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Thoughts on the Ashrei (A Closer Look)

Early in this series, during the fall of 2019, we took a brief look at the prayer known from its opening word as “Ashrei.”  As explained in that piece, this passage that occurs three times in our daily liturgy, is primarily made up of Psalm 145, the only Psalm that is actually designated as a Psalm, “tehillah,” a poem of praise.  To this Psalm, the rabbis have appended three other verses from the book of Tehillim (Psalms), two at the beginning, both of which begin with the word “Ashrei” and, one at the end, which concludes with “Halleluyah.”  The three-fold recital of this prayer is in response to a statement in the Talmud by Rabbi Elazar in the name of Rabbi Avina, that anyone who recites this passage three times a day is assured of a place in the world the come.


Its first appearance each day is in the P’sukei d’Zimrah section, the introductory Psalms in the morning service.  As we’ve seen in past essays, the core of that section is made up of the concluding five Psalms of the Book of Tehillim (146 – 150), each of which begins and ends with the word “Halleluyah,” Praise the Lord!  Psalm 145 precedes these ten Halleluyahs in the prayer book, with the addition of the concluding verse from Psalm 115 from the Hallel prayers which states, “Va-anachnu n’vareich Yah mei-atah v’ad olam, Hal’luyah.”  We will bless the Lord now and forever, Halleluyah.  As mentioned in last week’s piece on Psalm 20, the second Ashrei appears before the concluding section of the morning service, before Psalm 20 and the Kedushah d’Sidra.  On Shabbat, the second occurrence is just before we return the Torah to the ark after the weekly reading.  The third recitation of Ashrei, both on Shabbat and weekdays, occurs as the introduction to the afternoon, minchah, service.


What exactly does this prayer say?  I wanted to return to the Ashrei and take a closer look at its message this week.  The opening line is taken from Psalm 84, verse 5, where the poet speaks of the sense of security one feels in God’s presence.  “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself in which to set her young, near Your altar, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God. Happy are those who dwell in Your house; they forever praise You, Selah!” “Ashrei” is generally translated as “happy”  One commentator suggests that while other creatures may seek out a home for themselves, as for us, we are happy to dwell in God’s house, under divine protection, “ashrei yoshvei veitecha.”.  For traditional Jews, one does not merely dwell or sit in God’s house, the synagogue, but one studies Torah and offers prayers there. Of course, in a larger sense, all the world is “God’s house,” and we rejoice as we recognize the divine presence.  Yoshev has the dual sense of actually physically sitting or simply dwelling a place.  When we think of a Yeshiva, the word for an academy of higher Jewish learning, we know it comes from the same root as Yoshvei, and we imagine a room full of scholars, sitting and studying the sacred texts.  “Od y’halelucha selah.”  “Od” here can either mean we will praise you forever or we will add praises to Your name every day, od v’od, more and more each day.


The second verse added onto Psalm 145 is actually the final verse of  Psalm 144 that precedes our Psalm.  It too begins with the word “Ashrei.”  “Ashrei ha-am shekacha lo. Ashrei ha-am she-Adonay Elohav.”  It has two “ashrei’s” The verses which precede this conclusion speak of overflowing granaries, flocks multiplying by the thousands, cities whose walls are without breech and where there is no outcry in the street.  After this scene of plenty and tranquility is set, the Psalmist concludes, “Happy the people who has it thus, happy the people whose God is Adonay.”  So with these two verses of Ashrei, we set the stage for the tehilah, this Psalm, dedicated to David which is filled with praise to the Almighty.


Psalm 145 is an alphabetical acrostic, missing only one letter, nun.  I mentioned in the earlier piece homiletic explanations for this omission proposed by our sages.  Professor Reuven Kimelman suggests that this absence of the letter nun should be seen as part of the message of the Psalm, namely ‘as all human praise of God is theologically inadequate, so the psalm is alphabetically imperfect.”  I also noted in my earlier piece that there exist ancient versions of the book of Psalms in which a verse for nun does indeed appear. We don’t know if that is the original version which is lacking in the Masoretic text or if a later hand decided to make up for the missing verse.


