Shalom and Hodesh Tov friends!
This week's teaching is about the Ashrei, which is a special prayer formed from three different psalms. The main body is Psalm 145, but this teaching is on the opening verses from Psalms 84 and 144. The Ashrei is traditionally chanted three times per day- twice in the morning and once in the afternoon, and is seen as a particularly powerful tefilah by the early rabbis. The sages in the Talmud (Berakhot 4b) said that anyone who recited it three times per day will have a share in Olam Haba- the "World to Come." If you understand Olam Haba to mean the "Becoming World," then the Ashrei becomes a powerfully transformative practice that connects you to the Truth of this moment- the unique unfolding of Being that is happening always right now. The opening verses have a particularly powerful hint at at this power of Presence...
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Ashrei Yoshvei veitekha, od y’halelukha selah-
Ashrei ha'am shekakha lo
Ashrei ha'am sheHashem Elohav!
Joyful are those who dwell in Your house; they will continuously praise you, selah!
Joyful is the people for whom this is so-
Joyful is the people for whom Reality is God!
- Psalms 84:5, 144:15
In its plain meaning, it is talking about how wonderful it is to be in the ancient temple. On a deeper level, the Temple is a metaphor for the house within which your awareness constantly dwells- your own body.
Ordinarily, we tend to see the body as a tool, as a mere extension of our mental and emotional intentions. And, if our bodies aren’t working the way we want them to work, they can be a source of pain and frustration. But take a moment to imagine some wonderful place that you’d love to visit. When you get there, you’re so struck by the awesomeness and beauty of the place, that it’s enough for you just to be there. In other words, just being there is the goal.
Now what happens when you take that same attitude toward your own body?
Try it for a moment- take the attitude that just being in your body is the goal. And if being in your body is the goal, than who is the “you” that’s being in your body? The “you,” of course, is this mysterious thing called consciousness. And, when you dwell in your body on purpose, not taking it for granted but connecting with your breathing and your senses, then your body becomes your temple.
The next part of the verse says, "Ashrei ha’am shekakha lo- joyful is the people for whom this is so."
There’s a story of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoy, that once he was invited to a brit (ritual circumcision of a baby boy). He traveled in the pouring rain to a nearby village for the ceremony. But when he got there, they were lacking one person to make a minyan (quorum of ten people traditionally needed to perform the ceremony). The Rabbi was annoyed that he had to wait around and waste his time. And on top of that, because of the rain, they couldn’t find a passerby for some time. At last, a beggar came along, and they ran out to ask him to please come and make the minyan. “So be it!” said the beggar.
When the beggar came in, they offered him some warm tea. “So be it!” he said again. After the ceremony, they invited him to the meal. “So be it!” he repeated. The host asked the beggar, “Why do you keep saying ‘So be it’? don’t you have anything else to say?'”
The beggar replied, “It is written- Ashrei Ha’am Shekakha lo- Happy is the people for whom it is so.” And with that, he vanished before their eyes.
When the Rabbi went to bed that night, he couldn’t sleep. He kept hearing the beggar’s words- 'so be it, so be it, so be it'- and he realized that the beggar must have been Eliyahu Hanavi- Elijah the Prophet, who had come to correct him from his tendency to be impatient and annoyed. Then he whispered to himself, “Happy is the people who accept that which is so” and fell asleep.
The tendency of the mind and the emotions is often to resist that which is so, to pull away from the truth of this moment either in judgment (as in the story) or even just in distractedness. But this tenancy can be gently soothed through the practice of making your body into your temple, of intentionally coming into connection with your breathing and your senses. That’s because when you’re present with your body, you can come to feel yourself as Presence, rather than as resistance. And when you feel yourself as Presence, it can dawn on you- everything is coming and going within this One Reality, within this One experience. Ashrei Ha’am ShaHashem Elohav- Happy is the people for whom Reality is God.
Reb Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks