June 12, 2008
Week 239, Day 4
9 Sivan 5768

Mah Tovu, Mishkan Tefilah, p. 193.
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

The liturgical opening of the morning worship service is traditionally identified with Mah Tovu, a text that begins with a citation from Numbers 24:5, where Balaam the prophet-for-hire blesses the “tents” of the children of Jacob.  Balaam also blesses the “Mishkan” of the people of Israel.  The word “Mishkan” is not only part of our new prayer book’s title; it also refers to the desert sacred space where God’s presence would be made manifest within the people.  The traditional text of Mah Tovu goes on to speak of entering God’s house with humility.  Texts from Psalms play a large role in these words.

On the left side of the two-page spread in Mishkan T’filah (p. 193 in the Shabbat Morning Service I), we are given an alternative reading.  It is short enough to cite in full:

                                    May the One whose spirit is with us in every righteous deed,
                                    be with all who work for the good of humanity
                                    and bear the burdens of others,
                                    and who give bread to the hungry,
                                    who clothe the naked,
                                    and take the friendless into their homes.
                                    May the work of their hands endure,
                                    and may the seed they sow bring abundant harvest.

How does this prayer differ than the traditional text?  The traditional Mah Tovu presents the worshipper as humble supplicant, bowing low and hoping for God’s deliverance.  The new reading reflects a perspective of strength rather than humility.  Instead of beseeching God out of a place of relative worthlessness, we recognize that we have the potential to perform many mitzvot and thereby improve the world.  We ask for God’s help in efforts already begun.  We are far from helpless supplicants.  In these words, we are more like able partners of God.

The inclusion of this prayer on the “left side” of the two-page spread is no accident.  Its words reflect a “non-traditional” theology.  Instead of a straight hierarchy in which God is “on high” and we are “down low” -- so to speak – we get what might be called a “theology of human adequacy” (see p. ix of the Introduction to Mishkan T’filah).  In other words, we celebrate our “partnership” with God, albeit an unequal one, and focus on what we can achieve.

The great thing about Mishkan T’filah is that such different theologies can exist literally on the same page.  The careful reader/worshipper can find many ways to think about God and ourselves in the pages of our new siddur, even if the emphasis on ethical action and social justice is particularly strong, as it is in our alternative prayer for Mah Tovu.

In short, Mah Tovu reminds us that we have goodness inside of us.  The theology of our alternative reading celebrates that goodness.

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg is the Rabbi of Temple Judea of Coral Gables and a member of the Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living.

RJ.org: News and Views of Reform Jews. Join the conversation on the new Reform blog at http://www.rj.org

Adult Study Retreat 2008
Registration is now open for the Summer Adult Study Retreat (formerly known as Kallah) July 8-13, 2008, Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, NH. The theme will be Israel at 60. http://urj.org/educate/adultstudy/summer/

EIE Adult Institute
Thinking of celebrating Israel's vibrant history,then you should explore Israel as part of the EIE Adult Institute, July 20-August 3. Travel through time and explore our rich history. Registration is open,  http://urj.org/educate/adultstudy/eieadult/ 

Take your study of 10 Minutes of Torah to the next level by signing up for Eilu V'Eilu. Each month, two scholars will debate an issue and answer questions raised by you, the learner. Additional textual information will be available through the Eilu V'Eilu webpage.

For more information and to sign up, go to the Eilu V'Eilu webpage.

Sign up today for The Weekly Briefing, an email of Jewish news from Reform Movement and the greater Jewish world. www.urj.org/subscribe

10 Minutes of Torah is produced by the Union for Reform Judaism -
Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning and the URJ Press.
Visit our Web site for more information. ©2008

unch at fkdslunch