Bnei Yisrael turn to Moshe and ask him what they could do, implying that standing in silence was insufficient. Moshe explains that they should be praising and singing about God, giving “song, grandness, greatness, and glory to the One whom war belongs to.” In the third Mechilta, we once again see another aberration. God tells Moshe He is aware of the danger facing the nation, with their enemy pursuing and the sea blocking off any escape route. He instructs Moshe to stand and engage in prayer. Moshe inquires as to what this specifically refers to. God replies that Moshe should be singing and praising, giving “song, grandness, thanks, greatness, glory, beauty, and Hallel to the One whom was belongs to.”
As we can see, some of the praises we find in Yishtabach are repeated in these three midrashim. Yet how does this help us gain a greater insight into the prayer? We must also understand the differences throughout these different episodes. In the first, the people are giving praise, in the second Moshe instructs them to give praise, and in the third, God instructs Moshe about giving praise. Why the differentiation? There is also the strange object of the praise – “to the One whom wars belong to.” What does this mean?
Let’s first establish the common thread between these different episodes. It would seem each event referred to a different stage in the overall redemption of Bnei Yisrael from the hands of the Egyptians. When first exiting Egypt, the Jewish people turned their praises towards God, even though they were being chased by the Egyptians. They had been witness to tremendous miracles, and were able to place their security in God; this is expressed in these praises. And then they came face to face with a closed off escape route. God reassures them that He will provide more miracles, saving the Jewish people. Bnei Yisrael turn to Moshe, who then instructs them to continue in their praises. Didn’t they have faith that God would once again “come through?” The issue was not a question of faith – it was a question of a lack of knowledge. Once they reached the sea, they reached a point where they did not have insight into how God’s plan would unfold. And then we have the final incident. Moshe knew God had a plan to rescue the Jewish people, expressed in the command to raise his staff. But then what? God responds with the similar directive to praise Him. Again, Moshe had a greater insight into the plan of God, but had reached an end point to this knowledge. The solution is to praise God (we will see why praising is the universal solution shortly). At this point, we can see this common thread between the three episodes. In each, there was a knowledge and experience of God’s plan, naturally evoking praise. Yet after a period of time, the plan was no longer as clear, the specifics more elusive. Every time the end point is reached, the instruction is to turn to more praise. We now need to understand why praising God is the answer.
Note the specific praise of God as “the One with whom war belongs to.” We see a similar description in the Song at the Reed Sea, the praises recited by the Jewish people upon exiting Yam Suf. God is described there (Exod. 15:3) as “man of war.” Rashi explains that God is the "baal milchama", the master of war. On a literal level, this would paint a picture of a warmongering Deity, thirsting for blood. Of course, such a description is ridiculous. Instead, it might be a specific expression of an important fundamental idea about God and His knowledge versus ours. When it comes to fighting in battle, we tend to focus on what we think are obvious factors in victory or defeat. Issues such as the size of the army, psychological morale, military strategy, etc., all paint a picture of why one outcome is more likely than another. Yet, in reality, there are an infinite number of causes and effects at play, events that man can never completely know. Both on the individual (soldier) and national (army) level, we must be aware of the clear lack of knowledge that we inherently possess. This idea is at the forefront of the different episodes detailed in the Mechilta. The Jewish people possessed knowledge of the plan of God and how He was to wage war on their behalf. At a certain point, though, this changed, and the knowledge of how the plan would unfold was hidden. It had to be clear to them that there was a limitation to what they could know. This is reflected in the three distinct episodes recounted above. After Bnei Yisrael reached the Reed Sea, they not only reached a natural obstacle, there was an intellectual barrier as well. Therefore, they were told to direct themselves to praise God. When focusing on the greatness of God, we are in turn acknowledging how far removed we are from Him, and how limited we are in our knowledge of Him.
There is another interesting concept about Yishtabach that helps solidify this idea, and demonstrate how this prayer is of utmost importance. The Avudraham comments that the fifteen praises of Yishtabach (shir ushevacha, hellel v’zemira, etc) correspond to the fifteen Tehillim of “Song of Ascent” composed by King David, as well as the fifteen ascents of Dayeinu, found in the Haggadah. What is the significance of these comparisons? The answer to this question fits in to the overall idea concerning the mindset we must have when reciting this prayer. The different praises found throughout the Tehillim and Dayeinu all have individual concepts. However, they are tied together by one overall praise, whether it be the idea of Song of Ascent or Dayeinu. This is the key idea by the prayer of Yishtabach. There are many different praises throughout this prayer, each referencing a universal praise about God. Yet they should be viewed as well as one entity. The purpose of Yishtabach, and to a certain extent pesukei dezimra, becomes more apparent. Pesukei dezmira was set up as a preparation for the specific praises to be recited in the brachos of Kriyas Shima. The brachos of kriyas Shima contain detailed thematic praises. Before engaging in these detailed praises, Chazal felt it was important to have the idea of praise per se, and what it means to give praise to God, as clear as possible. When one studies the different concepts of pesukei dezimra, there is a significant amount of focus on the importance of giving praise to God. And this culminates with Yishtabach, where, reciting these categorical praises, a person now becomes defined, to a certain extent, as a "gavra hameshabeach", one offering praise, or one who is now fit to give praise to God. The idea of how he is limited in his knowledge is secure, his understanding of the importance of praising God is complete, and he now can proceed with the rest of his prayer.