Mah Tovu No. 2

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 11 Apr 2013

How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! [Num. 24:5]
As for me, O God abounding in grace, 
I enter your house to worship with awe in Your sacred place. [Ps 5:8]
I love your house, Eternal One, the dwelling-place of Your glory. [Ps 26:8]
And I worship and bow down, and kneel before God my Maker. [Ps 95:6 adapted]

The words of the Mah tovu prayer, assembled from different parts of the Tanach (Jewish Bible) many centuries ago, are traditionally to be spoken on entering a beit t’filah (house of prayer). There are few really well-known settings of it in the multi-denominational world of modern Judaism. Whichever setting is chosen, for me it always comes as a jolt at the start of the service if there has been no prayerful preparation before a setting of Mah tovu is sung. The Talmud advises us to pray an hour before we pray (and to pray for an hour afterwards as well). This suggests to me that it may not always be a good idea to launch into Mah tovu at the start of a service. We need some time to arrive, to tune into ourselves, into our environment and the other people around us, and above all, to tune into God. I would suggest that this melody is therefore hummed or sung as a nigun for a few minutes before singing the words of Mah tovu – there could even be some silence (again, 2-3 minutes) after the nigun and before Mah tovu itself.

I wrote this setting with Shabbat in mind, so chose a major key, and quietly joyful character for the music. Also, I decided – perhaps controversially – to leave out one of the five verses that are normally included in the Mah tovu prayer. This is:

Ps 69:14 Va’ani t’filati l’cha Adonai et ratzon.
 Elohim b’rov chasdecha aneini b’emet yish’echa. “To You, Eternal One, goes my prayer: may this be a time of your favour.
 In Your great love, O God, answer me with Your saving truth.”

This is normally included because it is about turning our minds and hearts to prayer. However, I am puzzled why we include it on Shabbat, because it asks God to do something for us (‘answer me’), and on Shabbat, we do not ask God to do anything for us (hence reducing the 19-prayer Amidah to seven prayers, leaving out the requests). Since it is Shabbat, God must be allowed to rest too.

If you like my setting, but really want to reinstate the missing verse, you are welcome to try and work out how to fit the words to the music for your own private interest (but it won’t be easy!). I ask however that you do not write this into the score, create or distribute (even non-commercially) your own handwritten, printed, digital or audio version, and that you do not sing such an edition in any public setting, concert, service or prayer gathering. By following this request, you would be honouring my legal rights as the copyright owner of this work, and also respecting my wishes as the creator of this musical setting.

I think and care deeply about the decisions I make as a creator of music and contributor to liturgical life. I do use the missing verse at times in my own prayer life – it is beautiful and important. After much reflection, I have concluded that it should not be part of my setting of Mah tovu for Shabbat. Using just the four verses I have selected produces quite a different effect from using all five. In this selection, we focus entirely on wonder and gratitude, unconditional appreciation of God and Creation, with no thought of asking for more.

What makes a space sacred, holy? The Hebrew word for ‘holy’ is kadosh. The meaning of this word is ‘separate, distinct, set apart’. In Jewish thinking, no time or place is holy or kadosh until a human being makes it that way. Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, is a day like any other, until we choose to mark it out as different because we shift our own consciousness and behave differently. As A J Heschel famously wrote (in his book ‘The Sabbath’), Shabbat is a ‘palace in time’. We sanctify time and space simultaneously through conscious acts. So when we sing Mah tovu, we are not marvelling at a sacred space that was sacred before we got there. It becomes sacred because (and in the precise moment) we utter the words of the prayer – and only if we utter the prayer with appropriate kavanah (intention and attention). And if we let our kavanah lapse, the holiness of the moment and the place ceases to exist.

Travelling in the desert after the flight from Egypt, the Israelites built the mishkan (dwelling), the portable home for the Aron haBrit (Ark of the Covenant) with the tablets of stone given to Moses by God. The mishkan was also considered the dwelling place for the Divine Presence, called the Shechinah (the ‘in-dwelling Presence’), from the same word root. In the mid-10th century BCE, the First Temple became the centre for worship until its destruction in 587 BCE, and the Second Temple survived from 516 BCE to 70 CE. One of the most important new elements that came out of the Second Temple’s destruction was the principle of improvising prayer space. No longer having a fixed place to worship or make sacrifices, Jews had to adapt, and discover how to encounter God anywhere and everywhere. And we learned to do so with thought, word and deed.

Marcia Prager, in her book ‘The Path of Blessing’, quotes the Chernobyler Rebbe: “Just as the Holy One condensed and concentrated the Shechinah into the Holy Ark of the collective Temple (as if the heavens of the heavens could encompass the Divine Presence!) … so too is the Shechinah present in the individual temple which is the human heart.” When Bilam spoke the words beginning mah tovu, he marvelled at ‘mishk’notecha’, the dwellings of the Israelites, perhaps he was in awe of how the people had made a dwelling for God in their hearts. When we sing Mah tovu, it is our way to create holy time and space in community, and to make space for God to dwell in our own hearts.

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