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.