Mah Tovu

I recently added “Mah Tovu” to the beginning of our morning meditation playlist. The lyrics of Mah Tovu are text from Torah, and the English translation is “How lovely are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” This text appears in a story about a man who had been sent to curse the Israelites, but upon looking at their camp, instead uttered that compliment.

It is true that Shabbat Morning Service sometimes begins with Mah Tovu. I don’t know when or why the song began to be used that way (and I suppose some day I should look into that!!). But the fact that it is used to open services is not why I added it to our playlist; my reasoning is never quite that straightforward! 🙂

About seven years ago, I was listening to music recorded in pre-state Israel in the 1920’s and 1930’s, because listening to music is the easiest way to hear Hebrew on a daily basis. Toward the end of an otherwise secular song, the singer sang the lyrics of Mah Tovu, and then went seamlessly back to the secular lyrics. I was surprised by the presence of those words of Torah in a song of those early Pioneers, many of whom were socialists and atheists. I asked my Hebrew teacher about it, and we had a wonderful discussion about the devotion those Jewish Pioneers had to the Torah as a historical text that connected them to the land. I learned that evening about the disconnect between atheism and ignorance, about how the first need not be caused by, or result in, the second. The song’s anomaly was resolved for me.

Then, in May of 2007, I went to Israel to connect myself to the land. After a ten-day guided tour, I stayed at Kibbutz Ein Harod, one of the early socialist kibbutzim established in Israel. Hanging on the wall in the Kibbutz Archives was a very large print of an amazing panoramic photograph of the kibbutz in its early years — with children playing, men and women working, and . . . rows of white tents … Mah Tovu!!! “How wonderful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” — that pre-State Israel song that I had heard years earlier took on a whole new meaning, because I suddenly understood that, for the early Pioneers, those words were not just biblical text about an event that happened more than 2000 years earlier; those words were a statement about the Pioneers’ own existence!

Despite the fact that those kibbutz tents were set up near swamps, which made malaria a problem; that jackals and hyena could be heard roaming the area at night; and that, from time to time, other people would attack the kibbutz to rob and plunder … without a doubt, for any Zionist, those were the most beautiful tents that had ever existed on this planet, because inside those tents slept the brave souls who were creating a new Jewish reality. And this — using Mah Tovu as a statement about ourselves, perhaps not an entirely accurate statement, but a statement full of hope for the future — brings us to why I added the song to the beginning of the morning meditation playlist . . .

One of those old Hasidic Masters described the proper focus to maintain during contemplative prayer in this way:
As you stand before G-d in prayer,
you should feel that you stand alone-
in all the world only you and G-d exist.
Then there can be no distractions;
Nothing can disturb such prayer.

GREEN & HOLTZ, Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer, p. 95 (Jewish Lights Publishing 1993).

However, the chapel in which we pray each morning is not what one would call “sound-proof.” Even with the doors closed and our music on, we can hear noise from the street, people walking in the hall, rain on the roof, discussion from the conference room next door, birds chirping in the trees outside, and pretty much anything else that happens in the vicinity. Some days, I can easily allow all extraneous sounds to blend into the “background hum of the universe” in such a way that it all becomes part of “The One” and the sounds are no more distracting than my own breathing or heartbeat. Other days, I really struggle to attain the proper focus!

My addition of Mah Tovu is an attempt to help myself focus on the days that I might otherwise struggle. The five and a half minutes during which Mah Tovu plays is my opportunity to figuratively “pitch my tent” and create a space in which I can close out the world, be completely alone, and focus on my prayers. Once I settle into my tent, then I am ready to be blessed with feeling the light of G-d’s presence (Barcheinu Avinu), to allow my soul to soar (Niggun Neshamah), and to dance (Adon Olam, Ein Keloheinu, Simon Tov).

Does it always work? Of course not, because I don’t really have a sound-proof tent around myself!! But that doesn’t mean that I cannot, just like those early Jewish Pioneers, use the ancient lyrics of that song to alter the way I interact with or understand my less-than-ideal physical reality! I can have hope, and I can feel blessed . . .

If all else fails, I will have at least proudly taken my place in the long line of Abraham’s descendants who pitched a tent as we wandered! 🙂

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