Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers . . . — Psalm 1:1
In the opening verse of the book of Psalms, David wrote: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers . . .”
Now, the book of Psalms is not only a monumental spiritual work that is worthy of being included in what Jews call the Tanach and Christians call the Old Testament; it’s also highly regarded as a great poetic work penned by brilliant writers. So we have to ask ourselves why the very first line is written so awkwardly. Wouldn’t it have been much more straightforward to have written: “Don’t walk in step with the wicked or stand in the ways that sinners take . . . or you will be cursed”? Why express it in such a round-about way: “Blessed is the one who does not do any of the following things . . .”
The Jewish sages noticed this and provided this answer: When giving advice, pleasant words are far more effective than harsh ones. Or as King Solomon wrote in Proverbs: “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18). The sages have always regarded the tongue as the most powerful part of the human body. That’s why God made two gates for it – our teeth and our lips. We need to think twice before we let our tongue slip, and we dare not be reckless with it. What we say and how we say it has the power to pierce like a sword or bring healing.
This is why the opening words of the Psalms, which serve to guide and uplift us, begins in a positive form. Instead of saying “don’t do x, y, and z, because you will be punished,” David took a much softer approach and instructed us how to behave if we want to be blessed. For everything that we say, there is a wrong way and a right way to say it. The nuances may seem small, but the difference in the outcome is huge.
The way that David begins Psalms, with sensitivity and a focus on the positive, is the way that we should begin every conversation. It must be the way that parents speak to their children, how teachers address their students, and how all of us should interact with those whom we meet throughout the day. We all know that the world needs fixing and that many people have much to learn. Yet, we can never fall into the trap of vilifying and criticizing. Soft kind words are far better heard than biting criticism shouted out loud.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President