How goodly are your tents, O Ya’akov, your dwelling places, O Yisra’el. As for me, through Your abundant kindness I will enter Your House; I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You. O Hashem, I love the House where You dwell, and the place where Your glory resides. I shall prostrate myself and bow, I shall kneel before Hashem my Maker. As for me, may my prayer to You, Hashem, be at an opportune time; O Hashem, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.
This prayer, traditionally sung as we enter synagogue for services, is a combination of five separate verses; one from B’Midbar (Numbers) and the rest from four different Tehillim (Psalms). This simple device is a clarion call to us, urging us to pause and to look carefully at this prayer and to study the source context of the individual verses to better understand the prayer’s overall intent.
The first verse quotes Bil’am, a gentile prophet. Hired by Balak, king of Mo’av, to curse Yisra’el, Bil’am instead blesses Yisra’el. This was not due to any special affinity he had toward Yisra’el; rather, Bil’am was given a vision of Yisra’el from Hashem – the praise and blessings then poured forth.
This is a beautiful and compassionate prelude for worshippers entering Schul. Jewish worshipers rejoice in Hashem’s sovereignty over all creation as they recount Bil’am’s words praising The Nation. Any hesitancy gentiles may feel by entering an unfamiliar setting is calmed as they join with the gentile prophet Bil’am in praising and blessing Yisra’el.
The next four verses are from Tehillim 5, 26, 95, and 69. All four of these Tehillim are fraught with wicked and violent images. The particular verses cited in Mah Tovu are warm rays of sunshine from the midst of darkness, shining in stark contrast to the dangers and worldly concerns which otherwise abound in these Tehillim.
The beginning of the final verse, “As for me, may my prayer to You . . . ” can also be translated, “I am my prayer to You.” This is a humbling reminder that, while we may at times attempt to detach our secular lives from our prayers, Hashem draws no such distinction. The totality of our lives, our choices, our actions, is our prayer to Hashem.
These are the words and images which prepare us as we enter synagogue for services. We are entering a special place; we are entering a special time. Mah Tovu re-aligns our minds, our thoughts, and our hearts so we can worship Hashem without distraction or hesitation.
Mah Tovu is our gentle stroll as we enter synagogue, bringing to mind the worshipers who centuries ago climbed the Southern steps of the Har HaBayit in Yerushalayim. The steps, intentionally varied in height and depth, forced worshipers to pause and reflect on the holiness of the place they were about to enter. Some scholars connect the fifteen interspersed long steps to the fifteen Tehillim of Ascent (120 – 134). Worshipers would sing the Tehillim, one by one, as they paused on each of the long steps.
Mah Tovu, in essence, offers us a time of preparation. Our challenge, and our joy, is to embrace the period of quiet reflection as we and those around us get ready to worship with The Nation.
May He answer us with the truth of His Salvation.