Mah Tovu No. 1

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Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael.

“How good are your tents, O Jacob, how pleasant your dwellings.” (Num 24:5)

When the renowned magician Bilam was commissioned by King Balak to curse the Israelites, despite all his best efforts, Bilam found himself unable to do so. It is said that “the spirit of God came upon him”, and the curse transformed into a blessing. How did this come about? This question prompted a new midrash of my own …

Bilam was often called upon for his great skill in casting spells and incantations – he had a powerful way with words. To be commissioned by King Balak himself was an important honour and opportunity for the magician, and he wanted to create an especially strong and memorable curse.

But at the moment that Bilam began to gather his thoughts, he found them completely scrambled, and none of the poisonous words he had planned would come to his lips. In consternation, all he could splutter was the Hebrew word “Mah!” – “what … how …?!”

Bilam paused in order to regain some composure, breathe deeply, and start again. His task was to invoke misfortune on the Israelites, and he did not intend to fail! He resolved to wish upon them the same chaos – tohu vavohu [Gen 1:2] – that prevailed at the time of Creation itself. But once more, afflicted in his own mind by the very chaos he had intended to bring down upon Balak’s enemies, the words tohu vavohu twisted his tongue. “Tovu!” was all he could utter.

In dismay, Bilam cried out, “O!”, followed by an exasperated “Ha!” He turned to Balak, filled with fear and pleading. He wanted to say, “For you, I have been preparing my best work!” “Lecha …,” he began. But he stopped mid-sentence when he saw the horror on Balak’s face, the king’s anger at Bilam’s failure.

Turning away, beside himself with embarrassment, confusion and rage, Bilam roared in fury, “Yaaargh!” choking as he did so, so that it ended in a strangled ‘cough!’.

Everyone was stunned into silence. It was only now that Bilam understood the full significance of the sounds that had come from his own throat: “Mah?! – tovu! – O! … Ha! … lechaya’a! cough!” – “how good are your dwellings, Jacob”. What had started as a curse had instead become … a blessing!

I sometimes like to think that this is why we begin our morning service with the words Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov. We invoke one of the great blessings on our people as we enter sacred time with each other and with God. May all the curses we receive – or bestow – be turned into blessings!

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