Our opening prayer reminds us to keep our tents welcoming

Numbers 22:2-25:9
Micah 5:6-6:8

When opening your mouth to speak, you never know whether the words you are about to say will one day become famous. This was the case for Balaam, son of Beor. Our Torah portion this week, Balak, tells the story of Balaam, who was sent by Balak, the King of Moab, to curse the Israelites. But God intervenes and tells Balaam he must say only what God commands. On three occasions, King Balak asks Balaam to curse the Israelites, but each time the seer blesses them instead.

The blessings of Balaam contain some beautiful poetry. His third poem of praise for the Israelites includes the following phrases: “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael — How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling places, O Israel. Like palm groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars beside the water” (Num. 24:5-6).

Commentators have wondered what Balaam saw as he gazed upon the Israelites’ tents. Rashi envisioned that Balaam noticed that their tents were not directly facing each other, indicating a degree of privacy for each home. Nechama Leibowitz explains that the term “tovu” (“fair” or “good”) means “perfection in all respects — beauty and charm, simplicity and purity.” The Talmud understands “tents” to mean schools and synagogues (Sanhedrin 105b).

It is this view that turned Balaam’s words into a sentiment that some Jews continue to recite every day. His words became the opening prayer of every morning service. “Ma tovu” is an entrance prayer to the synagogue. In antiquity, entrance to a temple was an awesome event. Balaam’s words capture the magnitude of blessing that one feels as they enter a holy place.

“Ma tovu” is not just an entrance prayer urging us to take notice of our sacred surroundings. It is also a prelude to prayer. The sages of old understood that prayer does not always come easily, especially in the morning when we are just waking up. Most of us need a little coffee and warm-up before praying. My teacher Reuven Kimelman offers that “prayer without preparation is like exercise without limbering up. Not only the body, but also the mind and emotions have to be attuned to prayer.”

“Ma Tovu,” the opening prayer of the morning liturgy, serves as a psychological introduction to prayer. Balaam’s blessing, woven into the morning prayers, helps the worshipper overcome any hesitancy about entering God’s house.

This morning prayer reminds us that we should feel good about entering the synagogue. As we know, however, this may not always happen. Balaam’s blessing reminds us that we need to strive today to make our tents — our synagogues and all Jewish institutions — like the tents of the Israelites in the wilderness.

Our tents not only need to provide shelter, comfort and protection, they also are places to gather, shmooze, pray, study and connect with others and with God. In comparing a good synagogue to a good tent, Ron Wolfson writes, “The spirituality of welcoming begins with radical hospitality that brings people closer to each other, to community, to Judaism, and to God.”

Balaam’s words in the Torah portion are a declaration of praise for the tents he saw before him from the mountaintop. His words in the context of prayer are an expression of hope for what our experience in our Jewish tents ought to be today.

We hope our sanctuaries will connect us more deeply with God. We hope our schools will enlighten us with lessons of Torah. We hope our tents of meeting will be open and inviting to all.

Ma tovu ohalecha — our tents are made good by our voices and our presence.

Rabbi Karen S. Citrin is the associate rabbi at Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.