The Book of Tehilim
Commentary by Rabbi Dovid E. Eidensohn
1A. - Happy is he [the man] who did not walk with the advice of wicked people. I do not know the perfect English translation for the Hebrew word of ASHREI אשרי . I tried “secure” and “successful” but these according to the Roget’s Super Thesaurus connote “secure from fear” and “successful defeating others”. Happiness also fails in the Thesaurus because it indicates “joy, gladness, contentment, bliss, delight, jubilation, pleasure, cheer, high spirits, peace of mind, elation, rapture, euphoria, exuberance, felicity, ecstasy.” In truth, ASHREI connotes all of these, but secure is involved with a negative “fear” and successful is involved with “defeating others”. Happiness has no negative quality so I chose it, although it fails to go beyond the good feeling one has when happiness happens. But happiness can be a fleeting thing, and who is happy in the sense of joy and rapture for long moments?
Thus, the correct translation of ASHREI must be an explanation perhaps with some words of exactly what the Psalmist intended. The Psalmist intended to convey happiness, secure and successful, but not in their transitory states and not in their relation to fear and defeating others. It is a deeper word than all three. It is a word that conveys a sense much deeper than joy and vastly superior to the kind of happiness that comes along for a ride and then leaves. It is a word much stronger than secure and much more positive than successful. When we use joy to define ASHREI but only by stretching it into a lifetime feeling; when we use “secure” not just as security from fear of failure and such negative things, but security in locking our souls to heaven and our minds to Torah; if we also combine “successful” as defeating others who are wicked, who defy the Torah, and include in successful the constant war with the Satan and defeating it, we are approaching the meaning of Ashrei. But I left it as “happy” so as not to create many words to explain one word. Precisely because the many words won’t do the job either. ASHREI is a word that conveys a Jew who has a soul linked to heaven and a mind that knows this world. It is a word that warns us about evil and encourages us to stay righteous. Until we have a word that unites this world and the next, and G‑d with our struggles to understand Torah, we are left with ASHREI!
1B. “who did not walk with the advice of wicked people” is a past tense. It might seem more correct and more powerful to say “who does not walk with the advice of wicked people.” If “did not walk” is a past tense, it allows an understanding that as of now he no longer refuses to walk with the advice of the wicked, which is surely not want the Psalmist meant. But the Psalmist realizes that people who believe in Torah and two worlds and good and evil are constantly struggling with the Evil Inclination. There are times when such people who are typical Jewish people win the fight with the Satan and sometimes they fail. When a Jew fails he repents. Maybe today he is repenting about what he did yesterday but tomorrow he may go back to his old ways. This is not ASHREI. This is a sad failure that is not the glory of the book of Tehilim. The glory of the Book of Tehilim is when the old evil is completely washed away so that “who did not walk with the advice of wicked people” connotes a very long period of piety. A sin here or there that is a rarity in one’s long piety is one thing. But if the sins are frequent, that is not ASHREI.
1C. “who did not walk with the advice of wicked people.” What is this about “walking”? And what is this about “advice”? Let it just say “who did not go in the ways of wicked people’?
The Talmud says, “That which proceeds from an impure thing is impure. And that which proceeds from a pure thing is pure.” )Bechorose 5b)The advice of the wicked people does not mean that they are wicked in the sense that they want to harm the righteous. We are talking about people who are wicked but they are not intent on harming religious people nor do they want them to do sins. Their advice here can be good advice. Otherwise, the Psalmist would be talking about double trouble, walking with wicked people and getting bad advice from them. No, the advice was good advice. Even an evil person, can, if he so wishes, tell somebody good advice. Many people would say, look, he is a smart man. His advice is usually sound. Let’s do what he suggests. But the pious knows that “that which proceeds from the impure is impure.” He doesn’t want good advice form a wicked person.
Now what is this about “walking”? This means we know somebody who is not so religious, but he is very smart. He tells us how to go about something, and we have no fear that he hates us and wants to cause us harm. Probably, we assume, the advice is solid. On the other hand, he is not so religious. To go and just accept his advice may be a step away from Torah. So, the person makes a compromise with the wicked man. He will “walk” doing the advice of the wicked man. But walking doesn’t mean that he swallows the man along with his advice. No, his head, his heart, his intellect, have nothing to do with the wicked. On the other hand, he does follow the advice of the wicked men, and he convinces himself that he is far removed from the wicked and their wickedness. He is only “walking” with his feet in the advice of the wicked, but his head, his soul, his heart, his true self, is not swallowing evil and wickedness. Only the feet are walking along in the path suggested by the wicked person. And the wicked person himself did not indicate in any way that he wants to contaminate the righteous person, who may be a close relative. But that walk can be the process of “that which proceeds from the impure is impure.” Somehow, this effects the piety of the good person.
