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Ashrei: A Closer’s Prayer

Ashrei: A Closer’s Prayer

I'm keeping up pretty well with my obligation during the mourning period for my mother to pray with a minyan three times a day. But not so much with the tradition of leading the prayer service.

Maybe tradition is too liberal a word, since those in mourning are called "chiyuvim," or obligated ones, and are given priority to serve as chazan, except during Shabbat and holidays, when the service is more rejoicing.

No one wants to hear me daven. In addition to having a lousy voice, I read far too slowly, and if called upon to the do the entire Shacharit, I would probably keep the minyan going until mincha. I also have a fair amount of anxiety about making mistakes. Orthodox Jews are far from shy about loudly correcting errors, whether you are repeating the amidah or reading the Torah. So I'm sticking to the advice I got from a Very Religious Person (though not a rabbi) who also went through avelut (mourning) and doesn't like leading the davening, that it's OK to just say no.

I've found many ways to avoid having to, one of which is davening in a large setting where there are many other chiyuvim. Occasionally I give in and muddle through a maariv or mincha. But while I would never tackle the long Shachrit, fortunately there is a compromise.

The morning service is structured a lot like a baseball game, with a starter, middle relief and closer. The starter does brachot through Yishtabach, while the middle relief steps up the mound, er, bima for borechu, Shema, amida and removing and returning the Torah on Monday, Thursday and Shabbat. After tachanun (when applicable) the closer wraps up, beginning with Ashrei.

The beauty of being a closer chazan (aside from no pressure to preserve the win or prevent a loss) is that it takes less than ten minutes to get from Ashrei to the closing kaddish, and I can usually get through that without making a mistake or people getting impatient.

It’s fitting to step up for Ashrei, since I have long considered it one of my favorite prayers (second only to Kabbalat Shabbat), containing six beautifully written psalms. Whenever I think of Ashrei I always think of Peri Smilow’s amazing rendition on her 1998 album by that name, which my wife brought home from a CAJE conference that year.

The ArtScroll siddur translates Ashrei as “praiseworthy,” but I believe the more common translation is fortunate or happy, which makes it a true prayer of thanksgiving to God: “Fortunate are those who dwell in your house, they will sing your praises forever.”

I may not be happy to recite Ahsrei in front of a large minyan, particularly because of the circumstances that require it, but I definitely feel fortunate that the prayer service is structured to give people like me as much opportunity to lead, or in my case as little, as possible.

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