D’var Tefilah from Rabbi Gelb: Ashrei – Which Verse Do You Choose?
“Blessed are they that dwell in Your house; they shall praise You forever” is the opening to the acrostic poem/prayer we call “Ashrei.” You can find this prayer in a Sim Shalom siddur (page 80) or Google it online. Our sages teach us in the Talmud (Brachot 4b) that one who says the Ashrei three times a day is guaranteed a place in Olam Haba, the world to come. They give two reasons for this. One is that the poem praises God with lines beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The other is that we recite one particular verse in the prayer. I often give a d’var tefila to our chanichim (campers) in which I ask them to take a few moments to look at the Ashrei and nominate the line that they think would warrant such a reward. If you would like, take a few moments and look through the verses before reading the rest of this d’var.
Before telling you the rabbis’ answer, I want to share with you some of the common choices of the chanichim and tzevet (staff) who I have spoken with over the years.
“Your Kingship is an everlasting kingship; Your dominion endures for all generations.” This choice reflects God’s omnipotence and many choose this because they believe that if they truly acknowledge God’s supremacy then they merit a reward. I find this to be an interesting view of the relationship between God and people. It is very much in the context of a power relationship.
“The Lord is near to all who call, to all who call upon Him in truth.” This is usually my favorite verse. I tend to relate to the idea of a more personal God. God is there to help us if only we reach out. However, this reaching out cannot be disingenuous. I sometimes think that although God is always near to everyone, it takes sincerity to feel God’s presence.
“The Lord supports all who stumble; He raises all who are bowed down.” The image of God as champion of the orphan, widow and those in need is very compelling to me. Paired with the line above, I see God as providing silent support to those in trouble. I also like the notion of God raising up those who stumble. Stumblers are ones who make mistakes. We stumble, but God can help us find our footing again and find our way.
And now, the rabbis’ choice: “You open Your hand, and Your favor sustains all the living.” I think the rabbis chose this verse because it illustrates God’s power as sustaining life and refers directly to the “living.” The idea is that God will sustain us in this life and in the world to come. I like this line a lot, but I like verses that emphasize partnerships between God and man to help others in need even more.
When praying, I often focus on a different line of the Ashrei and think about why that line could be the “phrase that pays” and how it can inform my life. If you have a chance, take some time and study the verses. I’d love for you to share which verse speaks to you the most or you think is most worthy to be the phrase that pays. Shabbat Shalom!