Perspective — who can see what? who is MEANT to see what? and what might it all mean, anyway? — is a key element in parashat Balak. No one (except God, who is not sharing everything) has the “whole view.” And we are reminded of this even in the words which have become part of our morning prayers.

[I realize that this note is arriving in the week of parashat Pinchas, BTW. Sorry. These remarks on the prayers will, I hope, be relevant at most any time.]

“How goodly [fair, wonderful] are your tents, O Jacob,” the seer Balaam pronounces (Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5), making clear that he can see the entirety of the camp…during this attempt to curse the Israelites; during the previous attempt he could see only a “sliver” (Bamidbar/Numbers 23:13-24) The Israelites, in their own tents in the valley below, have no such vantage point.

In a similar vein, Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen note that in many synagogues, “Mah Tovu” — Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5, followed by Psalms 5:8, 26:8, and 69:14 — is recited while participants are gathering and donning their own prayer shawls. Therefore:

…people rarely have an opportunity to survey the entire scene. To someone watching is (from above) however, all those Jews would appear to have literally made their own personal tents! “How wonderful are your tents, Jacob!”
— Kushner and Polen,
My People’s Prayer Book, vol. 5 Birkhot Hashachar (Morning Blessings)*


Although this week’s portion might suggest that the tents and dwelling places in Mah Tovu are historical — and one view is that we are connecting with a chronological shift: tents, temporary mishkan, temple, synagogues… — the remainder of the prayer seems to draw our focus to other shifts of perspective.

“I” and “Place”

Many commentators note Mah Tovu‘s focus on place — tents, house, Temple, abode, etc. — and the unusual stress, for the siddur, on “I.” As one of the first prayers recited in the morning, Mah Tovu offers the individual an opportunity for some perspective shifting, seeking a way into the sanctuary and into prayer.

…Most of the prayers in our liturgy are phrased in the first person plural, in which we as a community stand before the Divine presence. But here they are introduced in the halting and somewhat unsure voice of the individual, expressing some of that inadequacy that each of us feels as we enter the place and hour of prayer.
— Arthur Green, p.141 in Kol Haneshamah*


As a commentary to Mah Tovu, Mishkan T’filah* offers traditional instructions for the recitation, beginning from the point at which one sites the synagogue in the distance. Also included is an alternative prayer, which focuses on social justice, incorporates no “I” or “You,” and avoids the concept of humility (or God “on high” and humans “down low”). The latter is an example, according to Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, of the “theology of human adequacy,” which is cited in the prayer book’s introduction and nowhere else that I can find. (Here is a link to a PDF of the Mah Tovu prayer book pages and Goldberg’s remarks; if you know of another source on the “theology of human adequacy,” please share it.)

In a contrasting approach, Ellen Frankel leaves God “on high,” so to speak, but challenges the pray-er to see her- or himself in different relationships to God as the morning begins.

We get not only spatial markers to prepare our entry into the place of prayer, but emotional compass points as well. Into this special place we are to bring with us yirah (“reverence”) and ahavah (“love”), as well as humility (through bowing) and blessing (in returning to God what we receive). In assuming these different postures, each placing us in a different relationship to God–as subject, peer, and benefactor–we prepare ourselves to enter the full experience of prayer, wherever it takes us….
— Ellen Frankel, p.53, My People’s Prayer Book


Which “I” View?

Other commentaries on Mah Tovu include different perspective shifts, related to “Jacob” and “Israel,” traditionally associated with our mundane and spiritual selves, respectively. Evan Schultz, Rabbinic Intern at Temple Micah this summer, suggested at a recent service that the prayer is offering an opportunity for us to shift from our work-a-day “Jacob” selves into our prayer- and Shabbat-focused “spiritual selves.

