Some read “highways in the heart” straightforwardly: knowing by heart an actual path to the Temple in Jerusalem and, by extension, paths to other instantiations of God’s house. Thus, we might read: “Happy are they who know the road to Temple Micah [or your local house of worship] and which buses stop nearby.” Or, more broadly: “Happy are those who know what it takes to Jewishly mobilize zir own household.” (Note on translation and more of Psalm 84 below.)
Others see a more metaphorical way to God or “path of the upright.” Jeremiah (31:20) uses the similar “set your heart toward the highway” to mean “get yourselves back to God,” however understood.
The word “m’sillah” [here: “highway” or “road”] is linked to “sullam,” which appears only that once in the Tanakh, when the angels in Jacob’s dream are climbing whatever it is between earth and heaven (Gen 28).
The weird plural – “in their heart” — simply reflects translation messiness, but it also hints that a community has a collective heart-road to navigate. When the Temple stood, the highway not a “personal trip.” Each person brought zir own offering, but the worship process was collective. Moreover, offerings were part of a resource-distribution system with care for the poor and vulnerable as a key element.
“Their heart IS an easy road,” also reinforces the idea that this road-heart is for travel. We are not, as Korach wants, holy (a condition) but on a journey, with God’s help, toward becoming holy. קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ
The earlier clause, “whose strength comes from you” calls us to humility, remembering that we act in the world with God’s help, and to urgency – God’s strength is surely needed and we better get to it.
Highway travelers cross through “Weeping” and “transform it into a wellspring of life.” Commentary varies: Cisterns shlepped in for travelers? Those with a joyful destination seeing beauty in desolation? Footsteps upon footsteps carving a stream-bed, gradually watering an arid spot?
If we transform nothing, why pray? If we fail to touch that Valley of Weeping, what are we? If not now, when?
Are we – as individuals, as a [prayer] gathering, as a nation – heading somewhere particular?
We join together in prayer because together, we are stronger and more apt to commit to the values of our heritage….
In worship, all should be reminded of the social imperatives of community.
Prayer must move us beyond ourselves. Prayer should not reflect ‘me’; prayer should reflect our values and ideals.
— Mishkan T’filah introduction
FOR THE CONDUCTOR OF THE ETERNAL SYMPHONY [לַמְנַצֵּחַ], ON THE WINE FESTIVAL LYRE [עַל-הַגִּתִּית], BY THE OFFSPRING OF KORACH [לִבְנֵי-קֹרַח], A PSALM
ב מַה-יְּדִידוֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶיךָ– יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת.
2 How beloved are the places we perceive you Arranger of the Heavenly Spheres [How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O LORD of hosts!]
ג נִכְסְפָה וְגַם-כָּלְתָה, נַפְשִׁי– לְחַצְרוֹת יְהוָה:
לִבִּי וּבְשָׂרִי– יְרַנְּנוּ, אֶל אֵל-חָי.
3 My soul pales with languish, longing for your courtyards –
my heart and my flesh cry out [sing for joy] to the Source of life….
ו אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם, עוֹז-לוֹ בָךְ; מְסִלּוֹת, בִּלְבָבָם.
6 Content are the ones whose strength comes from you;
their heart is an easy road…. […in whose heart are the highways.]
ז עֹבְרֵי, בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא– מַעְיָן יְשִׁיתוּהוּ;
גַּם-בְּרָכוֹת, יַעְטֶה מוֹרֶה.
7 Those who cross through the Valley of Weeping [Baca] transform it into a wellspring of life. Your rain covers them with blessings.
ח יֵלְכוּ, מֵחַיִל אֶל-חָיִל; יֵרָאֶה אֶל-אֱלֹהִים בְּצִיּוֹן.
8 They walk from strength to strength, witnessed by God in Zion….
Translations (c) Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Psalms (NY: Bloomsbury, 2010). [“Old JPS, ” 1917 Jewish Publication Society (public domain) in brackets]
Note: Additional [bracketed] translations included where Greenberg’s differs substantially from more familiar renderings.
Greenberg translates, especially in ascriptions, expressions – like Ha-Gittit above – which others leave or treat as proper nouns.
She uses direct address for God to avoid divine gender and to create a more “pray-able” text. Old JPS and Hebrew script from Mechon-Mamre.org. Full public domain text of Psalm 84 here.