This beautiful psalm contains many inspiring verses that express 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 the verse most well-known begins with the word "Ashrei" (fortunate):
"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?
Preparations for Prayer
The Sages knew that sincere prayer requires mental preparation. "One should not stand up to pray until he has acquired a reverent state of mind" [Brachot 30b]. We cannot make the sudden switch from our everyday activities to heart-felt prayer without a genuine effort to clear our thoughts and focus the mind.
The Talmud in fact describes two levels of preparation before prayer. The minimal level, expected from all people, is to attain a general attitude of seriousness and awe. 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 the eternal.
However, the "chasidim rishonim," the especially pious of earlier times, would perform a more intensive preparation. These righteous individuals would meditate for a full hour before each prayer. They would not begin their prayers until they knew that "their hearts were fully concentrated on their Father in heaven."
Why did these chasidim require so much time to prepare for prayer?
Directing the Heart
The minimal level, that of focusing the mind on holy matters, does not necessitate such a lengthy preparation. In a relatively short time, one can elevate the mind with positive and holy images. But the pious of old also worked on directing their hearts - "until their hearts were fully concentrated." Controlling one's feelings and desires is a much more complicated matter.
Personality traits and emotions, wants and desires, are connected to our physical side. It takes time and effort to analyze our feelings and natural inclinations, and guide them towards holiness.
The early 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 infinite.
The verse concludes with the assurance that those who dwell in Your house "will continue to praise You, selah."
The Sages taught [Eiruvin 54a] that the word selah indicates something of a continuous or eternal nature. Those who dwell in God's house, as they strive 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 state of holiness and God-awareness.
Now it is clear why this verse was placed at the beginning of Ashrei and recited at the start of the prayer service. We are reminded to prepare our state of mind before praying, and take inspiration from those special chasidim who would first 'dwell' in God's house, as they focused their minds and directed their hearts.
[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. I, pp. 127,154]