This shift is made explicit in Fanny Neuda’s prayer, “On Entering the Synagogue,” in Hours of Devotion:*

…Outside in the bustle and turmoil of the world,
Life with its burdens and obstacles rises like a wall
Between my heart and you, O God.
But as I enter these silent, still, and sacred halls
That wall disappears, and my soul rises toward you
Full of joy and enthusiasm, inspiring awe and devotion….
— Fanny Neuda (Dinah Berland, trans.)
[see Mah Tovu Prayer Sources for more details]


Rather than encourage leaving Jacob behind and focusing on Israel, Rabbi Shefa Gold suggests instead “being in relationship both to the [temporary, tent] place of Jacob within you and to the [eternal, Miskkan] place of Israel. Both must be named and acknowledged,” in a spiritual practice related to the end of Jacob’s life.

Surely different people relate better, generally, to different practices and interpretations of most prayers. During the early morning prayers, however, we are not only facing differences in how each of us approaches place of worship and prayer, individual and communal relationships to God. We’re also facing differences in approach to the physical aspects of rising and awakening.

Even though — or perhaps because — we don’t have the “whole view” ourselves, Mah Tovu gives us a chance to orient ourselves in our own tents and to the tents of those around us.


* For complete citations and more details on general references, see Source Materials. For more resources specifically related to Mah Tovu, see Prayer Sources.

For the convenience of subscribers, here are links to related posts on the portion Balak:

Moabites (a path to follow)
A call for tent widening

Posted by vspatz

Virginia blogs on Jewish topics at "A Song Every Day" and manages the Education Town Hall and #WeLuvBooks sites. More at Vspatz.wordpress.com

2 Comments

  1. The plurality of Jewish expression is one reason that when I enter a synagogue, shul, or other Jewish prayer space, I sing Mah Tovu and bow to the floor when I come to “V’ani eshtachave vchra’ah, everechah lifnei adonai osi” in order to reaffirm mentally the respect accorded to our diversity.

    Reply

  2. Here’s another quote, not exactly in line with the idea of the “theology of human adequacy,” but it’s about being partners with God. I would argue that it requires humility to be partners with God and to honor the image of God in all people; yet it also requires hutzpah, audacity, to engage in an “I and Thou” relationship with God or with human beings. Without both humility and hutzpah it is hard to balance anything beyond a narrow focus on self; whether that imbalance is expressed in too little self esteem or in too much arrogance, it presents an obstacle to healthy relationships. I think the Mishkan T’filah prayerbook is concerned that the prayer experience has too often lacked the necessary hutzpah. I think we find it hard to distinguish the positive virtues of humility from the negative aspects of humiliation, and also to discern between positive audacity and negative arrogance. So I ask myself if what I’m doing is honoring myself and others, or another way to put it would be to make sure my actions are not dishonoring myself or others. Isn’t that Hillel’s message? “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Pirke Avot 1:14
    Anyway, here is the quote I want to share. I find the male centered language burdensome, but otherwise find R. Sacks writing very helpful for thinking about prayer and relationship with God and with people.:

    – from pp. 84-89, A Letter in the Scroll, c. 2000 by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Free Press, NY, NY.

    “The Hebrew Bible uses many metaphors for God. He is a master and we are His servants. He is a king and we are His subjects. He is a parent and we are His children. But for the prophets, the central image is marriage. God is our husband and Israel is His wife. So Hosea put it in the famous passage that Jewish men recite every weekday as they don their phylacteries (tefillin):

    ‘I will betroth you to me for ever,
    I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice,
    In love and mercy,
    I will betroth you to me with faithfulness
    And you shall know the Lord.’
    [Hosea 2:21-2]

    Every other religious value in Judaism flows from this metaphor. Emunah means not only “faith” but “faithfulness” [f.n. #11. See Menachem Kellner, “Must a Jew Believe Anything?,” Littman Library, London, 1999, 11-25.] just as in marriage the two partners pledge themselves to be faithful to one another. Idolatry becomes a form of adultery, a betrayal of the marriage between God and His people. Religious knowledge is less a body of truths about the world than a relationship in which God and man come together, as husband and wife, to bring new life into being. The covenant with the patriarchs, and later with the Israelites at Mount Sinai, is a form of marriage in which God says — as a Jewish bridegroom still says to his bride — “Behold, you are consecrated to me…” The Torah is no mere document, but the marriage contract between heaven and a people, the terms of their relationship, their bond of trust.

