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Ashrei: Thanking God for Nature and The Compassion of Justice

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Yitzchak Blau

Shiur 13a: Ashrei: Thanking God for Nature and The Compassion of Justice

R. Elazar said in the name of Ravina: "Anyone who recites Tehilla l'Dovid (Psalm 145, to which we add two introductory verses in prayer) three times each day can trust that he is worthy of the world to come." What is the reason? If it is because that Psalm follows the order of the aleph bet, then we should recite Ashrei Temime Derekh (Psalm 119), as it has eight verses for each letter of the aleph bet. Rather because that Psalm (145) contains the verse: "You open up Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing." If so, we should recite Hallel ha-Gadol (Psalm 136) as it includes the verse: "He gives bread to all living creatures." Rather, the Psalm (145) is special because it has both features. (Berakhot 4b)

According to this gemara, two factors make the prayer we call Ashrei special: 1) The fact that it contains an alphabetic acrostic; 2) The fact that it incorporates the theme of God sustaining all creatures. One might understand that these reflect two separate points in its favor. According to such an approach, the cumulative force of two totally disparate qualities makes Ashrei unique. For example, some commentators suggest that an acrostic employing the alphabet from beginning to end conveys our exhausting the totality of human language in an almost futile attempt to praise God adequately. Among the specific praises we mention is the fact that God provides for each creature's sustenance.

Others see the two themes as complimentary, but not truly interconnected. Both Maharsha and Rav Kook, in their commentaries on Berakhot, understand the aleph bet as a symbol for the Torah written with those twenty-two letters. According to Maharsha, this Psalm highlights Hashem's dual role in sustaining us both physically and spiritually. He provides us with physical food as well as with spiritual nourishment.

For Maharsha, these two themes teach related messages, but do not unite in the formation of a particular idea. On the other hand, two significant twentieth century rabbinic voices insisted on seeing a deeper link between the two themes. In their view, the combination of these two factors to emphasize a single idea makes Ashrei unique.

R. Meir Simha Ha-Kohen from Dvinsk (in the first Meshekh Chokhma on Bechukotai) contrasts Hallel with Pesukei d'Zimra. The first, recited only on the holidays, thanks God for His infrequent but momentous suspensions of the laws of nature on behalf of the Jewish people. For example, He split the sea and took us out of Egypt, or He appeared on a mountaintop to give us the Torah. The latter, said daily, thanks God for the natural order that sustains humanity. One gemara (Shabbat 118b) sharply criticizes those who recite Hallel daily because such an approach reveals a rejection of the natural order. The desire to always focus on the miraculous communicates that one is ungrateful for the regular functioning of the world God created.

Pesukei d'Zimra, on the other hand, clearly should be said every day as it expresses thanks for the regular and the normal. Ashrei stands as the centerpiece of Pesukei d'Zimra and therefore, must refer to the regular rhythms of nature. R. Meir Simcha argues that the careful pattern of beginning each verse with the subsequent letter of the alphabet conveys the theme of nature's regularity. Miracles, by way of contrast, do not occur in a slowly and deliberately worked out pattern. The gemara also mentions the verse in Ashrei that highlights the natural order's containing the resources to sustain all creatures, as this reflects a prominent aspect in our appreciation for the natural order. If so, the form and content of Psalm 145 unite to convey our praise for the wonders of the natural order.

R. Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach 55) finds a different theme in the combination of these two factors. He cites a midrash that sees Hallel ha-Gadol as reflective of the twenty-six generations before the giving of the Torah, when the world was sustained by compassion alone. R. Hutner contends that after the giving of the Torah, God did not stop running the world with compassion, but rather the nature of that compassion changed. The earlier form of the compassion was "chessed-vittur," a compassion that sustains the recipient without making any demands of him. When there was no Torah, this was how God ran the world. After matan Torah, there was a shift to "chessed-mishpat." In this model, Hashem continues to show compassion, but His giving includes demands made of the recipients and a just proportional relationship between the actions of the receivers and the largesse of the giver. By analogy, rather than just giving a handout, Hashem finds us a paying job.

According to Rav Hutner, Ashrei reflects this second and higher form of functioning. The carefully structured pattern symbolizes the workings of justice that are steadier than the workings of compassion totally divorced from justice. The two factors combine to utter praise for Hashem who runs the world through a compassion merged with justice.

Let us recall that the gemara questioned why Ashrei is superior to Hallel ha-Gadol which also includes a verse about God providing for all. For Rav Hutner, that verse talks of God in His pre-matan Torah mode of compassion unmediated by justice. The alphabetic acrostic of Ashrei reveals that its verse about Divine care-giving refers to the higher level of chessed-mishpat that began with the giving of the Torah.