For He Remembered Us When We Were Low
Tehillim 136, which Chazal call Hallel haGadol, has a long list of things Hashem did for us with the refrain “כי לעולם חסדו — for His Lovingkindness is eternal.”
The first three call us to thank Hashem:
הוֹד֣וּ לַה֣’ כִּי־ט֑וֹב כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
ה֭וֹדוּ לֵֽאלֹקֵ֣י הָאֱלֹקִ֑ים כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
ה֭וֹדוּ לַאֲדֹנֵ֣י הָאֲדֹנִ֑ים כִּ֖י לְעֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
Thank Hashem for He is Good — for His Lovingkindness is eternal.
Thank the G-d over all powers — for His Lovingkindness is eternal.
Thank the L-rd over all lords — for His Lovingkindness is eternal.
Then (v. 4):
לְעֹ֘שֵׂ֤ה נִפְלָא֣וֹת גְּדֹל֣וֹת לְבַדּ֑וֹ כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
To the One Who alone does great wonders — for His Lovingkindness is eternal.
Note the preposition. “To the One”… We are being told more about Whom to give our thanks to. Similarly downward through the chapter. We describe the creation of the cosmos (vv. 5-9), but in the context of describing the One to Whom we should give thanks:
לְעֹשֵׂ֣ה הַ֭שָּׁמַיִם בִּתְבוּנָ֑ה … לְרֹקַ֣ע הָ֭אָרֶץ עַל־הַמָּ֑יִם … לְ֭עֹשֵׂה אוֹרִ֣ים גְּדֹלִ֑ים … אֶת־הַ֭שֶּׁמֶשׁ לְמֶמְשֶׁ֣לֶת בַּיּ֑וֹם … אֶת־הַיָּרֵ֣חַ וְ֭כוֹכָבִים לְמֶמְשְׁל֣וֹת בַּלָּ֑יְלָה …
To the One Who made the sky through reason… To the One Who spread out the earth upon the water… To the One Who made the great lights… the sun to rule by day, the moon and stars to rule by night.
And similarly the next verses, which describe the Exodus from the last plague up until the crossing of the Jordan (vv. 10-22):
To the One Who struck Egypt through their first-born … and brought Israel out of their midst … with a strong hand and outstretched arm … To the One Who split apart the Sea of Reeds … and made Israel pass through it … To the One Who hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds … To the One Who led His people through the wilderness … To the One Who struck down great kings … and slew mighty kings … Sihon, king of the Amorites … and Og, king of Bashan … and gave their land as a heritage … a heritage to His servant Israel …
Notice we still aren’t being called upon to thank Hashem for any of these things. It is all “le- — to”. We are given a long 22 sentence description of Who it is we are to thank. It isn’t until verse 23 that the prefix changes from “le-” to “she-“, meaning: the fact that (vv. 23-25):
שֶׁ֭בְּשִׁפְלֵנוּ זָ֣כַר לָ֑נוּ כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
וַיִּפְרְקֵ֥נוּ מִצָּרֵ֑ינוּ כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
נֹתֵ֣ן לֶ֭חֶם לְכָל־בָּשָׂ֑ר כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
For in our lowly state He remembered us — for His Lovingkindness is eternal.
And he released us from our troubles — for His Lovingkindness is eternal.
He gives bread to all flesh — for His Lovingkindness is eternal.
And then finally the chapter opens in the same tone as it began
ה֭וֹדוּ לְקֵ֣ל הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ׃
Thank the G-d of heaven — for His Lovingkindness is eternal.
We are thanking Hashem for being there when we are low, and feeding the hungry. We spend most of the chapter describing Hashem’s greatness, Divine Transcendence, but we are thank Him for being Imminent, there for us when we are needy.
It is truly an amazing thing that Hashem is so great that the Creator of all the stars in all the galaxies of the heavens has the time (so to speak) to pay attention to us when we are down or hungry. Think of what that means about the amount of aid available, if we just acknowledge it is there and reach out for it.
And for that, we should truly give thanks.
