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t is a sacred Jewish tradition: in times of joy, recite King David’s Tehillim; in times of sadness, recite Tehillim. Elation, depression, whatever the situation, there will be something within the 150 chapters of Psalms that speaks to your soul. Which explains why this is the most universally beloved book of all Tanach.

Let us, then, explore together one of the most famous lines in all of the Bible: the very first verse of the Book of Psalms.

Ashrei ha’ish asher lo halach ba’atzas reshaim / Uv’derech chataim lo amad / Uv’moshav leitzim lo yashav. Normative translation: Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked /And in the path of sinners he has not stood/ And in the seat of the scorners he has not sat.

Viewed from a fresh perspective, as if seeing it for the first time, some questions leap forward. For example, what is the meaning of that very first word, ashrei? It is usually rendered as “happy,” but that is a catch-all, almost meaningless word, as in “Happy New Year,” or “Happy Birthday.” Better would be “blessed,” or “contented,” or “praiseworthy.” Ashrei is untranslatable into English, and is an amalgam of all of the above.

A further question: Note the placement of the verb in each phrase. The verb in the first phrase — halach/walked — precedes the object (“not walked in the counsel of the wicked”) while in the other two phrases, the verbs — stood/amad, and sat/yashav — are only found at the end.

A suggested answer: Perhaps the first phrase simply introduces this man who rejects the counsel of the wicked as a general principle. Thus, the verb is in its expected place. However, the wicked insist on tempting him. Thereafter, in order to emphasize his repeated rejection of their siren call, the verb is placed at the end. Doing so underscores his resistance to their blandishments: Walk with them? No! Sit with them? Again, no!

By the way, why is the word ish used for “man”? Why not adam? Possibly because adam refers to the general species homo sapiens, while ish refers to a specific individual with character and distinct personality. As the Sages say in Pirkei Avos 2:6 “hishtadel liheyos ish — strive to be an ish.”

More questions: Why is the verse in past tense, not in present tense? Perhaps because the ashrei-ness/blessedness that will result from his actions will not come immediately. It is cumulative, the result of repeated refusals to follow the mob. Repeated rejections of the evil will result in his own blessedness; it does not accrue to him after just one time. Therefore it is in the past tense, not the present.

Also: consider the verbs in phrase one and two. If derech is “path” or “way,” would not halach/walked, fit better in phrase two? And would not amad/stood be more appropriate in phrase one, counsel of the wicked? One does not stand in a path; one does walk in a path. But we need to reconsider the meaning of derech chataim, the way of the sinners. Perhaps derech means a way of life rather than a literal “path.” Thus phrase two means: He does not join the way of the sinners, does not become part of their company. Similarly, the “walk” in phrase one need not be taken literally, but instead means “follow”: does not follow the counsel of the wicked.

So we now have a somewhat different translation: Blessed in the man who does not follow the counsel of the wicked, and the way of the sinners he does not join….

What is the difference between reshaim/wicked, chataim/sinners, and leitzim/scorners? Try this: Reshaim deliberately set out to violate Gd’s commands; chataim simply follow their instinct to do what they wish, but theirs is not an ideological rebellion; leitzanim have nothing to do; they idle away their days in gambling, surfing, drinking, or gossip. They are perhaps harmless, but essentially useless. Our ish has better things to do than to sit around with them.

Note the logical sequence: first they have this evil idea, then they turn it into a way of life, and then they sit down to enjoy their freedom to do as they please.

Final question: Why does the Psalm begin with a negative? This is what the blessed man does not do? I will leave this for you to ponder. Hint: See Psalm 34:15.

Fifteen little words: they contain an entire universe. Lesson: The Bible is not an ordinary book or newspaper. Read it analytically. And handle with care.

Happy Bible reading. May it be blessed, contented, and praiseworthy.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 718)