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MAH TOVU O’HALECHA YAAKOV MISHKENOTECHA YISRAEL!
HOW WONDERFUL ARE YOUR TENTS YAAKOV, YOUR DWELLING PLACES ISRAEL
This ‘passuk’ [verse] is one of the most famous verses of the Torah. We recite it every day, at the beginning of Shacharit – the morning services as soon as we enter the House of Prayer. Understanding this verse is thus pertinent to each day of the year.
Balak ben Tzipor had been appointed to be the king of Moab. When the children of Israel were approaching his land, on their way to Israel, he was terrified, for he knew of their victory over the Amorites, a strong nation, led by a strong king. So he called on Balaam, a very powerful but unholy prophet, to come and curse the Jewish people, hoping that this would weaken Israel sufficiently, and thus enable him to beat us in war. How Balaam finally got permission from Hashem to go to Balak, and his amazing journey with his talking ass, is an entire topic in itself. Hashem did not allow Balaam to curse us and instead his curses were turned into blessings. The most famous of all of these is:
MAH TOVU O’HALECHA YAAKOV MISHKENOTECHA YISRAEL!
HOW WONDERFUL ARE YOUR TENTS YAAKOV, YOUR DWELLING PLACES ISRAEL [Bamidbar 24:5]
We need to understand the meaning and significance of these words. What exactly, inspired Balaam to praise the tents of Yaakov and the dwelling places of Israel? Why did the Rabbis choose this ‘blessing’ for the opening prayer of the morning services? This verse adorns the walls of so many shuls and it has inspired many niggunim – why?
The Talmud derives the following Halacha from this verse:
MISHNAH. IN A COURTYARD WHICH HE SHARES WITH OTHERS A MAN SHOULD NOT OPEN A DOOR FACING ANOTHER PERSON’S DOOR NOR A WINDOW FACING ANOTHER PERSON’S WINDOW. IF IT IS SMALL HE SHOULD NOT ENLARGE IT, AND HE SHOULD NOT TURN ONE INTO TWO. ON THE SIDE OF THE STREET, HOWEVER, HE MAY MAKE A DOOR FACING ANOTHER PERSON’S DOOR AND A WINDOW FACING ANOTHER PERSON’S WINDOW, AND IF IT IS SMALL HE MAY ENLARGE IT OR HE MAY MAKE TWO OUT OF ONE.
GEMARA. Whence are these rules derived? — R. Johanan said: From the verse of the Scripture, “And Balaam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes.”4 This indicates that he saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another, whereupon he exclaimed: WORTHY ARE THESE THAT THE DIVINE PRESENCE SHOULD REST UPON THEM!
Rashi, [Bamidbar 24:5] uses this teaching of Rabbi Johanan to explain what impressed Balaam – seeing that everyone was respecting everyone else’s privacy, inspired him to say Mah Tovu – It is appropriate [they deserve] that the Shechinah should rest upon them.” We were living “b’tzni-ut” – following a code of modesty. ‘Tzanuah’ means hidden. ‘Tzni-ut’ means modesty, this is a very important ‘midah’— behavior attribute that we are supposed to live by. Our tents were positioned in a manner that would afford each family, privacy. We did not, nor did we desire to, look into each others tents without permission. Although our traditional understanding of the Rashi’s comment is very deep, and it does explain what so greatly impressed Balaam, it still does not seem to explain why we would recite and meditate on this verse upon entering the shul to ‘daaven’. Is there a connection between ‘tzni’ut’ – modesty and prayer?
Rashi cites another Rabbinical teaching found in Sanhedrin: that from Balaam’s blessings we can deduce the curses that he wished to bring upon us, since he actually wanted to curse us and it was Hashem who caused him to change the curses into blessings. And so the Rabbis understand that Balaam sought to curse that we shouldn’t have Houses of Worship and Houses of Torah Study, and so Hashem made him say – HOW WONDERFUL ARE YOUR TENTS YAAKOV; he sought to curse that Shechinah should not dwell amongst us, so Hashem made him say – [HOW WONDERFUL ARE] YOUR DWELLING PLACES ISRAEL. Based on this teaching we do now understand why the Rabbis chose this verse for the opening of our prayers as we enter into our tents of worship, into the dwelling place of the Shechinah.
However this explanation does not seem to take into account that which actually impressed Balaam – namely the fact that the entrances of their tents did not face each other.
In the ‘Nusach Ha’ari’ siddur, right before “Mah tovu…” one finds the following very interesting instruction from the holy Ari-z”l: It is proper to say before [beginning] the prayers, “I accept upon myself the ‘mitzvat asei’ – [positive 'do' mitzvah] of ‘V’AHAVTA LE’REI-ACHA KAMOCHA – LOVE YOUR FELLOW AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF” The Talmud teaches us that when daavening, it is best to daaven with a ‘minyan’. All the ‘bakashot’ – request prayers, are written in the plural form; “heal US, redeem US, bless US” etc. Even when praying privately, an individual should always pray in the name of all of Israel. [Praying 'individually' only for one's own personal needs, invites close heavenly scrutiny, and such prayers are more likely to be blocked by various angels].
Why is this so important?
There is a Chassidic aphorism that says “If the brother is a brother then the father is a father.” In our prayers we say “Avinu Malkeinu” – our Father our King. And Hashem says, “If I am your father do you know your brothers, do you know your sisters? Do you know how they are? Do you know what they need?” This means that if I want Hashem to listen to my prayers, to care for me, as a father listens to and cares for his child, I had better unite with all my brothers and sisters.
