A couple of weeks ago, we read Parashat Balak on Shabbat morning. In doing so, we read the story of the magician Balaam, being sent by the evil king Balak to curse the Israelites. However, as he explained, God ultimately controlled the words that came out of his mouth. On multiple times, Balaam blessed the people of Israel. His most well-known blessing was the following:
Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael
How Lovely are Your Tents People of Jacob, Your Sanctuaries People of Israel (Numbers 24:5)
According to Rashi, Balaam said these words because he was impressed by the modesty of the people of Israel. No tent entrance in the encampment faced another tent entrance. What made these tents so lovely was that each individual was respecting each other’s privacy. I prefer another explanation. I believe that Balaam blessed the Israelites’ encampment, not because the entrances to the tents were closed, but rather because they were all open. The doors to each home were wide open and all guests were welcomed into each dwelling space. The community was a warm and welcoming one, a true sign that God dwelled among the people.
These words are traditionally said upon entering a sanctuary before prayer, entering a place of worship. We find them at the very beginning of our siddur, our prayer book. What is unique about this is that we do not always say these words when we enter a sanctuary and we do not always need a sanctuary to pray. We can pray anywhere, for we create community anywhere. We say these words regardless of how beautiful our sanctuaries are, regardless of how large the space is, or how exquisite the stain glass windows are. We say these words because we appreciate God’s Divine presence among us. We say these words because we acknowledge how lovely community is – warm and welcoming, vibrant and diverse.
I am excited to serve as rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey, beginning on July 15th. As I enter this community, this place for prayer and learning, this space for socializing, for building community, for wrestling with the Divine, and wrestling with ourselves, I proudly declare: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are these tents. How beautiful is this sanctuary. I look forward to building on Beth El’s already warm and welcoming culture and working together to build an even more vibrant community. May we all always feel comfortable walking through the wide open doors of this community and may all of our experiences with community cause us to count our blessings.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky