the face of ashrei

Back, oh so long ago, at least how it feels as I look out over the perma-snow here in New England, in January, a friend, my Aussie 3 year-old granddaughter, and I went to a little museum in the center of Jerusalem that probably a lot of people don’t bother checking out. You can read about the Museum of Psalms here and here, but maybe the most beautiful part of the museum is the artist himself.

That first article linked here has a hint about the man, Moshe Tzvi HaLevi Berger, when it mentions:

With the patronage of Yehuda Meir Getz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, and a bracha (blessing) in 1988 from the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, Berger set out to create his series of kabbalistic masterpieces. The effort took him 15 years.

When we entered the museum, the artist gathers the small group present at the time and gives a 3-minute shpiel about his sense of his mission in painting all of the psalms. He does not mention that he was a holocaust survivor, nor that he lived in the US, nor that he is new to the Jewish Orthodox world (for someone who is nearing 90, it’s still new to him!), but what does he emphasize? That he trained to paint in Italy and in France, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe gave him the directive to paint all of the psalms, and that no one else has accomplished this monumental feat.

The art is thematic and structured, with colors related to the different kabbalistic manifestations, etc. I won’t pretend to understand them. My friend didn’t pretend; she knows what all the colors mean and she was dutifully impressed. My granddaughter, who knows what everything means, was equally impressed. “Savta, look at the ceiling! There are more paintings on the ceiling here and here and here!”

Of course, since we were with her, we did not perhaps spend as much time as we really could have looking at every single one in detail; it would not have been fun if we tried.

The artist had told us we were not allowed to photograph the paintings, but we could buy lithographs, postcards, and/or a collection in a book. I bought the book.

But he told us that we could photograph him. That to me was much more important.

Here he is signing the book that I bought.

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What a face, yes? Do you see the light of pride of accomplishment, of a life well-lived? With much more to teach the world?

Below is one photo of the entrance to the museum, and one that describes the neighborhood.

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I did title this “the face of ashrei”, so perhaps I should explain myself just a bit.

Now going ‘way back to December, I had started what I thought would be a series of photo-essays on the meaning of the prayer “Ashrei”, psalms 145 and 84. I even continued it for the next two lines. And then, well, I didn’t. But now I have a reason to go back to thinking deeply about happiness.

First of all, we are now in the Jewish month of Adar, when we are traditionally told that משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה (Mishenichnas Adar marbin b’simchah); When the month of Adar comes, we should increase our happiness.

The source of Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha is in the Gemara (Taanis 29) commenting on the words of the Mishnah that “Mishenichnas Av Mima’atin B’Simcha” When the Month of Av arrives we should reduce our joy. The Gemara comments that just as when Av arrives we reduce our joy, so too when Adar arrives we should increase our joy.

The reason given for increasing joy in Adar is because they were days of miracles for Klal Yisroel, specifically Purim and Pesach. (Rashi)

Now, happiness is a multi-dimensional word in Hebrew; we have many different words that could all be translated as happy, but create many opportunities for explanation of those terms. Ashrei is not Simchah.

I read about the difference of these terms in an essay by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Here is just a taste:

This is from Cambridge Journals Online Journal of Law and Religion / Volume 29 / Issue 01 / , pp 30-47



Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks


There are, however, two key terms in the Hebrew Bible that belong within the same conceptual territory as happiness. One, already mentioned, is ashrei, literally “the happinesses of.” The other is simchah, “joy.”

Ashrei means, roughly, happiness as blessedness. This is the state of one who has lived in accordance with the will of God, a person who is good and does good, who honors God and his or her fellow creatures, who has been blessed in life and who, living among the righteous, is held in high regard. This is the happiness of balance and virtue, of justice and compassion, of living well and faring well.

It happens to be that there are many great rabbis who have died in the month of Adar. There is (of course) a website that confirms that. Maybe because we add a second Adar to fill out the difference between the lunar and the solar calendars, so there are more days of Adar than any other month? Maybe because people are literally sick of the winter? Maybe because it has something to do with the coming of spring, the coming of redemption?

So maybe it is an existential happiness that we are looking for. After all, the holiday of Purim is as existential as you can get. Things looked really really bad for us Jews, and just because someone happened to be at the right place at the right time, and stepped up to the occasion, our impending tragedy turned into victory and celebration.

Even Albert Camus says at the end of The Myth of Sisyphus:

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I have blathered on long enough now. I will leave this cryptically as this is a hard month. Sometimes being instructed to increase your happiness is because you must.


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