Mah Tovu: How Good It Is

          When entering a synagogue, or a wedding, the leader sings words from a non-Jewish prophet מה טובו אהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places Israel.”[1] These words come from Balaam, sent to curse Israel, who winds up instead blessing them.

          Why does Israel get blessed? Rashi quotes the Talmud, asserting that Israel’s tents were not facing each other, allowing for privacy.[2] Ovadiah Sforno comments that it refers to synagogues and study houses of the Jewish people, which not only benefit them but the entire world. He continues that the very name יעקב also contains such a dual meaning. On the one hand it appears to have a negative connotation, but it also symbolizes עקב a heel, something at the tail end of matters, meaning after everything else has already disappeared the עקב still remains, endures.[3]

          Most rabbis wrote at a time of Jewish persecution when Jews were at the mercy of foreign powers. At those times it could be easy to have a negative outlook and say that the tents of Jacob were no longer so strong. However, as Sforno points out, the Jewish way of life will continue to endure, outlasting any nation who tries to destroy us. That is truly the power of Jacob.

          In times when we feel vulnerable and that it isn’t so good to be Jewish, we need to remember Balaam’s blessing. It enables us to begin every service and celebration with a positive outlook: how good it is to be alive and to be present here, at this very moment! I hope that Balaam’s words do not become ones said by rote but rather that we take the time each moment we are in to appreciate where we are-that we are able to gather in synagogue and to marry freely, without threat of persecution. Thank you God for establishing secure dwelling places for Israel and for enabling us to endure in spite of those who have stood in our way.


[1] Numbers 28:5

[2] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 60a;

[3] Sforno on Numbers 28:5

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