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: