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Drash Mah Tovu

Mah Tovu

Drash, July 1998 by Mark Berch

Right at the very start of the morning prayers, to be said even as one enters the sanctuary, is the Mah Tovu prayer. The prayer consists of five biblical verses, four of them from Psalms. I want to focus today just on the first verse, from Numbers 24, verse 5. It reads, {hebrew} “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” Siddur Sim Shalom, which sometimes tends more toward the expressive than the literal, renders it, “How lovely are your sanctuaries, people of Jacob, your prayer houses, descendants of Israel.” It has an extraordinary source. It was recited not by a Jew, but by Bilaam. He had been sent on another mission by King Balak to see if he could get away with cursing Israel. Instead, he uttered this praise of the Israelite encampment. This story will be chanted in today’s Torah reading.

Indeed, there were those, such as Rabbi Solomon Luria who objected to using this verse, because it was uttered by Bilaam. The Talmud rationalizes its use by saying that the “tents” refers to synagogues; that the “dwellings” refers to religious schools. The Talmud also records an opposite suggestion, that the entire Balak section be recited --- Numbers chapter 22 through 24. But it was felt that this would be too great a burden.

The prayer seems to be giving a “feel-good” start for the morning davenning. It might even have a slightly smug touch about it, depending on your mood, and perhaps the general condition of the sanctuary.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro suggests that this prayer be approached from the perspective of Musar, which translates very approximately as ethics, or ethical examination. Instead of a declarative statement (which was presumably its original context), he suggests that that it be recast as a question: “How lovely are your Tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel?” Introspection is a legitimate Shabbat activity, and the very beginning of the service, when things are still quiet, is an appropriate time for that.

He suggests that you consider the physical aspects first: How clean and orderly is your home? Are things where they belong, or do you accept too much chaos in your home? Does your treatment of the inanimate objects reflect poorly on your view of life in general?

Next, is emotional: order or chaos? As Rabbi Shapiro asks, “When you walk in the door of your home do you feel lighter or heavier? Do you relax and feel your heart open, or does your stomach knot...”

Next, intellectual: Is your home intellectually what it ought to be? Is it a place where you learn or where you hide from learning? Does it stimulate you, or is it a place where you numb yourself, “with drugs, both chemical and electronic.”

Finally, he asks us to take a broad view of what “dwelling places” ( the Hebrew is “mishkenotekha”) means now. We live in our homes, but also in our community and ultimately on planet Earth. Are we doing what we can to keep each of these “lovely”?

This is perhaps a lot to place on a single sentence of a prayer, but if we look at prayer the same way every time we recite it, we give up some of prayer’s ability to stimulate us, and to change us. Shabbat Shalom.

Given by Mark Berch at Tifereth Israel, July 1998.

[If you are interested in a broader look at the ideas and tools of the Musar approach, you might want to read Shapiro’s essay, “Doing Justly: Fostering Ethical Living through Musar” in the book Worlds of Jewish Prayer (Shohama Weimer and Jonathan Omer-man, ed.), which is in the Isaac Franck Library in Rockville, MD.]