We find in the beginning of the Torah reading called AIKEV a lengthy discussion by one of the great commentators, the Or HaChaim HaKodosh. AIKEV means “heel.” The Torah reading of AIKEV begins “and it will be AIKEV” meaning according to the Or HaChaim when the person’s spirituality is so perfect that it goes from the head to the heels, a complete tsaddik whose entire essence is for Torah.
The Book of Tehilim begins with a similar idea. A righteous person who “walks” according to the “advice” of the wicked, is not completely connected to HaShem. The feet are impure and that impurity damages the entire essence of the person who otherwise is righteous. Now he is impure and damaged because the “heel” or “walking” element in him follows the advice of the wicked, even if the wicked had no intention of causing him any evil or impurity. “That which proceeds from the impure is impure.”
“and in the path of the sinners he didn’t stand”. A path is designed for traffic that is for people to go here and there. “He didn’t stand” why should he stand when everybody is moving? First he talks about
“Happy is he who did not walk in the advice of the wicked.” Now he talks about “and in the path of the sinners he didn’t stand.” First he is happy for not walking in the advice of the wicked and then he is happy for not standing in the path of the sinners. First he talks about avoiding the wicked and now he talks about avoiding the sinners. What is the difference between a person who is wicked or who is a sinner?
Wickedness means just that. Somebody defied G‑d. Sinners can mean he sinned inadvertently, or it could mean that he deliberately ignored the obligation to do something important. If somebody refuses the mitsvah of circumcising his child, that is a serious and deliberate omission. One who was too tired to wake up and pray in time is a sinner, but it is not so terrible as one who rejects a very important Torah command deliberately.
We can now understand the phrase “and in the path of the sinners he didn’t stand.” Stand but now walk. Walk means he walks deliberately there, with design. He wants the advice of the wicked. That is serious. Now, one stands and does not walk. Walking is a deliberate act and one that shows that the person definitely associates with the wicked. One who stands does not go anywhere that shows his interest in participating with wickedness. He is just standing there. The sinners walk there, but he does not walk. What then is evil about what he does? Because the sinners that are walking past him constantly are of two varieties. Some are just too tired to wake up on time in the morning. And some just don’t care if they ignore circumcising their child. One who walks somewhere knows where he is walking and why he is walking. One who just stands in the crowd as it flows with its varieties past him can absorb many types of sin, and there are quite a variety from deliberately violating of the most serious Torah commands, to one who ignores an obligation to do a mitsvah not because of wickedness but because he is terribly tired and prolongs his siesta by mistaking when he should wake up. All of them walk past him and he stands there, knowing that they are passing him constantly with various levels of sin. When he is finished standing, he has absorbed evil in its many forms from many people.
In a way, this, the second part of passage one, about one who stands among the walking sinners, has absorbed more evil than the first sinner, who walks in the path of the of the advice of the wicked. Sinners on the one hand, are not described as wicked, and perhaps they are not wicked. They are human beings who like all human beings have good and bad sides, angels of love and happiness and evil angels who teach sin. But their mixture of good and evil does not necessary brand them as evil people, or wicked people. Therefore, the first part of the passage about the advice of the wicked, is about truly wicked people whose advice has reached the person who walks where that advice is located. The second part of the passage about one who stands among the sinners, is about the rest of humanity who have good and bad moments, and are not considered basically evil. They are thus higher than the first part of the passage dealing with people called clearly wicked, on the other hand, the intense variety of sinners who may not be yet on the level of RESHOIM or really wicked people, has its own evil part. So many people with so many sins, that wash over the standing person, has its own dynamic, and its cumulative effect can perhaps be worse than the one who walks in the advice of the wicked.
“And in the dwelling place of scorners he did not sit.” The Hebrew phrase מושב לצים usually means that the scorners dwelled there regularly and met with other scorners. One who joined this crowd and absorbed scorn is badly damaged, because scorning is a very powerful evil. Usually a passage of three evil parts builds higher and higher, beginning with small things and finally concluding with the worst things. If so, the worst of the three things is sitting along with the others who are scorners. What can the person sitting there do to avoid being swept into the evil of the scorners? Essentially, the power of scorning is such that a person in such a state is surely badly damaged by his sitting there.
