Mah Tovu and the Transformative Power of Prayer

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz

One of the first prayers we teach our children is Mah Tovu. Though it is not part of the formal prayer services, it appears in the siddur and many have the practice of reciting this prayer whenever they enter a synagogue or Beit Midrash.  The prayer opens with a pasuk from this week’s parsha, uttered by Bilam when he tried to curse B’nei Yisrael but Hashem made words of praise come out of his mouth instead: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” (Bamidbar 24:5).  The practice of reciting this pasuk when entering shul or a Beit midrash is based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin 105b which connects Bilam’s stated words with these communal institutions.  The Sforno explains that these communal institutions are described as goodly because they provide benefit not only for those who frequent them, but for the entire nation.

The earliest reference to Mah Tovu as a formal prayer is brought in Seder Rav Amram Gaon (9th Century).  It is also mentioned in the Aruch haShulchan (OH 46:1).  Interestingly, The Rema brings it in his Darchei Moshe commentary on the Tur (OH 6) but not in his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch.

While Mah Tovu is firmly entrenched in our liturgical tradition, I have always identified with the objection raised by the Maharshal (R. Shlomo Luria, 16th Century, Poland): “When I come to synagogue I begin with the verse “But as for me, in the abundance of Thy lovingkindness…” (Psalms 5:8) and skip the first verse “How goodly are thy tents” (Numbers 24:5) because Balaam said it [first] and he said it as a curse as we find in Sanhedrin 105b, and this is not its proper place” (Shut Maharshal 64).  If, indeed, Bilam was evil, why are his words among the first that we teach our children?  Why are they included in the siddur?

I suggest an answer to this question based on Yosef Albo’s explanation of prayer in his Sefer Ikarim.  Albo wrestles with the philosophical difficulty of how petitional prayer can ever be effective if God is all-knowing?  Hashem has already declared what the end result will be, and God’s will does not change.  Logically, then, our prayers should have no impact on the outcome.  R. Albo explains that God’s will does not change.  However, the future outcome is determined for each individual as they are at that moment in time.  The act of prayer has the power to transform the individual into a new person – about whom a different decree is possible.  Because prayer is transformative, there is no more philosophical difficulty.

The structure and content of the siddur helps us to go through a transformation described by Albo.  Throughout the siddur we utter the words of others – beginning with Bilam’s words of Mah Tovu, the words of Tehilim composed by David haMelech that comprise the majority of pesukei de-zimra, the words of Moshe and B’nei Yisrael during Shirat haYam, etc.  In one sense, we begin tefilah as a rasha (wicked person) deserving of punishment.  If we internalize this sentiment, then our prayers will be more sincere and more passionate.  The discomfort of beginning with the word of Bilam further helps us to be open to the transformative power of our prayer.


Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz serves as the Rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Pikesville, MD. He was a member of the Summer Beit Midrash in 2001.  


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