Adon Olam is written along similar lines. The first section talks about Divine Transcendence and then it jarringly switches to His Imminence. Again, the message is making us aware of just how “Present” the Creator of everything, the Power Who made the entire of entirety, is in our personal lives.
אֲדון עולָם אֲשֶׁר מָלַךְ. בְּטֶרֶם כָּל יְצִיר נִבְרָא:
לְעֵת נַעֲשה בְחֶפְצו כּל. אֲזַי מֶלֶךְ שְׁמו נִקְרָא:
וְאַחֲרֵי כִּכְלות הַכּל. לְבַדּו יִמְלךְ נורָא:
וְהוּא הָיָה וְהוּא הוֶה. וְהוּא יִהְיֶה בְּתִפְאָרָה:
וְהוּא אֶחָד וְאֵין שֵׁנִי. לְהַמְשִׁיל לו לְהַחְבִּירָה:
בְּלִי רֵאשִׁית בְּלִי תַכְלִית. וְלו הָעז וְהַמִּשרָה:
וְהוּא קלִי וְחַי גואֲלִי. וְצוּר חֶבְלִי בְּעֵת צָרָה:
וְהוּא נִסִּי וּמָנוס לִי. מְנָת כּוסִי בְּיום אֶקְרָא:
בְּיָדו אַפְקִיד רוּחִי. בְּעֵת אִישָׁן וְאָעִירָה:
וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי. ה’ לִי וְלא אִירָא:
L-rd of the world who rules before everything made was created.
Once He, with His Will, made everything, then He was titled “King.”
And once everything has ended, He will rule alone — awe-inspiringly.
He Was, He Is, and He Will Be in Splendor.
And he is unique, there is no second, to be His ruler or collaborator.
Without beginning, without end; and to Him is the power and sovereignty.
He is My G-d, my “Living” Redeemer.
The Rock during my problems, in my time of troubles.
He is my banner [i.e it is to Him I rally], and a Refuge for me. He fills my cup on the day I call for it.
In His “Hand” I leave my soul when I go to sleep and wake up.
And with my spirit, my body, Hashem is with me and I will not fear.
The fact that I can rely on the G-d of the whole of creation, the G-d who didn’t even need there to be a universe to be unfathomably Great, that I can count on Him redeem me, to be there when I am hitting hard times, to watch over me when I sleep… it is truly amazing!
A third example of this sentiment is in the name of G-d, the tetragrammaton, itself.
Grammatically, Y-HV-H would refer to the Cause of all existence. At least, it’s a logical translation; without knowing the original vowels, we can only guess. But the causative form of \הוה\ to exist, is the most likely candidate. Similarly, our sages describe this divine name as one associated with Hashem’s Transcendence when they tell us that it is a contraction of “היה – was, הוה – is, and יהיה – will be. A description of His timelessness.
And yet, they also note how the name is used in Tanakh. When you find a narrative in which Hashem is called “E-lokim”, it is because in it, Hashem acts in a way we would perceive as judgemental or in line with strict justice. However, when Tanakh uses the name “Y-HV-H” He is relating to His creation in a manner that seems more like mercy, compassion and empathy.
When it comes to human beings, our ability to attend to things is finite. When there are more students in a class, each gets less attention. And so, when we think of the Creator of All the heavens and earth, we wonder how or why He would pay attention to the needs of a small being among the billions living on just one of His planets.
However, that’s just it — it is the Cause of everything, the One Who is the Cause of time and thus not limited to it Who is able to pay attention to each of us and all of our needs. It is the true greatness of His Transcendence that allows Hashem is Imminent. It is the Adon Olam — the Master of the universe, who is Tzur chevli be’eis tzara — the Rock I rely on in my troubles.
And so, Thank Hashem, the G-d over all forces, Lord of of lords, the one who created everything, freed us from Egypt, cared for us in the desert, gave us our land… Because He remembers me, personally, when I am down, and makes sure all of His creatures have food when its appropriate.
For his Lovingkindness is eternal.