מַה־טֹּבוּ אֹֽהָלֶיךָ יַֽעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.
How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel (Numbers 24:5).
The Israelites are journeying towards the Jordan River and pass through the territory of King Balak of Moab. Balak is terrified and hires the prophet Balaam to lay a curse upon the Israelites. Three times Balaam climbs up to a promontory from which he can survey the Israelite encampment. Each time, instead of a curse, only words of blessing issue from his lips. King Balak is furious, of course, and reprimands Balaam. But Balaam reminds him that as a prophet, he is only capable of uttering the words that God puts in his mouth.
On the final attempt, as Balaam gazes from the highest peak out on a veritable sea of Israelite tents, he utters: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishkenotekha Yisrael — “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” Our sages plucked this phrase from the Torah and placed it at the beginning of our morning prayers.
Missing from our prayer book, however, is the continuation of Balaam’s blessing. In fact, an appropriate translation of Mah Tovu is more likely in the form of a question; here is the entire passage, opening with a question and then answering:
How goodly are your tents, Jacob,
Your dwelling places, Israel?
Like palm groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by YHVH,
Like cedars beside the water,
Their boughs dripping with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water (Numbers 24:5–7).
I feel so refreshed by this imagery. I am drawn into an oasis of water and shade. And as I recall the arid and forbidding landscape of the steppes of Moab where the Israelites are camped, the picture that Balaam’s words paint becomes even more enticing.
Our sages who placed this verse at the opening of the siddur — the prayer book — understood that the purpose of communal prayer is to refresh our spirits. They also assumed that by flagging the first verse of the passage, “How goodly are your tents,” the worshippers, knowing their Scripture, would know and think of the verdant description that follows. Life easily becomes a slog through the wilderness, depleting us and distracting us, sucking us dry, so that we forget how good it is to be alive. The purpose of prayer, the purpose of Shabbat, the purpose of entering a synagogue sanctuary (or any other place that feels like a restorative oasis to you) is to ask the question, “How good is it?” and then to list all the ways in which it is truly a blessing to be alive.
This activity does not ignore or negate the difficulties that we face. Rather, it grounds us, refreshes us and fortifies us so that we might not wilt in the heat of our struggles.
We are certainly traveling through frightening and distressing times. But it is also true that life is good, and that we are each immeasurably blessed, and if we can regularly focus on the goodness that sustains us, we will be better able to stay sane and kind and strong as we face the uncertain path ahead. The world needs us — our loved ones and our communities need us — but what have we got to give if we are dried up and distracted? I hope you can find a community that gathers on Shabbat or some other holy time for the purpose of creating such an oasis together. May you sit in each other’s healing shade, drink life in deeply and help each other remember that, with all its challenges, life is good.