This essay originally appeared in:
Torah from Around the World
Published by The World Union for Progressive Judaism,
By: Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, Former World Union president, author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, CT, USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his website, http://www.rabifuchs.com.
So many times, I have heard rabbis or Cantors announce, “We begin our service with Mah Tovu!” And then the rabbi, Cantor, choir and congregation or some combination of those resources begin to sing: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!“ (Numbers 24:5)
As thinking Jews, and especially as Progressive Jews, we should not be content to simply intone our prayers mindlessly.
We will enrich ourselves and our worship if we make the effort to understand what they mean, what their literary-historical context is, and most importantly, how can they help us live more meaningful Jewish lives.
This is particularly important with Mah Tovu.
When I first came to Israel as a student in 1970, I purposely woke up in time to hear the radio station begin its broadcast day with the singing of Mah Tovu! We say Mah Tovu each and every morning when we enter the sanctuary to remind us of the lesson of the biblical story from which it comes.
As the Children of Israel neared the end of their forty-year journey from slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land, Balak, King of Moab, was afraid that we would overrun his land. So he hired Balaam, a world famous sorcerer, to put a curse on us so that his forces could defeat us. Despite all the riches Balak could offer, Balaam – try as he might – could only bless us with the words: “Mah Tovu! How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel…” (Numbers 24:5)
Balaam is perhaps the most enigmatic character in the Torah.
He was smart enough to be considered a prophet and even the intellectual equivalent of Moses. (Numbers Rabbah, 14:20; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106A) And yet he was so dumb that he was clueless when even his donkey – an animal synonymous in all cultures with stupidity – perceived God’s will.
Indeed, it is a perplexing exercise to reconcile Balaam’s brilliance and his spiritual blindness, but in the end he sees the light and blesses Israel with the words we use to begin our prayers.
When we understand its biblical context, the prayer teaches us a vital lesson.
It is a lesson I have been privileged to teach over the past five years as visiting rabbi in Kiel, Potsdam, Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, Bad Segeberg, Prague, Vienna, Milan, Florence and Turin. It is a lesson I was proud to proclaim in my visits to 65 Progressive communities in Israel and around the world during my tenure with the World Union. It is a lesson that I hope lies at the heart and soul of our mission as Progressive Jews wherever we find ourselves on this planet.
No outside force – no Balak, King of Moab, no Pharaoh, no Haman, no Antiochus, no Torquemada, no Tsar, and no Hitler, no one – can ever destroy us! Only we can destroy ourselves. We can destroy ourselves by turning away from our sacred Covenant. We can destroy ourselves by not seizing every opportunity we have to re-enforce the Covenantal imperatives with which God charged Abraham and Sarah in order to make our world a more just, caring and compassionate place for everyone:
Be a blessing (Genesis 12:2)
Walk in God’s ways and live lives that are worthy of them (Genesis 17:1)
Be living examples and teach our children to be living examples of Tzedakah and Mishpat, of justice and righteousness. (Genesis 18:19)
No! No outside force has ever destroyed us, and please God, none ever will. But we can destroy ourselves through apathy to our ideals and assimilation to the ways of the world around us.
We can destroy ourselves by ignoring our obligation to care deeply not only about Jewish life in our own communities but about the viability of meaningful Progressive Jewish life and its ideals in all of North America, Israel, Europe, the Former Soviet Union, Africa, Australia and New Zealand–everywhere.
No! No outside force can destroy us, but we can destroy ourselves by failing to apprehend and appreciate the message of the prayers we say, and failing to find purpose and meaning in our lives as Jews! With and only with that understanding, should we begin our service with Mah Tovu!