“Rachmana leeba ba-ee!” The Compassionate One desires the heart. Prayer is the service of the heart. Prayer is not only bringing my requests to Hashem; it is an act of love – in prayer we come close to Hashem, we arouse our love for Hashem. True love for Hashem can only be true if we love all His children. Daavening for yourself AND for everyone else is an act of love — “Love your fellow as yourself”. By accepting this mitzvah upon yourself before daavening, you are connecting yourself and your prayers with all of Israel.
Ahavah-Love is what unites us. There are two levels of love and unity. People usually feel united with others who are like themselves. If you dress as I do, if you eat as I do, if you shop at the same stores as I do, if you think as I do, if you vote for the same politicians as I do, if you share the same tastes and likes as I do, if I like you, if I like the way you look, then I like you and we are ‘united’. However this kind of love and unity depends on external factors and on what ‘I’ like and what ‘you’ like – this is self-centered love. Should enough of these external factors change, our unity is weakened and threatened. Ah! But then there is a much deeper level of unity….
On the higher level of love and unity, the external factors are not important; our unity is independent of these. We are united because we are all part of the One. The soul of a Jew is a ‘cheylek Elokah mima’al mammash’ -a veritable part of G-d above. Yes, we do have many differences, and these should be appreciated, no less than you appreciate the multifaceted variety of life forms, colors, sounds shapes and structures found in nature. Everything is part of the Oneness of Hashem. Each person, including their different and various thoughts, including those you don’t agree with, are part of Hashem’s Oneness. In uniting with everyone in this deep way, we are living the reality of the hidden Oneness of Hashem. Only when we stop defining ourselves and others in physical terms and instead we learn to see ourselves and others as veritable parts of G-d above, only then will we be capable of truly fulfilling “Love your fellow as yourself.”
These two levels of love and unity are alluded to in Rashi’s commentary; Balaam seeing that the “entrances of their tents were not arranged one opposite the other”, can be understood to mean that Balaam saw that we were living on the higher and deeper level of unity and community. Our unity was independent of our self-centered needs and likes. We did not need to look into each other’s tents, to decide if we should or should not be united. We recognized that that which unites us is something much deeper that what can be seen externally. We had actually united in a deep unity. Upon seeing this, Balaam was disabled from cursing us, and in fact ended up praising and blessing us.
Accordingly we can now understand why this verse was placed at the beginning of the morning prayers, to be recited as soon as we enter the shul. As soon as we enter Hashem’s House, the first and most important thing is not to come in as a separate and separating individual, but rather to enter as an individual who is deeply united with his people. It is for this reason that we are to recite and meditate on the deep unity and love that inspired Balaam to say “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael”, upon entering Hashem’s House of Love and Prayer.*
[* that was the name of Reb Shlomo's shul, first in SF and later in Yerushalayim]
The Ariz”l’s instruction: It is right to say before [beginning] the prayers, “I accept upon myself the ‘mitzvat asei’ – [positive 'do' mitzvah] of ‘V’AHAVTA LE’REI-ACHA KAMOCHA – LOVE YOUR FELLOW AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF”, clarifies the intent of reciting the Mah Tovu verse. This acceptance upon yourself to love your fellow as yourself is the prerequisite to ‘tfilah’ prayer. When you live in unity you can daaven. When daavening in unity, your prayers are an act of love and unity, not only with Hashem, but also with all of Israel – and they will be readily accepted.
When we truly unite with each other, the Shechinah dwells amongst us, and then the shul really is a House of Hashem. The King of all Kings wants His Shechinah to dwell among us. But first we must, together, form the vessel of ‘Knesset Yisrael’, the vessel that is formed by the collectivity of all the souls of Israel to receive the presence of the Shechinah. This unity and love which we accept upon ourselves, has to extend all through the day. And each time we return to Hashem’s House we reaffirm our acceptance and commitment to live in unity and loving harmony.
Soon it will be the 17th of Tammuz, the second of the four fast days commemorating the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Thus we are starting the ‘three weeks’ of mourning. The Talmud tells us that the 2nd Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of ‘sinat Chinam’ — baseless hatred. We also learn that anyone who does not get to see the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash in his days, it is as if it was destroyed in his days. What do we need to do to help rebuild the Beit Hamikdash? Many holy Rabbis have been teaching that just like the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of ‘sinat chinam’, it will be rebuilt out of ‘ahavat chinam’ — baseless love. May we all be blessed to truly renew and deepen our ‘achdut’, oneness and unification with each other and with Hashem, and may we merit to see the reestablishment and return of the Beit Hamikdash, [which is already complete, it only needs to be brought down from heaven to earth] quickly in our days, together with the speedy arrival of Mashiach Tzidkeinu. Amen, kein yehi ratzon.
AHAVAT YISRAEL – BEFORE GOING TO SLEEP
Just as we begin our day with accepting upon ourselves the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel we also end our day with a similar prayer. In the Siddur we find this prayer among the prayers recited before going to sleep [note: this prayer is not recited on Shabbos or Yom Tov]:
Master of the Universe! I hereby FORGIVE anyone who has angered or vexed me, or sinned against me, either physically or financially, against my honor or anything else that is mine, whether accidentally or intentionally, inadvertently or deliberately, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or in any other – any Israelite; MAY NO MAN BE PUNISHED ON MY ACCOUNT. …. …. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.
Among the questions that one may raise here are: a] why should one forgive the one who harmed him intentionally? b] why should one pray for the welfare of the one who harmed him deliberately? c] how does this prayer relate to the mitzvah of loving your fellow as you love yourself?