Many years ago, I attended summer camp for the first time. We met at a park in Brentwood, and every Monday morning, we sang Mah Tovu to begin the week. How good it was for all of us kids to be back in camp, and no doubt our parents were singing the same tune, thinking how good it was for all the kids to be back in camp.
Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkenotecha Yisrael – these words were originally spoken by Bilaam, who was hired by the King of Moab to curse Israel. But God intervenes and tells Bilaam that he must say only what God commands. On three occasions, Balak asks Bilaam to curse the Israelites, but each time he blesses them instead. The third poem of praise includes the Mah Tovu – how fair are your tents O Jacob, Your dwellings O Israel.
Commentators have wondered what Bilaam saw as he gazed upon the Israelites' tents. Rashi’s interpretation is that Bilaam noticed that their tents were not directly facing each other, indicating a degree of privacy for each home. Nechama Leibowitz explains that the term "tovu" means "perfection in all respects — beauty and charm, simplicity and purity." The Talmud understands "tents" to mean schools and synagogues.
It is this view that turned Bilaam's words into the opening prayer of every morning service. "Ma tovu" is an entrance prayer to the synagogue. In the distant past, entrance to a temple was an awesome event. Bilaam's words capture the magnitude of blessing that one might have felt as they entered a holy place.
"Ma tovu" is also a prelude to prayer. Rabbi Reuven Kimelman says that "prayer without preparation is like exercise without limbering up. Not only the body, but also the mind and emotions have to be attuned to prayer."
"Ma Tovu," the opening prayer of the morning liturgy, serves as a transition from chol to kodesh, from the outside world to the holy. Bilaam's blessing, woven into the morning prayers, helps us overcome outside distractions that may be impediments to entering into and staying in a spiritual place, if only for a short while.
This morning prayer reminds us that we should feel good about entering the synagogue. Bilaam's blessing reminds us that we need to strive today to make our tents — our synagogues and all Jewish institutions — like the tents of the Israelites in the wilderness.
Our tents not only need to provide shelter, comfort and protection, they also are places to gather, pray, study and connect with others and with God. In comparing a good synagogue to a good tent, Rabbi Ron Wolfson writes, "The spirituality of welcoming begins with radical hospitality that brings people closer to each other, to community, to Judaism, and to God."
Tradition teaches that when Jerusalem was destroyed, the schehinah was exiled from the Mikdash, and took up residence in the Jewish home, thereby making each dwelling a mikdash me’at, a little sanctuary; a place where each Jew could celebrate and observe Jewish tradition and be in God’s presence. In a mikdash me’at, one’s possessions are not as important as one’s behavior. So, in addition to ritual objects and religious texts, what are the components that might comprise a mikdash me’at? A 2004 article in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix provides an outline:
First, to qualify as a mikdash me’at, a home must be a place of safety, comfort and refuge, where the hungry find food and the stranger is welcome, and many voices are allowed to sing in harmony or disagreement.
Second, when erecting a mikdash me’at, it should be placed on a solid foundation of compassion, generosity, humility and positive values.
Third, to make a home a mikdash me’at, take nothing for granted. Begin each day with thanks for the new day and the opportunities it brings, and conclude each day with thanks that it is past and for the lessons you have learned.
Fourth, a mikdash me’at should be built on respect, not only for its residents, but for those who work there as well.
Fifth, hospitality should be as important as divine worship – share food and words of wisdom and support, not gossip or hurtful language.
Sixth, the home must be a place where family members are appreciated, considered special, and encouraged to grow and learn in different ways.
And finally, to be approved as a certified mikdash me’at, a home must be insulated against rough weather, with a protective layer of peace – shalom bayit – if not every day, then on Shabbat, when we must shut out the stresses and cares of the world.
The final verses in this week’s hatarah begin with:
Higid l’cha adam mah tov
God has told you, O Man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with God.”
Mah tovu ohalecha – our tents are made good by our voices, our presence, and our actions.