In fact, we may even suggest a reason for the three parts of the passage. The first two passages were about one learning evil, just as the third part teaches. However, the first two passages had the advantage of describing a lower level of evil than the final part. The first level of evil was walking in the advice of the wicked. A wicked person can perhaps have some useful advice, it is not always about how to do sins. The person is wicked, but his advice is not necessarily wicked. But one who walks in the advice of the wicked is influenced negatively. The second level is one who stands while the sinners flow around him. Here, too, the level if not pure evil. He is different than the sinners. That is a saving factor. But the final passage is very serious. First of all, it deals with a group of scorners who can, more than anyone else, bring one to despise the righteous and respect the wicked. Second of all, the individual who wanders into their group and sits with them is acting just as they do, and this is conducive to his joining their community and becoming like them, a full-fledged scorner, one of the worst sins.
People could ask, how is it possible for a person to become a full-fledged member of a group that exists to scorn and make fun of righteous people? The answer is right in the beginning of the passage. Do a small sin, just follow the advice of the wicked, advice that may have some saving value, but it does connect you to the wicked. The next level is to stand among the flow of sinners, and it rubs off on the one who stands. This kind of influence can eventually bring a person to a level when he, just based on the relatively minor sins of the first two parts, can plunge right into the hideous evil of a house filled with scorners, and he sits with them, meaning, he is one with them.
Chapter One passage 2: “Because his desire is only with the Torah of G‑d, and he will study His Torah day and night.” This passage teaches us that fighting evil directly is a losing battle. As the Chofetz Chaim said, “We don’t fight darkness by punching it. We fight darkness by creating light.” How do we escape doing evil? By doing good deeds, meaning, by being involved with Torah learning day and night. That is the way of light. And that is the way to escape darkness and evil. Again, to fight evil directly plays into the hands of evil, because we cannot destroy evil that way. Only by creating light can we dispel darkness.
When we punch darkness we absorb darkness, despite our best intentions. When we learn Torah, we absorb holiness from heaven. We are with G‑d and evil cannot exist there.
“His desire is only with the Torah of G‑d.” Some people enjoy studying Torah for its wisdom and interesting ideas. They therefore study Torah not because it is the Torah of G‑d, but because it is interesting to them. The righteous turns to Torah because it is the Torah of G‑d and it is the venue to find G‑d.
Again, there is much in the Torah to inspire people in various ways. But the pious turn to Torah because in Torah learning we connect to G‑d.
“And he will study His Torah day and night.” This is very troubling. It seems to say that a righteous person studies Torah day and night. If so, when does he sleep and when does he eat and when does he pray? Obviously, it does not mean that his entire day and night is spent learning Torah. It means rather that within each day and each night there is an established place for Torah learning. Furthermore, ideally, this established place for Torah learning must not be altered and pushed off. This way the supremacy of Torah is assured but when the time for learning Torah can be pushed here and there the Torah learning is denigrated and weakened.
Let us return to our passage and how we have translated it. “His desire is only with the Torah of G‑d and he will study His Torah day and night.” Thus we translate “His Torah” meaning G‑d’s Torah. However, Rashi has a different translation. He translates it as and he will study his Torah day and night. That is, the passage begins “His desire is only with the Torah of G‑d, and he will study His Torah day and night.” We thus translated “and he will study His Torah” meaning what the earlier words of this passage say that it speaks of the Torah of G‑d. If so, we must translate His Torah not his Torah. But Rashi disagrees. Rashi says that the meaning of the passage is that originally the Torah is that of heaven of G‑d. However, one who studies Torah properly with full desire merits that the Torah of G‑d becomes the Torah of the learner. Thus we translate not His Torah but his Torah.
Again, Rashi translates the passage “His desire is only with the Torah of G‑d and he will study his Torah day and night.” Here “his” means the person who studies Torah properly, who merits that the Torah now belongs to the learner. This is the purpose of learning Torah which G‑d gave to people so that they will merit to “own” the Torah as their own.
Chapter One Passage 3: “And he will be as a tree planted upon flowing water, whose fruit will be given in its proper time. And its leaves will not dry up, and all that he will do will succeed.” This is an incredible statement. One devoted to Torah learning merits that “all that he will do will succeed.” Does that mean that he will never suffer in this world, but just learn Torah constantly and merit only happiness and success? What person merits such a life? We know that even great and righteous people have terrible problems. How can the Psalmist of Tehilim promise all people devoted to learn Torah that all that they will do will succeed, which seems to indicate a perfectly happy life. Who in the world merits this?
