Thursday, February 26, 2009

Finding Fortune Part 1

אשרי האיש אשר לא הלך ("Fortunate is the person who does not")

These are the first words of the book of Tehillim. For a book devoted to praising God, calling out to God, thanking Him and needing Him, it is quite telling that the incipient remarks should be אשרי האיש אשר לא! Each word raises concern for the reader, as we wonder why begin in such a way. First off, the word אשרי (ashrei) is mysterious. Does it mean happy? praiseworthy? blessed? I found all these translations in various books. Which one is best suited for the onset of the book of Psalms? I prefer the term 'fortunate', but with a twist. Generally, fortunate connotes physical joys, wealth and excess. But there already is a Hebrew word which expresses physical wealth which sounds very similar to our word--עשר (osher). The psalmist chooses his word carefully--אושר-- to distinguish between physical joy and metaphysical fortune. Experiencing true metaphysical joy one searches for the opposite of material riches in order to reach a state of complacency with his material lot. Our rabbis called true wealth the attitude of being happy with what you have. Indeed we might argue that the entire Jewish outlook on life is finding our way from seeking osher with an ayin, to realizing osher with an aleph! Thus the psalm begins with praise of the individual who has found the magic elixir of life--metaphysical fortune, spiritual joy.

The second word also requires some consideration. Would we not have wanted to praise and describe the righteous individual? For this there are plenty of words from which to choose--tzaddik, chasid, yashar... Why choose a bland, average, anonymous איש? In order to answer we must remind ourselves that this book is not written for the elite but rather for the masses. King David had a message to his entire kingdom, a message of closeness to God and capacity to speak with Him, praise Him and feel Him throughout one's life. If the book begin with a description of a righteous man who knew no evil, didn't recognize temptation, then it would reject a whole population of the simple folk. For this reason perhaps a generic individual is praised--אשרי האיש, fortunate is the person who can resist temptation and bypass evil on their way to a meaningful existence. They are the subject of this great book, they are the ones who will achieve immortality!