Ashrei Yoshvei Veitecha

Music and audio © Alexander Massey 13 August 2015

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Happy is the one who lives in God’s house

 Ashrei yoshvei veitecha; od y’hal’lucha. Selah.

Ashrei ha’am shekachah lo; ashrei ha’am she’adonai elohav.

Happy is the one who lives in Your house; they praise You forever. Selah. (Ps 84:5)

Happy is the people for whom this is so; happy is the people for whom YHVH is God. (Ps 144:15)

For me, the first two verses of Ashrei [1] are well suited for cultivating a meditative, sacred space. The word yashav – ‘live’ – also means ‘sit’. The first verse of Ashrei can remind us sometimes just to sit, and to be. In the Talmud, the Rabbis tell us:

“Those who say the T’fillah [daily prayer] should wait [sit] an hour before their prayer and an hour after their prayer. From what do we know [that we should wait] before our prayer? Because it says: ‘Happy are those who live in Your house’.[2] [How do we know we should sit for an hour] after our prayer? Because it says, ‘Surely the righteous shall give thanks to Your name, the upright shall live in Your presence’.[3][4]

The more we slow down for prayer, the more it can nourish us. “O taste and see that YHVH is good. Happy [ashrei] is the one who takes refuge in YHVH.”[5] George Herbert wrote that prayer is “… God’s breath in man returning to his birth, the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, … softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, … the soul’s blood, the land of spices; something understood.”[6] Prayer unfolds in all four kabbalistic worlds: the spiritual, the intellectual, the emotional, and the physical.

“Happy is the one who lives in Your house; they praise You forever.” When a person embeds Torah values in their thoughts, words and actions, they live in God’s house. When a person praises, gives thanks and blesses, they live in God’s house. When a person realises that Creation is a house of God’s making, and that their body is a house of God’s making, their awe and joy can awaken a deep desire to praise and give thanks.

Happy is the people for whom this is so

While the first verse of Ashrei focuses on personal experience of God, the second verse focuses on collective experience. When we create time and space together to turn to God, God dwells not in that space, but in us as a community.[7] We are taught to pray together in a minyan (originally a minimum of ten people). This brings together three core aspects of spiritual and religious life: God-consciousness, sacred text and teachings, and intentional community (what Buddhists might call sangha) that maintains our devotion to the first two aspects and provides a space in which in to learn and practice them.

The second Ashrei verse uses two names for God. YHVH (yud-heh-vav-heh) refers to God as transcendent, and the Compassionate One, Source of Infinite Loving-Kindness. Elohav – ‘powers’ – refers to God as immanent, and Source of all that exists. Happy is the people that experiences God’s power as loving and kind, and amplifies that Presence in the world.

Sacred home

“God … has a desire for a dwelling among the lower beings.”[8]

So, let us sit, breathe, empty ourselves, and in so doing, recognise the fullness of life, and the Source of life.

Let us sit, pray, and chant verses of Ashrei, and expand our holy awareness.

Let us sit, and know that all life has its home in HaMakom, the ‘Place’, one of our sacred names for God.

As we practice finding our home in God, a beautiful transformation can take place: we can find we have made a home for God in our community and in ourselves. God makes room for us, and we make room for God. As Heschel wrote: “To pray … means to bring God back into the world.”[9]

Notes

[1] Ashrei is a sequence of verses recited three times daily (Berachot 4b), twice at Shacharit – morning -, and once at Mincha – afternoon prayer. The main substance of Ashrei is Psalm 145, each verse starting with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet (except nun), praising God. Ashrei begins with two verses (used in this chant) from other psalms, Ps 84:5 and Ps 144:15. These opening two verses, both start with the word ashrei (‘happy’), from which the prayer gets its name. Ashrei ends with Ps 115:18 – “We will bless Yah from this time forth and for ever. Hallelujah.” The Rabbis of the Talmud thought very highly of this prayer: “Whoever sings the praises [of God] in this world merits the world-to-come.” (Sanhedrin 91b)

[2] Ps. 84:5

[3] Ps. 140:14

[4] Berachot 32b

[5] Ps. 34:9

[6] George Herbert (1593-1633), ‘Prayer’ (poem)

[7] “Make me a holy / separate space [mikdash], and I will be an in-dwelling presence among you.” Ex. 25:8

[8] Tanhuma (midrash from 8th/9th century) – Behukotai 3 (5); Naso 16

[9] Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1954) Man’s Quest for God, , copyright Susannah Heschel 1996, p.62

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