Rabbi Nachi Friedman
Anshi Sfard 2022
This week’s Torah portion has something unique. In fact, it only happens 4 other times in the entire Torah. Out of the 245 columns in the standard Torah, 240 of them begin with the letter vav. This is referred to as vavei Haamudim (ווי העמודים). Five columns deviate and begin the column with a different Hebrew letter. The mnemonic given for these deviations is בי-ה שמ. This stand for Bereishis, Yehuda, Habaim, Ma Tovu and Shemor (בראשית, יהודה אתה יודוך, הבאים אחריהם, מה טבו, שמר לך). This custom to organize the Torah in this way is quoted by the Rama in Yoreh Deah 273 and is the standard layouts for Torahs. This week’s parsha hosts one of the deviations: mem. In Numbers chapter 24:5, the antagonist Bilaam attempts to curse the Jews but his cursing is swapped for a blessing/compliment to the Jewish people praising the holiness of their houses.
מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל– How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
Not only is Ma Tovu special due to its deviation from the norm of starting the column with the letter vav, the verse Ma Tovu has a prominent role in our prayers every day. Most siddurim begin the mourning prayers with the verse Ma Tovu. Orach Hashulchan OC 46:17 even quotes customs to recite this verse every time one enters a synagogue. Gemara Brachos 12b even entertains canonizing the entire story of Bilaam into the Krias Shema prayer, the iconic and most well-known prayer. It would appear to be an understatement to say that Ma Tovu is an important verse.
Maharsha (64) argues that this verse should not be recited. He argues that this blessing/compliment to the Jewish people had ill-intentions. While the words were nice, the intent behind the statement was malicious. Why would we want to prominently display this verse both in the Torah as well as in our siddurim? Is there a connection between the “missing” vav on the column and this compliment given by Bilaam to the Jews?
In general, compliments can be difficult to accept. There are several reasons for our discomfort when receiving a compliment. Some deflect or downplay the compliment out of fear of appearing arrogant. Others distance themselves from the compliment due to their low self-esteem or self-confidence. In some cases, receivers of the compliment may even experience fear as they might interpret the compliment as an attack via sarcasm or backhanded compliment/insult.
One variable that increases the likelihood of discomfort with a compliment is time. There is a negative correlation between time and comfort with accepting compliments. The more time passes between the event and the compliment, the less comfortable the individual will be to accept the compliment. For example, complimenting someone’s 3-pointer will be more easily accepted by the shooter if the compliment is given right after the basket was made than when given later that night. Time can increase the likelihood that the receiver will downplay, dismiss, and feel uncomfortable with the compliment.
While Bilaam’s blessing/compliment was beautiful, it was received after a delay from the event from which it was being praised. Because the entire story of Bilaam occurred without any interaction with the Jewish people, no one knew about the Blessing until it was recounted later. Therefore, when it was initially received there may have been a discomfort or a disconnect to the compliment! This is hinted to by the “missing” vav, a letter that connects and joins items together (vav’s english translation is “and”). Perhaps, the reason we specifically connect our entrance to synagogue and prelude our prayers with the verse Ma Tovu to connect the compliment to an action. We begin our prayers specifically with this verse to show how we deserve this blessing/compliment fully and not the downplayed or watered-down version of the compliment.
Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, How great are the tents of Yaakov. May we all merit to see the good in others and ourselves as Bilaam saw many years ago. Perhaps this week, the week of Biblically disconnecting compliments we can all find a way to provide a compliment to one individual. Allow ourselves to find a good deed or merit from someone else and compliment it right away to obtain the compliment’s optimal impact. May we merit to reunite and connect the “missing” vav by showing our fellow Jews kindness and love. Have a wonderful Shabbos