In the previous generation there were two great saints. In Europe the greatest saint was the Chofetz Chaim, and in Israel the greatest saint was Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The Chofetz Chaim had a son-in-law who was a great saint and a major Torah personality, but he died young. When he died the Chofetz Chaim’s daughter asked her father who such a perfectly righteous person could die. The Chofetz Chaim answered, “Would you prefer that G‑d destroy half of the world?” Meaning, that in heaven a decree was made to destroy a huge number of Jews, and the death of the Chofetz Chaim’s son-in-law saved them.
Is this “all that he will do will succeed”? In this world few if any people have perfect lives with no problems. But the problems have a reason, and when people die young and go to the higher world, if they are worthy, great and happy things await them. In that world, and only there, they will merit to realize that “all that he will do will succeed.” Furthermore, even in that world, judging mortals who have evil inclinations and who are rarely perfect, there may have to be some punishment. But the righteous person suffers and accepts his punishments which is the general state of human beings who have evil inclinations and do sin. HaShem will make their arrival in the higher world a glorious thing and bring them eternal happiness. But in this world, things are rarely if ever perfect. Living here with true faith that G‑d controls the world and He thinks only of making people happy, as the great rabbis have taught, gives us the understanding we need to accept life as it is and trust in the love G‑d has for all of us.
In Israel the counterpart of the Chofetz Chaim was the Gaon and Tsadik Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. He was the Rov of the Jerusalem Orthodox and was honored by everyone. He was a close disciple of the greatest rabbis of the time. And yet, he suffered that many of his children died. Despite this, he always felt that G‑d was loving and close to him. This is the power of Torah. G‑d is close to the righteous and those who devote themselves to Torah. But the process of living in a world of evil and punishment is a great trial. Here is much suffering. The righteous accept heaven’s will and know that in the proper time they will understand, in this world or the next.
Chapter One passage 4 – “The wicked are not like that. But they are as the leavings of the grain that is blown away by the wind.” In what sense are the wicked different from the righteous? But the righteous are the fine fruit of the tree, and the wicked are the refuse and leavings of the grain that are not eaten and not turned into food, but rather are useless to people. It is only a mercy from heaven that causes this worthless refuse to be blow away by the wind. It has no value to people.
Chapter One passage 5 – “Therefore, the wicked will not rise up to succeed when they are judged by heaven, nor will the sinners merit to be counted among the counsel of the righteous.”
The wicked will not rise up but the righteous will rise up. Where will the righteous rise? In the next world, the righteous will find happiness and glory but in this world there are problems. But the wicked will not rise up to achieve this world or the next. The wicked will want their deeds to achieve for them merit in this world and the next, but their deeds are worthless. Their deeds are the leavings of the grain that is blow away by the wind.
Chapter One passage 6 – “Because G‑d knows the way of the righteous. And the way of the wicked will be destroyed.” G‑d knows the way of the righteous. Does He not know also the way of the wicked? He knows the wicked person’s actions. And He knows the righteous person’s actions. But the passage only makes sense if we accept the word “knows” in a different sense than plain knowing. It means not just knowing, but appreciating.
Rashi explains “because G‑d knows the way of the righteous” because He knows the way of the righteous and it is before G‑d to think of it constantly. But the way of the wicked is hateful for G‑d to look at, and He removes it from before Him.” Rashi then states that the righteous will succeed when G‑d judges them but the wicked will fail.
Briefly and basically the first chapter of Tehilim compares the righteous to the wicked. The righteous in passage one is praised not for any good deed in of itself, but because they avoid the path of the wicked. Passage two tells of the toil of the righteous in Torah constantly. It is this that enables them to escape the influence of the wicked. Passage three tells of the great glory of the righteous that all that they do succeeds, and we explained that this refers not to this world but the Future World. It refers not to the physical happiness of the righteous but to the glory of being loved and known by G‑d as other passages in this chapter teach. Passage four compares the success of the righteous with the failing of the wicked whose deeds are refuse that has no place in heaven. Passage 5 describes the failure of the wicked to survive G‑d’s Judgment. Passage 6 tells how G‑d constantly notices the good deeds of the righteous, but the path of the wicked will be destroyed and ignored by heaven.
Chapter Two passage one -