The Psalmist begins in the first person, with the letter alef,“Aromimcha, I will raise up, I will glorify, Elohai hamelech, my God, the Sovereign,va-avarcha shimcha l’olam va-ed, and I will praise Your name forever.  By this opening line, the Psalmist reinforces that fact that he is offering words of praise to God.  B’chol yom avarcheka, Every day, I will praise You and I will exalt Your name forever.  Praise is not a one time offering, but every day provides new reasons to recognize God’s greatness and offer our thanks and praise.  Various synonyms of praise are utilized throughout the Psalm, avarcheka is related to baruch, blessed, praised, and ahal’lah, from hallel, the same root as tehilah, praise.  We will see in this Psalm various statements about the nature of God, interspersed with these expressions of praise.  It has been suggested that this was arranged so that a leader could speak of some aspect of divinity and the congregation might respond with praise.  Indeed, in many congregations this psalm is chanted responsively by the prayer leader and the congregation.


The gimel verse begins with Gadol Adonay, Great is the Lord, um’hulal m’od, and greatly to be praised. V’ligdulato ein cheker, once again that  greatness is beyond calculation.  “Cheker” nowadays imply doing research on a topic.  You can research it all you want, but you will never comprehend all of God’s greatness.  You might notice that we have slipped from first person to third person, referring to God, rather than addressing Him directly.  The Psalmist goes back and forth between statements about himself and God and those where he speaks of others praising God in some way.


Dor l’dor y’shabach ma’asecha, one generation to the next praises Your deeds, ug’vuratecha yagidu, and they will tell of Your greatness.  Yagidu is from the same root as haggadah, telling the story.  All of Judaism has been transmitted from one generation to the next, sometimes orally, other times through the written word.  Hadar k’vod hodecha, is hard to translate because the three terms are basically synonyms, as the Psalmist struggles to find words for his experience of God’s beauty, glory, splendor.  V’divrei nif’lotecha asicha, and I will speak words about Your wonders. “Sicha” can mean conversation, though our sages, noting that root used by Isaac, tell us that it can refer to prayer, as Isaac converses with the Lord out in the fields. The rabbis see this a kind of minchah service.


Ve-ezuz norotecha yomeru, they will speak of the power of Your awesomeness, ug’dulatcha asaprena, and I will tell of Your greatness. Both of these terms are regularly used in the opening words of the Amidah, Ha-El hagadol, hagibor, v’hanora, the great, mighty, and awesome God, an expression used by Moses in the Torah.  Again there is this back and forth between the congregation (they) and the leader (I) throughout this Psalm.  Zecher rav tuv’cha yabiu, they will express the mention of Your great goodness.  Zecher indicates that we recall the many good acts that God has done for us.  V’tzidkatcha yeranenu, and we will sing of Your righteous acts. The poet goes from what “they” will say to what “we” will say.


We are now up to the letter chet, and we have a statement regarding God’s attributes.  Chanun v’rachum Adonay, gracious and compassionate is Adonay, erech apayim v’gdol chased, patient and abundant in love.  These terms appear in the thirteen attributes that we repeat again and again on Yom Kippur: “Adonay, Adonay, El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim v’rav chesed ve-emet.”  We continue speaking about God’s qualities in the next verse: Tov Adonay lakol, God is good to all, v’rachamav al kol ma’asav, and His compassion is over all His works or all His creatures.  Therefore, in the next verse, Yoducha Adonay kol ma’asecha, all of Your creatures will thank or acknowledge You, O Lord, va-chasidecha y’varchucha, and Your chasidim, Your pious ones, Your faithful ones, will bless You.


K’vod malchut’cha yomeru, they will tell of the glory of Your Kingdom.  Ug’vuratcha y’daberu, and speak of Your mighty acts.  However, it is not sufficient to praise God, we need to spread the word to all the world:  L’hodia livnei ha-adam g’vurotav, to make known to the children of Adam, all of the people in the world, Your mighty deeds.  U’khvod  hadar malchuto, and the glory of the splendor of His sovereignty.  


The next verse is used as well in the prayers for taking out the Torah when we proclaim, Malchutcha malchut kol olamim, Your sovereignty extends over all the universe (literally Your kingdom is a kingdom of all the worlds).  Umemshalt’cha  b’chol dor vador, and your rule extends from generation to generation.  That is the verse for mem, there is no verse for the letter nun, but we jump to samech next.  Having spoken of the boundless authority of God, His transcendance throughout time and space, we now recognize the opposite aspect of our God, the immanent, intimate deity, who cares for all.  Somech Adonay l’chol hanoflim, God supports all of those who are falling, v’zokef l’chol hak’fufim, and straightens out those who are bent over.  This is a caring God who tends to those feeling burdened by the travails of life and give them support.  These same words are found in the second blessing of the Amidah as well.


Einei chol elecha y’sabeiru, the eyes of all look hopefully toward You.  V’atah notein lahem et ochlam b’ito, and You give them their food in its season.  This is very similar to the expressions we find in the opening blessing of birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, where we read, “hu notein lechem l’chol basar, ki l’olam chasdo,” He gives bread to all flesh, for His loving kindness endures forever, a quote from Psalm 136.  This thought is further emphasized in the next verse and, indeed, this verse is given as one of the reasons that we repeat this Psalm three times a day.  The rabbis say that one must concentrate on this next verse, recite it with kavanah, with intention.  If one says it by rote and does not concentrate, they tell us that we need to go back and read it again.  Potei-ach et yadecha, You open Your hand, umasbia l’chol chay ratzon, and You satisfy all living creature’s desires.  If one protests that there are still people starving in the world, the Psalmist might reply, “Whose fault is that?”  God has supplied all the food we need but we, as partners with God, are in charge of the supply train.  It is we who are falling down on the job by not arranging its equitable distribution..


As if to respond to that complaint, the Psalmist adds, Tzaddik Adonay b’chol d’rachav, God is righteous in all of His ways, v’chasid b’chol ma’asav, and loving in all His acts.  However, He has handed over the world to us and we have a responsibility to act on His behalf toward those in need.  God is not some distant, uncaring deity, rather we continue in the Psalm: Karov Adonay l’chol korav, God is near to all who call upon Him, l’chol asher yikrauhu be’emet, to all who call upon Him in truth.  Rabbi Reuven Hammer in his commentary in Or Hadash, writes, “When we appear before other people, all too often we wear a mask or we play a role.  When we come before God, masks are useless.  We must come as we truly are, ready to reveal ourselves, our needs, our thoughts, our faults, our hopes.  Only in this way can we expect God to be near us.” When we approach God in truth, we feel His presence and His care for us.


Thus we have faith in God, R’tzon y’reiav ya’aseh, we believe that He will do the will of those who hold Him in reverence (those who fear Him), v’et shavatam yishma v’yoshieim, and He will hear their cries and save them.  God hears the cries of those who are victims of injustice and, we believe, that ultimately He will respond. In my previous piece on Psalm 20, we raised the question of whether we can really expect God to “answer” our prayers or to respond to them.  Shomer Adonay et kol ohavav, God guards all those who love Him.  The Torah calls upon us both to show reverence, to fear the Lord, and v’ahavta, and You shall love the Lord your God.  V’et kol r’shaim yashmid, and He will destroy all the wicked. In Richard Levy’s volume on Psalms, he speaks of shattering “every vicious person in our midst,” and explains that this is a more targeted, psychological destruction for the wicked than the physical destruction we might take away from the literal reading of the text.


The Psalmist ends, tehilat Adonay y’daber pi, my mouth shall speak the praises of the Lord, vivarech kol basar shem kodsho l’olam va-ed, and all flesh shall praise Your holy name forever and ever.  In the siddur, we add the additional verse from Psalm 115, mentioned earlier, to link this Psalm with the five that follow, with haleluyahs. Va-anachnu, as for us, n’varech Yah, we will praise the Lord, mei-atah v’ad olam, from now and forever, Haleluyah!   By adding this verse, we are affirming the words of the Psalmist and joining in his praise of the Almighty.


Reading this prayer carefully and reflecting on its teachings, we may be encouraged to reach out to others and emulate the divine qualities spoken of in this passage.  In so doing, I argued in my previous posts, we may indeed become worthy of the world to come.  The editors of the  Artscroll Psalms write, “When a person recognizes that every bit of his energy and vitality is a perpetual gift of Almighty God, Who constantly gives life, he will dedicate every moment of his existence to an effort to draw ever closer to his Creator.  Such a person thereby belongs to the World to Come.”

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