This beautiful psalm expresses our deep yearnings to be close to God and His holy Temple. “My soul longs and pines for God’s courtyards!” (Ps. 84:3). Yet its most famous verse opens with the word Ashrei — ‘fortunate':
“אַשְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵי בֵיתֶךָ- עוֹד יְהַלְלוּךָ סֶּלָה”
“Fortunate are those who dwell in Your house. They will continue to praise You, selah.” (Ps. 84:5)
This verse was designated to introduce Psalm 145 in the daily prayers. (In fact, it is customary to refer to the recital of this chapter as Ashrei, after this verse.)
Who are these fortunate ‘dwellers’ in God’s house? Would it not be preferable to pray there, rather than just sitting in His house?
The Sages knew that sincere prayer requires mental preparation. “One should not rise to pray until one has acquired a reverent state of mind” (Berachot 30b). We cannot make the sudden switch from our everyday activities to heartfelt prayer without a sincere effort to clear our thoughts and focus the mind.
The Talmud in fact describes two levels of mental preparation before prayer. The minimal level, expected from all people, is to attain a general attitude of solemnity and reverence. The Sages referred to this state of mind as koved-rosh, literally ‘heavy-headedness.’ We need to do away with any light-headedness and frivolous imaginings, and direct our thoughts towards eternal truths.
However, the chasidim rishonim, the saintly pious of ancient times, would undertake a more intensive preparation. They would reflect and meditate for a full hour before each prayer. They would not begin their prayers until they knew that “their hearts were fully directed toward their Father in heaven.”
Why did these chasidim need so much time to prepare for prayer?
The minimal level — focusing the mind on lofty matters — does not necessitate such a lengthy preparation. In a relatively short time, one can direct the mind with positive and holy images.
But the pious of old also worked on uplifting their hearts — ‘until their hearts were fully concentrated.’ Full control of one’s feelings and desires is a far more complex matter. Personality traits and emotions, wants and desires, are connected to our physical side. It takes time and effort to analyze our feelings and inclinations, and guide them towards holy objectives.
The ancient chasidim based their lengthy preparations on the verse, “Fortunate are those who dwell in Your house.” The psalmist is not referring to those who make a quick visit to God’s house. This is not just the rapid focusing of the mind on holy matters. Rather, the verse speaks of those who dwell in God’s house. These individuals meditate at length, uplifting their feelings and refining their basic nature to be in harmony with the mind’s enlightenment. This intensive preparatory effort requires a lengthy stay in the realm of the spiritual and the eternal.
The verse concludes with the assurance that those who dwell in Your house “will continue to praise You, selah.”
The Sages taught in Eiruvin 54a that the word selah indicates something of a continuous or eternal nature. Those who dwell in God’s house, as they work to elevate their hearts and emotions, attain a more stable level of holiness. Their unity of heart and mind enables them to continually “praise You, selah.” They achieve a consistent level of holiness and God-awareness.
Now it is clear why this verse was placed at the beginning of Ashrei, to be recited at the start of the prayer service. We are reminded to prepare our state of mind before praying, and take inspiration from those remarkable chasidim of old who would ‘dwell’ in God’s house, as they focused their minds and directed their hearts.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah, vol. I, pp. 127, 154)