Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mr. Messer's Ashrei

I’ll never forget Marshall Messer’s AP English class in MTA; a little over 20 years ago, he introduced me to the idea of reading fiction and poetry with a darshan’s ear, sensitive to cues of symbolism and pace and tone and theme.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was the first book I read that way; we did The Odyssey and The Great Gatsby that year also, I think, and in all of those works I suddenly perceived layer upon layer that I had never noticed before. I read a lot before then, but in that class I first learned to listen for the author’s subtle (or unsubtle) hints, and I’ve never read a book without that sensitivity, since.

I mention this because several weeks back Jack asked what brings you joy, and I told him that, among other things, Ashrei brings me joy.

That answer surprised me, but it was true; Ashrei is so elegant in its structure, and so easily read for that elegance, that I find it one of the best ways for me to connect with davening. (Much easier than, say, the v’Hu Rachum tachanun of Mondays and Thursdays.)

Ashrei is Psalm 145, with Psalms 84:5 and 144:15 tacked on first, and 115:18 appended at the end. You can find the Hebrew text on-line here; the links earlier in this sentence are for English.

The first poetic element I notice when looking at Ashrei is its three-part structure:
* I will praise Gd (145:1-3);
* Future generations will praise Gd, for all time (145:4-9);
* All will praise Gd (145:10-20).
This is followed by a summary line at the end: My mouth will praise Gd, and all flesh will praise Gd, for all time.

Further, each of those three sections is composed of two parts: Anticipation of praise (145:1-2, 145:5-7, 145:10-12) and then the praise itself.

And on a deeper level, beyond the elegant design: The text lives its scriptural life much as I live my own existence, recognizing and accepting the philosophical paradox of singing to the world’s Creator in the middle of a world of pain and suffering.

The song acknowledges that there are נופלים, people who fall.
The song acknowledges that there are כפופים, people who are bent double with pain and suffering.
The song acknowledges that there are רשעים, agents of evil, in this world.

And yet – the song repeatedly emphasizes a key word, כל, all, declaring that all praise Gd. This is strongest in the third segment, in which every line of the world’s praise to Gd includes the word כל, that Gd is king over all, supports all, sates all, etc. Only one line (רצון) lacks this word – but the word appears twice in the preceding verse.

The song even has the hubris to declare that Gd fills the desire of every living thing, triggering all manner of apologetics from a range of commentators, but I think that they miss the point: The point is not that Gd provides for all, but rather that I, in my moment of deepest emotion, feel with בטחון that Gd provides for all. Despite my doubts and fears and questions, I look around at what is, and I am satisfied.

There’s much more here, of course (click the Ashrei label below for a note on its alphabetical acrostic), but that’s a taste of what I see here. Thank you, Mr. Messer.


  1. You can't imagine how you've made my Tuesday and the days that follow much brighter. Teaching English in the frum educational system is sometimes disheartening. Literature is frequently looked at as the evil being forced on us, and those who teach it are the bearers of evil. Many an English teacher who has been asked to justify what they do. All of us have heard, and more than once, "what good will this ever do me?" Thank you for giving an answer to that question, and a beautifully written one at that. You were fortunate to have Mr. Messer, and he was fortunate to have a student who took his lessons to heart.

  2. Hi ProfK,

    Thanks; glad to give you a boost. Perhaps, though, an enterprising dean or professor could put some thought into an on-line guide explaining how various disciplines in chol aid growth in kodesh, and vice versa?

  3. A nice analysis - yasher koach. Reuven Kimelman has a great in-depth article on this - you were mekhavvein to some of his chiddushim. Here is the reference:

    "'Ashre' : Psalm 145 and the liturgy," Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of America 54 (1993) 97-128

  4. I think I gave you the wrong reference. What you're looking for is:
    Reuven Kimelman, "Psalm 145 : theme, structure, and impact." Journal of Biblical Literature 113,1 (1994) 37-58

  5. I meant to comment earlier that I appreciate the explanation.