Mah Tovu — how goodly are your tents, O Jacob!


The most celebrated pasuk of our parasha is “mah tovu:” “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Bamidbar 24:5) As early as the beginning of the 15th century, its recitation was common practice within the world of Ashkenazi Jewry: “When entering the synagogue in the morning, is there anyone who does not say ‘mah tovu’ and a few other verses?” (Responsa Maharil, 150:9, Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, 1365-1427)

Closer to our own time, Rabbi Yechiel Michal ben Aharon Yitzhak Halevi Epstein (1829-1908) provides further support for the inclusion of mah tovu in the morning service in his classic work, Aruch HaShulchan, Orech Chaim 46:17: “The text of tefilah to be recited prior to Baruch She’amar is printed in the prayer books. When one initially enters the synagogue he should say, mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov — “How goodly are your tents O Jacob.”

How and why did our verse achieve this singular placement? This question is particularly significant, since mah tovu contains the words of the sorcerer Bilam, whose goal was to lead the Jewish people away from Hashem, in order to destroy them. Therefore, it seems counterintuitive that Bilam’s statement, regardless of its inspiring content, would become one of the oft-quoted pasukim (verses) of the Jewish people. Indeed, the Maharshal voiced just such an objection to its recitation: “When I come to synagogue I begin with the verse ‘But as for me, in the abundance of Thy lovingkindness’ (Tehillim 5:8) and skip the first verse, mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, because Bilam first uttered it, and he said it as a curse.” (Responsa Maharshal 64)

Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 105b, identifies the phrase, “mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov,” with synagogues and houses of Torah study; in so doing, it helps us understand why our pasuk has captured the hearts and minds of our people over the substantive objection of the Maharshal:

“Rabbi Johanan said: From the blessings of that wicked man [Bilam] you may learn his intentions; he wished to curse them so that they [the Jewish people] should possess no synagogues or houses of study, [this is deduced from] ‘How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob.’ Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: ‘All of them [the blessings] reverted to a curse, except the synagogues and houses of study, for it is written, “But the L-rd, your G-d, did not want to listen to Bilam, so the L-rd, your G-d, transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because the L-rd, your G-d, loves you” (Devarim 23:6) — the curse, but not the curses [only “mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov” was completely fulfilled as a blessing]’.”

The explanation of Rabbi Abba bar Kahana sheds light on exactly why mah tovu begins our daily morning synagogue experience: It is the one statement of Bilam that began as a curse, but ultimately became a total blessing, and infuses our synagogues and batei midrash with kedushah (holiness) until our own historical moment. Little wonder, then, that the Maharil declared, “When entering the synagogue in the morning, is there anyone who does not say ‘mah tovu’ and a few other verses?”

Rashi, basing himself upon Talmud Bavli, Baba Batra 60a, offers a very different approach to mah tovu: “For he (Bilam) saw that the entrances [of the Jewish people’s tents] were not facing each other.” On the peshat (direct) level, it appears that even Bilam, the advocate of all manner and variety of salacious behaviors, recognized the kedushah that reigned supreme amongst the Jewish people. Their desire to protect their privacy and family modesty was so intense that they even concealed their tent entrances from one another. 

The great Chasidic rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein, in his work of Torah analysis, Maor Va’Shemesh, analyzes this Talmudic statement in a highly creative and original fashion. He suggests that the phrase, “the entrances [of the Jewish people’s tents] were not facing each other,” hides more than its direct meaning reveals:

“We have an overarching rule [regarding the pursuit of authentic Torah-based religiosity]: Each tzaddik (righteous individual) must grasp [and develop] their own manner and approach toward kedushah and create their own unique opening [to the spiritual wellsprings of holiness] for himself (u’patach lo petach l’atzmo), rather than engage in a [mere] ‘command of the people that has been taught’ [that is, someone else’s approach] (See Sefer Yeshayahu 29:13, this and the following translations and additions my own).

Rav Epstein further elaborates upon this metaphorical redefinition of the phrase, “the entrances [of the Jewish people’s tents] were not facing each other:” “This means that even though one may have seen their rebbe do something, or their friends perform certain actions and behaviors, and he at first glance thinks this is the manner in which he must proceed — this is certainly not the correct approach. Instead, each person must “open their own opening” [and find their own] gates of kedushah for themselves. 

At this juncture, Rav Epstein explains that this approach to spirituality will, with the Almighty’s help, enable each person to have the holy Schechinah (Divine Presence) rest upon them: “This, then, is the meaning to the phrase, ‘And he (Bilam) saw that the entrances [of the Jewish people’s tents] were not facing each other:’ In other words, no one ‘looked’ to walk upon the path of kedushah that their friends had created for themselves. Instead, each person walked solely upon the path they had forged for themselves, and in this way, the spirit of Hashem would rest upon them — that is, the Schechinah rested upon them.”

Each of us has the capacity to strengthen our relationship with Hashem, so that we, too, may feel His glorious presence in our lives. He is always waiting for us to do so, for as the Torah teaches us, no matter how far from Him we may be, He has promised us: “And from there you will seek the L-rd your G-d, and you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Sefer Devarim 4:29) Beyond a doubt, the spiritual journey is the greatest and most important one of our lives.

May each of us reach out to Hashem in our own unique manner so that we, too, can declare Mah Tovu! V’chane yihi ratzon.