5-13-06 Ashrei Yoshevei Veitekha – Bored or Happy Are They Who Sit In the House of Prayer?

I delivered the following Devar Tefillah on Ashrei at METNY USY Regional Convention on May 13, 2006. (Again, I have reposted it below, but it is unformatted.)


METNY USY, good morning and Shabbat Shalom,
For many of us sitting here, prayer is incredibly boring, and it’s pretty tempting to talk to the people sitting next to us and even the people who are sitting nowhere near us. And for many of us here, prayer is a challenging part of our daily lives. Many of us pray with hope that God will grant us everything that we ask God for, and we often find ourselves disappointed. This leads us to ask ourselves whether or not we believe that we should keep praying to God, and, if so, why? We don’t seem to always get what we ask for when we pray, so prayer might appear useless and unnecessary. I am among those of us who unfortunately get this attitude towards prayer sometimes, but I also have a few responses concerning this attitude.
My first response to such an attitude actually comes from a Modern Orthodox rabbi I know, Rabbi Stuart Grant. Rabbi Grant was discussing that, just as we Jews have laws that are about our relationships with each other and laws that are about our relationship with God, we Jews also need two mindsets. When we pray, we need to pray as if everything depends on God; but, when we act, we need to act as if everything depends on us. We should always keep in mind that there is no way for us humans to know what God can do and, more importantly, what God will do. So, it is naïve for us to rely on just God for good outcomes. We also need to take our own action. And, it is naïve for us to think that we will always get exactly what we want when we take our own action and pray to God. In a song titled “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones truthfully sang, “You can’t always get what you want.”
My second response has to do with the prayer we call “Ashrei.” Until about a year ago, I used to think that “Ashrei” was a pretty boring prayer that was not particularly important. Then, one night, I decided to give “Ashrei” a fair judgment. I read through it slowly in English and in Hebrew and analyzed it. I had never before realized that there were actually prayers that say things that are pretty practical. Let’s look at “Ashrei” a little slowly.
If you turn to page 81 of Siddur Sim Shalom, then you will now see, in the bottom paragraph, the English translation of “Ashrei.” Feel free to read the translation for yourself, but let me show you some cool stuff to take note of while you read the English. When we say this prayer, we have to realize that it is not only a prayer. It is a poem. So, when we read the word “I” in “Ashrei,” that “I” might not be you yourself, but I’ll dare to say that that “I” should be you yourself. What is a cool thing too in the text is that “I,” the speaker, is not only talking about the speaker praising God. The speaker is also talking about the other people “them” who praise God. When you look at this text closely, “Ashrei” is just a perfect description of the perfect attitude of somebody who is praying. “Ashrei” focuses almost entirely on saying that people praise God or describing how people view God. “Ashrei” also focuses on people’s expectations of God, not necessarily their expectations of what God practically will do, but what God will hopefully do. But, as far as cool stuff really goes: check out page 83. This is deep stuff worth a little analysis.
As we know, life is full of ups and downs. It’s naïve to say that life is all bad or all good, and “Ashrei” shows that good things will even happen in bad times. Around the middle of the page, we read that “All eyes look hopefully to You, to receive their food in due time.” It is true that we are more likely to pray harder for something that we’re lacking than something we have a bit of. The text here isn’t saying, “We’re all having a good time, and we’ll get even more food.” The text here notices that there are hungry people who are saved from hunger anyway. A few lines later, we read, “The Lord is near to all who call, all who call upon God in truth.” This is even truer in the mind of the modern Jew. No person in this room can prove that God does or does not exist, but if any person in this room hopes to find God, that person will almost be guaranteed to be able to find some meaningful way to connect to God. If you decide to never call God—to never mentally dial 1-800-CALL-GOD begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              1-800-CALL-GOD      end_of_the_skype_highlighting—then you will never find any way to connect with God.
And let’s not forget: there are a lot of times when we ask the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But, we rarely ask, “Why do good things happen to good people”—after all, sometimes it seems like it’s more often that only bad things happen to good people. Here is one of my favorite lines in “Ashrei:” “God fulfills the desire of those who revere God; God hears their cry and delivers them.” Read that line more carefully now. We’ve got the idea that God is fulfilling the desire of those who are actually crying to God! So, does that mean it takes suffering for God to help people out? Well, for something to get better, there needs to be something that can be improved. And, nowadays, people don’t like to give God credit for good things that happen to them, even when they have trouble explaining why the good things happen to them. This comes back to the idea that we can’t always rely on God to help us because God will help us, but, according to “Ashrei,” God will help us when we need to cry to God. We have to rely on ourselves in our actions, and we have to rely on only God when we pray. From this, we learn that God can help us, but we’re not always sure how, why, or when God helps us.
And, in fact, “Ashrei” concludes as the poet says, “My mouth shall praise the Lord. Let all flesh praise God’s name throughout all time.” And, this is concluded even more conclusively, “We shall praise the Lord now and always.”
So, even when prayer is boring, and even when prayer almost seems meaningless, let’s never forget that, in “Ashrei,” we make a vow to God that we will always praise God even when we’re not really sure why. So, even if you are very disinterested in the service or just way too tired, I encourage you to continue praying because neither you nor I nor any other person in this room actually knows what could happen, but it can only be good.
We now turn back to page 80 as Dan leads us in “Ashrei.”

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