Expanding (musical) horizons
On Moses and MLK

On the Ashrei

When I was eight, I attended a Jewish Day School, where we did "secular studies" (math, language arts, social studies) in the mornings and "Jewish studies" (Hebrew, prayer) in the afternoons. I came away from my two years there with a pretty solid grounding in the standard Conservative liturgy, which continues to stand me in good stead. My current shul is technically Reform, but was Conservative for many decades, and our liturgical practices reflect that. We use a homegrown prayerbook which is somewhere between and beyond either denomination's standard siddur.

One of the practices we follow which I remember from my Conservative childhood is that of praying Psalm 145, popularly known (by its first word) as the ashrei, on Shabbat mornings. This psalm is an acrostic; the first letters of each line spell out the Hebrew aleph-bet. It's usually recited in a kind of call-and-response fashion, where the hazzan (prayer leader) chants the odd lines and the congregation replies with the even lines. As a kid, I could rattle it off at lightning speed.

I haven't prayed it regularly in about twenty years, though, (and arguably I wasn't really praying it back then: I was reciting it, but had little attachment to the meaning of the lines). Since I'm pinch-hitting for our rabbi in about a month, I've renewed my Shabbat morning attendance, and I've discovered that I'm a tad...rusty on the ashrei.

That should be easy enough to fix; if I practice it a few times a day all month, I should be golden. Of course, now I'm curious about the psalm; I want to pray it not only fluently but also with intent.  Rav Kook, of blessed memory, had some excellent things to say about psalm 145, among them the observation that the psalm contains all the letters of the alphabet, which according to midrash are the building-blocks of our world. This article is another interesting exploration of ways to approach it (I especially like that the author begins with a quote from CS Lewis), and includes a link to a slightly more esoteric exploration which uses frames to good effect in aligning text with commentary.

One of my strongest personal associations with the psalm comes from a contemplative morning service led by Phyllis Berman two summers ago. We chanted the first line of each morning prayer, focusing on them as we repeated them, trying to get inside them and get them inside us. Before we chanted the first line of the ashrei, she reminded us of its translation (Happy are they who dwell in Your house; may they always praise You), and gave a brief drash (exegesis) about it. She talked about the houses we carry with us -- our bodies -- and about how fortunate we are when we can come to be happy with, and in, our embodiment.

If we are created in the image of God, she reasoned, and if we accept that we ultimately belong to God -- that God is ultimate reality -- then there is a sense in which our bodies are the houses of the Holy. Happy are we who can be conscious of dwelling in holy embodiment. If our bodies are vessels for God, then it is a kind of blasphemy to dislike our bodies; then we are called to sanctify our physical existence by rejoicing and offering praise.

It echoes one of my favorite morning blessings, the asher yatzar (lit. "Who Formed," the blessing for our bodies). The interpretive translation I use goes like this: "Blessed are You, YHVH our God, Source of all being, who formed the human body with wisdom and who placed within us a miraculous combination of organs and arteries, tissues and sinews. Clearly, we would not be able to praise Your miracles were it not for the miracle within us. Blessed are You, Adonai, healer of all flesh and worker of miracles." I say it silently sometimes while jogging on the treadmill, because -- like Phyllis' drash on the ashrei -- it reminds me that although I spend a lot of my life in my brain, my body is my interface with the wonders of the world. 

Edited to add: if you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy a post from a few years later -- A new way of relating to the ashrei, 2007.