Parashat Balak contains the source for a Tefillah that we say every day during Shacharit, Mah Tovu. Interestingly enough, Mah Tovu is based on a blessing that Bil’am gave to Bnei Yisrael near the end of Parashat Balak. After failing twice to curse Bnei Yisrael, Bil’am blesses us a third time, saying: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov Mishkenotecha Yisrael,” “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (BeMidbar 24:5). This line is the inspiration for the Tefillah of Mah Tovu that Chazal instituted for us to say each morning.
Chazal emphasize throughout Parashat Balak that Bil’am was a Rasha. Chazal (Sanhedrin 105a) claim that Bil’am was involved in the enslavement and suffering of the Jews in Mitzrayim by suggesting to Par’oh to decree that all Jewish babies be thrown into the Nile. According to Chazal, Bil’am seems to be at the root of the first national persecution of the Jews.
While Balak appears to be the supreme Jew-hater in Parashat Balak, Chazal state that it was actually Bil’am who hated us more. Towards the beginning of Parashat Balak, Bil’am states that Balak sent messages to him saying: “Atah Lecha Kavah Li Oto Ulay Uchal LeHilachem Bo VeGeirashtiv,” “Now go and imprecate Bnei Yisrael for me (Bil’am); perhaps I will be able to make war against Bnei Yisrael and I will drive Bnei Yisrael away” (22:11) Rashi (ad loc. s.v. VeGeirashtiv) notes that Bil’am omitted that Balak said “And I will drive Bnei Yisrael away from the land” and merely said “and I will drive Bnei Yisrael away.” Rashi comments that Balak wished only to drive us away from the land, while Bil’am wanted to drive us away from the world, because Bil’am hated us more than Balak did. Here, we see that not only was Bil’am involved with the suffering of the Jews in Mitzrayim, but that he wanted to wipe us out completely.
In the end of Parashat Balak, the Jews were led into committing Arayot with the Mo’avi women (BeMidbar 25:1). The plan was for the Jews to lose Hashem’s favor so that they would be defenseless, struck, and driven away. Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Liznot El Benot Mo’av) comments that this plan was devised by Bil’am himself. Bil’am was such a Rasha that even though he saw that Hashem was protecting us, he nonetheless plotted to destroy us. Chazal even declare(Sanhedrin 105a) that Bil’am is one of four commoners in Tanach who is such a Rasha that he forfeited his share in Olam HaBa.
After understanding that Mah Tovu is based on the Berachah of Bil’am, a Rasha, an enormous question emerges. Why would Chazal institute the Berachah of a Rasha who tried to curse the Jews to be said daily, and why specifically did they institute this Berachah instead of many other beautiful praises in Tanach to be said daily?
To answer , we must understand the Tefillah of Mah Tovu. We previously translated “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov Mishkenotecha Yisrael” to mean “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (BeMidbar 24:5). This simple understanding of the phrase, however, is not accurate, based on the context of the Tefillah of Mah Tovu. The Tefillah of Mah Tovu continues to say, “VaAni BeRov Chasdecha Avo Veitecha Eshtachaveh El Heichal Kodshecha BeYir’atecha,” “As for me, through Your abundant grace, I enter your house to worship with awe in Your sacred place.” After the first line, the Tefillah describes worshipping Hashem where He dwells. ,Thus, from the context it is evident that the first line is not describing our simple homes.
This is supported by a statement recorded in Sanhedrin 105b that when Bil’am said “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov Mishkenotecha Yisrael,” he really wanted to curse us to not have Batei Kenessiyot and Batei Midrashot, but was forced to bless us. However, Rashi (BeMidbar 24:5 s.v. Mah Tovu) seems to contradict the Gemara, for he says that Bil’am was praising the Jews for the fact that the entrances to their tents were not opposite each other in order for there to be proper modesty and prvacy. Rashi seems to suggest that the “Ohalecha” referred to in the Pasuk are the tents of the Jews, whereas the Gemara claims that they are Batei Kenessiyot and Batei Midrashot, places where the Shechinah dwells. How can the opinion of Rashi be reconciled with the opinion of the Gemara?
I suggest that the Gemara and Rashi are referring to the same place – the tents of the Jews. It’s possible that in the Midbar, the Jews turned their homes into places full of Avodat Hashem, and therefore the Shechinah would dwell in them. They may have turned their homes into quasi Batei Kenessiyot and Batei Midrashot, where they would form a connection through Tefillah to Hashem and Torah learning. Rashi may have been just giving an example of how the Jewish homes were on such a high level that they made sure they weren’t facing in the direction of the entrance of another Jewish tent for proper modesty. Perhaps the reason that we say Mah Tovu immediately when we enter a Shul is that we wish to praise the Shul for being a place where the Shechinah dwells.
When Bil’am saw that we had transformed our homes into a place for the Divine presence, he was inspired to praise and bless us with “Mah Tovu”. We created a Kiddush Hashem and were praised for bringing Hashem into our lives. The fact that Bil’am, a Rasha, praised us by reciting Mah Tovu makes the Tefillah even holier, since, of all people, it was a Rasha who acknowledge our devotion to Hashem in our daily lives with the prayer of “Mah Tovu.” Mah Tovu is unique in that it recognizes the Kiddush Hashem we made as a result of transforming our homes in a place of Avodat Hashem. This is why Chazal instituted the Tefillah of Mah Tovu to be said over all other Berachot in the morning of the day – to remind us of the importance of revolving our homes and daily lives around Avodat Hashem and to make a Kiddush Hashem.
We should be inspired from this example to transform our own homes and daily lives to be filled with Avodat Hashem. Our homes should be places of Tefillah and Torah learning in order to bring the Divine presence into our daily lives. And in the course of our daily lives, may our devotion to Hashem serve as a Kiddush Hashem and as an inspiration to those around us, just like the tents of Yisrael served as a Kiddush Hashem to Bil’am.