June 28, 2023
Mah tovu. How good, how fine and fair. In this week’s double Torah portion, Chukkat-Balak, we are introduced to Balaam, the Seer who is instructed to curse the Jewish people. However, try as he might to pronounce curses, each time he opens his mouth, blessings emerge instead. From higher ground, Balaam looks out into the distance at the Israelite encampment, and instead of cursing, the following blessing emerges:
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel! - Numbers 24:5.
In the ninth century, these words from Torah made their way into the siddur formulated by Amram Gaon, one of the earliest surviving prayer books.
Traditionally the Mah Tovu prayer is recited upon entering the sanctuary, before the formal prayer service begins. The words help us set an intention for communal prayer by essentially declaring we are in sacred space, the fair and holy tents of the people Israel.
We learn from these words that the act of creating intentional time and space for prayer, mindfulness, holiness, is important. In fact, the word holy (Kadosh) in Hebrew is about setting apart that which is holy from that which is “regular or ordinary.”
We all need sacred time and space in our lives. Communal prayer in synagogue is one way to make that happen. But that is not the only way. For some, it is being out in nature. For others, it is making or listening to music. For others, meditation and solitude. The important thing is to find your sense of what brings that kind of Mah Tovu moment.
What we learn from the Mah Tovu prayer is that not only is sacred space important, but declaring it so as we enter into it is also important. This helps create the intention and allows us to walk through a portal into a wholly different kind of experience.
May we create more time and space for that which is sacred to us. And may we declare it is so as we move from the realm of the ordinary, to the realm of the holy. Mah tovu. How good, how fine and fair is this dwelling space. Amen.