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Parshat Balak: Mah Tovu

July 16, 2015

One of the first prayers we teach our children is Mah Tovu. Though it is not part of the formal prayer services, it appears in the siddur and many have the practice of reciting this prayer whenever they enter a synagogue or Beit Midrash.  The prayer opens with a pasuk from this week’s parsha.  The parsha details the efforts of a non-Jewish prophet named Balaam who was hired by the Moabite king Balak to curse the Jewish people.  Hashem did not allow Balaam to curse the Jews.  On several occasions, when Balaam opened his mouth attempting to curse the Jews, words of praise came out instead.  The most famous praise uttered by Balaam is the line of Mah Tovu: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” (Bamidbar 24:5).  This pasuk which has become part of our daily rituals teaches several powerful lessons.

Rashi explains that Balaam praised the Israelite camp and their homes because the opening of one did not face the other.  He was overcome by the modesty which the Jews maintained while travelling in the desert.  A number of Rabbinic sources in the Talmud and Midrashic literature, however, explain that the tents and dwelling places refer to synagogues and houses of study.  The Sforno explains that these communal institutions are described as goodly because they provide benefit not only for those who frequent them, but for the entire nation.  As has been recently evidenced in the debate in the US around the Confederate flag, the symbols and institutions that a society supports and celebrates tells a lot about that society.  The centrality of synagogues and batei midrash in the Jewish community serve as powerful reminders of our communal priorities and values — even for those who do not attend on a regular basis.

A second powerful lesson of Mah Tovu comes from its original source.  At first glance, it is odd that we include the words of Balaam – someone who was a known enemy of the Jewish people – in our prayers.  Yet this troubling feature can be a source of comfort and inspiration.  Though none of us is as corrupt as Balaam, we may feel that we are inadequate and unable to stand before God and offer prayers.  The fact that Bilaam’s words were accepted despite his malicious intentions offers us hope and encouragement that our words of prayer will be accepted even if we do not always maintain focus and intention on the words that we say.  Though we fall short of the standards demanded by halacha, surely we will not steep down to the level of Balaam.  And if his words have been accepted as legitimate prayers, then our prayers, too will be accepted.

Mah Tovu thus serves two important functions.  On the one hand it orients us to our communal institutions which should shape our values and priorities.  At the same time, by using the words of Balaam, Mah Tovu validates our prayers despite feelings of inadequacy that each of us experiences at one point or another.

This piece was originally written for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s weekly newsletter.

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From → Parsha, Tefilah

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