Mah Tovu: A Reminder of the Jewish Mission

The prophet Isaiah's vision of Israel as a light unto the nations is reflected in this essential Jewish prayer.

Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael
How lovely are your tents [people of] Jacob; your sanctuaries [people of] Israel.

Many of us are familiar with these words. Traditionally, they are recited by Ashkenazi Jews upon first entering the synagogue sanctuary, before formal prayers begin. The text is also often inscribed in various places in the synagogue, reminding us of the importance of our communal worship space.

The words come from the Torah. A logical assumption might be that sanctuaries refers to the mishkan, the portable tabernacle used by the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness. (Mishkan literally means “sanctuary.”) After all, the building of the tabernacle was an immense project. The painstaking details of every material and measurement comprise column after column of valuable real estate in the Torah. One can imagine Moses making a final inspection, completed punch list in hand, taking one last, satisfied look at the scope of what lay in front of him and proclaiming the words of Mah Tovu. Great work —everything looks fantastic.

But that’s not how it happened at all.

Instead, we find this text elsewhere in the Torah almost like an afterthought, tucked away in the Book of Numbers, as part of what is probably the Torah’s most comedic narrative: the story of Balaam and the talking donkey. How could such profound words be uttered by a minor and non-Jewish character?

According to the story, Balaam was a non-Hebrew prophet-for-hire who was enlisted by Balak, the king of the Moabites, to curse the Israelite people. After prolonged negotiations over the terms, an ill-fated donkey ride, and no fewer than three attempts to fulfill the task, Balaam instead blesses the Israelites. From higher ground, he gazes down at the encamped Israelites spread below him far into the distance and wondrously announces, “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov!”

I think the Torah is making a clear statement with this story. One of the most fundamental missions of the Jewish people is to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. But many times, our inclination is to look inwards and only consider what we do and how we behave. The choices we make, say, in choosing which prayer book to use or or how we observe particular Jewish rituals help us to identify more clearly within our religion and with which particular movement to affiliate.

Mah Tovu reminds us that it may be even more vital to look outwards and to serve as an example to those around us. Like Balak and Balaam, the outside world notices us and learns from our actions.

When we first enter the sanctuary, ready to recite words of praise and blessing to God, we strive to first acknowledge our own role as a people and the essential part we play in God’s vision for the world. The words of Mah Tovu anchor us to our place within all of humanity.

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