The Rabbis of old are collectively referred to by subsequent generations as chachameinu zichronam livrachah (c hazal), "our teachers of blessed memory." When I take the time to fully appreciate their creativity and imagination, I too am always inspired by their memory and experience their blessing. In this teaching, I want to draw your attention to their literary and ritual creativity, and its expression in one of the poetic gems they bequeathed to us.
This week's Torah portion, Parashat Balak, includes famous words of blessing whose origins are a curse. Balak, the neighboring Moabite king, feels threatened by the power of the neighboring Israelite tribes and summons a leading, local rent-a-prophet named Balaam to go forth and curse the Israelites. After much resistance-including the Torah's only instance of a talking ass-Balaam finally reaches a hill overlooking the Israelite camp where instead of cursing he declares words of blessing, most notably: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov,mishk'notecha Yisrael, "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel" (Numbers 24:5). This verse, the climax of the Torah's lengthy and burlesque narrative of how the commissioned curses are spoken instead as blessings, is taken up by the later Rabbis and, as often happens to biblical verses, is "repurposed" in a new, liturgical setting; it becomes the opening line of the daily, synagogue liturgy.
In Hebrew, the first two words of the verse, mah tovu, "how fair," became the name for the beautiful prayer that begins morning worship. In the Rabbinic rereading of this verse, the "tents" of the Israelites become the synagogues and study halls of the people of Israel (see Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b). Like so many later liturgical compositions, the Mah Tovu prayer is a tapestry of biblical verses and fragments. (Sometimes I think that the Rabbis put the Hebrew Bible-especially their favorite part, the Book of Psalms-into a food processor to chop it up into little word and verse fragments that they then drew upon to construct their new liturgical arrangements.)
We don't know when Mah Tovu was first composed or assembled. What appears to us today as a unified and complete text-it's hard for us to imagine it was ever otherwise-probably evolved gradually over time. Seder Rav Amram Gaon, the earliest compilation of the prayer book (Babylonia, ninth century), instructs: "When entering a synagogue say: 'Mah tovuohalecha. . . V'ani, b'rov chas'd'cha; I, through your abundant love, enter your house; I bow down reverently at Your holy temple.' " Clearly, the association of the verse from Parashat Balak with the moment of entering the synagogue was long established. The second verse, familiar to us from our modern prayer books, is taken in its entirety from the Book of Psalms 5:8. The kernel of the Mah Tovu prayer as we know it is quite visible.
Almost two centuries later, Machzor Vitry, the authoritative early French prayer book, edited by a student of Rashi, adds another beautiful verse from Psalms from a different location, Psalms 69:14: "As for me, may my prayer come to You, Adonai, at a favorable time. O God, in your abundant faithfulness, answer me with Your sure deliverance." However, in Machzor Vitry, the two verses from Psalms precede the verse beginning with " Mah tovu." Vitry also includes several other verses, beginning with Psalm 122:1: Samach'ti b'om'rim li, beit Adonai neileich, "I rejoiced when they said to me: 'Let us go up to the House of Adonai.' " Psalm 122 is the pilgrim's psalm and was recited upon arrival in Jerusalem; today, it is read each week at the conclusion of services at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Beit Adonai, "the house of Adonai," certainly could go with the tents, Tabernacle, sanctuary, and chamber that are mentioned in the other biblical verses. All the same, to my ear, it is completely out of place next to "Mah tovu . . ." because I am so accustomed to hearing each of these verses in the locations and contexts that our tradition has come to use them.
In the newest Reform siddur, Mishkan T'filah, the layout of the verses of Mah Tovureveals the structure of the prayer (ed. Elyse D. Frishman [New York: CCAR Press, 2007]). The center includes three verses taken from Psalms (5:8, 95:6, and 69:14) that each begin V'ani, "And I." In the Bible, Psalm 95:6 appears in plural form, but when a medieval rabbi sought to expand this prayer, the phrase was changed to a singular form to make it fit the prayer's format. Unlike most Jewish prayers, Mah Tovu, which marks the beginning of our public liturgy, is composed in the first-person singular. The alef of the word ani, the exuberant "I" who speaks, appears three times. You can see this recurrence in the transliteration V'ani, "And I," (Mishkan T'filah, p. 30 [see also pp. 192, 290, 418]). Isn't it odd that this prayer, celebrating the tents and sacred dwelling places of the people, is framed in such a private, individual idiom?
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes that Mah Tovu is an internal preparation for the preparatory section of the liturgy (see My People's Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries, vol. 5 [Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001], p. 51). In ancient synagogues, the entire service before the Bar'chu was recited individually by the worshipper. People would arrive at their own time or pace, and upon seeing the synagogue or crossing the threshold, each would say to oneself: "How wondrous are your tents, O Israel." The various spatial images in the verses each invoke a different historical memory of Jewish sacred space: Tent of Meeting, Tabernacle, Jerusalem Temple, chambers within the Temple, the Divine Presence. Others imagined these different places as the inner journey, coming ever closer to the true source.
The climax of the prayer is the penultimate line. Although the plain meaning of the Hebrew is clearly, "As for me, may my prayer [come] to You," it has long been read poetically with midrashic hyper-literalism: V'ani t'filati l'cha, "I am my prayer to You." This is how I always understand this passage. I yearn for the I-Thou of prayer in which I lose my self-consciousness and self-criticism, and can allow the prayers to flow through me. And I pray to internalize my prayers so that when I leave the sanctuary, I have taken in, and can fully embody by who I am and how I live what has become so vividly true for me in the sacred place and time. Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov.
Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California.