Why Mah Tovu?

Beth El Congregation Rabbi Steven Schwartz (Photo provided)

On the first page of many siddurim you will find the Mah Tovu. It is a prayer traditionally recited upon entering the sanctuary, and begins with the following words: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” Placed at the beginning of the worship service, it is meant to express the sense of Jewish community embodied in the synagogue. The Mah Tovu reminds us that we should be grateful for the chance to gather with our fellow Jews in prayer, and we should also be grateful to have a sacred space in which to gather.

The words come from this week’s Torah portion, Balak. The narrative picks up as the Israelites continue their wandering in the wilderness. As they approach the land of Moab, the Moabite king, named Balak, is afraid because of how many people are in the Israelite camp. He decides to hire a gentile prophet, named Bilaam, to curse the Israelites, thinking by doing so he will protect his own people. What Balak doesn’t take into account is that Bilaam is an authentic prophet, and therefore can only say what God tells him to say. When he opens his mouth to curse Israel, Bilaam instead offers a blessing — “how fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5).

It has always been curious to me that the first words we are asked to recite when we come to shul for services in the morning are words spoken in the Torah by someone who is not a Jew. Are there no other words our sages could have chosen to open the prayer book? Perhaps an inspirational quote from Abraham, Moses or King David — one of our people’s great heroes? Instead, they chose the words of Bilaam, the gentile prophet who bears no love for the Jewish people.


Perhaps it has something to do with the difficulty we have in seeing the blessing of something when we are on the inside. When something is so familiar to us — our families, our friendships, our community, our synagogues — we tend to take it for granted. It is well known that we Jews like to kvetch — any cursory glance through the Book of Numbers will confirm that. And when we know something so well it is easy to see the little flaws, the imperfections and the annoyances, and all too often we let those things become our main focus.

So the Sages chose the words of someone who is not Jewish to be the first prayer we recite when we step into shul to remind us that from the outside looking in, our community is sacred, and we are truly blessed to call it our home.


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