    …The universe is not blind to our hopes, our dreams or our ideals. There is objective pain when we commit evil against one another; and when we hope and strive and seek to build, something within us and beyond us takes us by the hand and gives us the strength not to be defeated, to continue the journey despite all the setbacks and false turns.

    At the heart of Judaism is a covenant of love. Judaism has often been seen — notoriously by Christianity — as a religion of law and justice rather than of love and compassion. This is quite untrue. To be sure, Judaism is a religion of law and justice between human beings, because only where there is law can there be a just society, and Judaism is nothing if not a religion of society. But between God and man there is a bond of love. No one puts this more beautifully than the prophet Hosea in a masterly pun on the name of the Canaanite god, Baal. Baal was the ancient god of fertility, seen in the storm, the thunder and the rain. But “Baal” also means “lord,” “owner,” and by extension “husband-as-master” in a world where men ruled over women by force and domination. Hosea contrasts this with the relationship between God and Israel:

    ‘In that day, declares the Lord,
    You will call Me “my husband” [ishi];
    You will no longer call Me, “my master” [baali].’
    [Hosea 2:18]

    For Hosea, at the core of Baal worship is the primitive idea that God rules the world by force, as husbands rule families in societies where power determines the structure of relationships. Against this, Hosea paints a quite different possibility, of a relationship between marriage partners built on love and mutual loyalty. God is not Baal, He-who-rules-by-force, but Ish, He-who-relates-in-love, the very word Adam used when he first saw Eve. The God to whom we speak in prayer is not the ultimate power but the ultimate person, the Other in whom I find myself.

    This was always a difficult idea, sometimes misunderstood even by the prophets. The Bible tells us this in the story of the prophet Elijah…

    …God tells Elijah that what makes Him different from Baal is not that Baal is a power and God is a greater power. God is not a power at all. He is not in the wind, the earthquake and the fire. When God reveals Himself, it is not as a force but as a voice, the voice that speaks to man. And not as an ordinary voice, but as a “still, small voice” – the Hebrew literally means “the sound of a slender silence” — meaning, the voice that we can hear only if we listen. God does not impose His presence on humanity. Only if we reach out to Him do we find Him reaching out to us.

    It is no accident that the Bible takes marriage as its central metaphor for the relationship between man and God. For Judaism, religious faith is not mysterious. It needs no sacrifice of the mind, no leap into the void. It is precisely like the gesture of commitment I make in a human relationship when I pledge myself to another, whose body I can see but whose consciousness must always be beyond my reach. My capacity to form relationships tells me that though I can never enter someone else’s mind, I can reach out beyond the self and, joining my life to an other, create the things that exist only in virtue of being shared: trust, friendship and love. So, though I can never enter the consciousness of God, I can still pledge myself to Him in faithfulness, listening to His voice as it is recorded in the Torah and responding to His affirmation of my personhood. Together we bring into being what neither God-without-man nor man-without-God could create: a society of free persons respecting one another’s freedom.

    Marriage is the binding relationship with otherness that brings new life into being and allows us to experience the covenantal dimension of the world. Until we can relate to another human being through covenant — the word given and received and honored in faithfulness — we cannot relate to God that way either. The family is the birthplace of our experience of humanity. It is also the matrix of our encounter with God. In truth, the whole of the Jewish consciousness is tied to the strength of the family. For without an ordered family we could not envisage an ordered world. Without the trust we learn as children and practice as marriage partners we could not respond to the trustfulness of the universe, which is the experience of reality under the sovereignty of God.”

    Reply

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