Desert Island Texts: Mah Tovu

Desert Island Texts: Mah Tovu

Desert Island Texts
Desert Island Texts


Fast well!
Fast well!

If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?

This week, Nick Young, the head of education at Westminster Synagogue, selects the prayer ‘Mah Tovu’

I have chosen the prayer Mah Tovu, in particular the definitive opening line from the Book of Numbers (24:5) which has been translated as “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-place, O Israel!”

My appreciation for this text came from studying the liturgy of the Shabbat service as part of Liberal Judaism’s excellent Ba’alei Tefillah course, which trains and supports lay leaders.

The words are spoken by the pagan prophet Balaam, who the Moabite King had tasked with putting a curse on the Israelites.

However, as he climbed to his vantage point, he saw the Israelite tents spread out below him and was so overcome by their splendour, that he instead said the words we know so well: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha” (how lovely are your tents).

His stumbled curse had become a blessing. I appreciated the egalitarian interpretation of an American rabbi, Stephen Fink, who spoke of these words as welcoming the whole “mixed multitude… a polyglot nation” that we represent as the community of Israel.

I liked both the realism and aspiration of Rabbi Cindy Enger, who wishes these words to give us the courage, so we can bring help to bring justice and healing where it is needed because all is not yet good and wonderful in our tents.

I also appreciated the irony that these words were spoken by a non-Jew, as they represent the way that in the Western diaspora our lives straddle different traditions and cultures, and we have much to gain by learning from and being open to others, while staying true to ourselves.

Finally, nostalgia. I have many fond associations from my childhood of the familiar faces in the community choir at South West Essex Reform Synagogue (now SWESRS) opening the service with this fanfare to prayer.

Such words are a wonderful way to welcome the community and begin the liturgy of the service, but they are also so much more.

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