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Torah Commentary
Balak (July 7, 2012)

Lori Corrsin

THE WORDS ABOVE, which form the opening verse of the prayer Ma Tovu (How Fair), come from this week’s Torah portion, Balak.

The circumstances are as follows: The Moabite king, Balak, asks Balaam, a foreign prophet, to curse the Israelites. (Balak felt threatened by the numbers and power of the neighboring Israelites.) After much resistance (including a talking donkey and conversations with God and an angel), Balaam journeys to a hill overlooking the Israelite camp. Instead of curses by Balaam, blessings from God emerge three different times, most notably these beginning words of the Ma Tovu prayer.

The later Rabbis took this verse and made it the opening of the daily synagogue service. In the Union Prayer Book, it begins Sabbath Morning Service I, the Morning Service for Weekdays and Yom Kippur Morning. After this declaration from Numbers 24, the prayer Ma Tovu is composed entirely of verses from the Book of Psalms that speak about coming before God.

Va’ani b’rov chasd’cha avo veitecha,
I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house;
eshtachaveh el heichal kodsh’cha b’yiratecha.
I bow down in awe at Your holy temple.
(Psalm 5:8)

Adonai, ahavti m’on beitecha
Adonai, I love Your temple abode,
um’kom mishkan k’vodecha.
The dwelling-place of Your glory.
(Psalm 26:8)

Va’ani eshtachaveh v’echra’ah,
I will prostrate myself and bow,
evr’chah lifnei Adonai osi.
I will kneel before Adonai, my Maker.
(Psalm 95:6)

Va’ani t’filati l’cha, Adonai,
As for me, may my prayer come to you, Adonai,
eit ratzon.
at a favorable time.
Elohim, b’rov chasdecha,
O God, in Your abundant kindness,
aneini be’emet yishecha.
answer me with Your sure deliverance.
(Psalm 69:14)

The Rabbis changed the biblical verse from Psalm 95 from a first-person plural (in which form most of our liturgy also appears) to a first-person singular form, to match the rest of these Psalm texts. How fascinating that this prayer that begins by celebrating the tents and sacred dwellings of the people Israel becomes a moment of intense private worship.

The Rabbis interpreted the Israelite’s tents or dwelling places to refer to any of our sacred spaces: the Tent of Meeting in the desert; the Temple in Jerusalem; the synagogue after the Temple was destroyed. Anywhere we can encounter the Divine Presence becomes God’s House, a place of holiness. We enter the sacred space to shed our everyday cares and concerns, to focus on and reach for the Divine.

At Emanu-El, through varied musical interpretations of Ma Tovu, we enter our own sacred place of awe and beauty, in our Main Sanctuary and within ourselves. Each setting evokes an emotional response in the listener, opening our minds and hearts, enhancing the prayer through the different composers’ styles and insights.

We sing 15 different Ma Tovu compositions at Emanu-El; the following four from our Choir library represent very different interpretations of the text.

The stately setting by Louis Lewandowski, written in the late 19th century, is the epitome of the choral Ma Tovu. A classic choral masterpiece, it demonstrates the height of Western Europe’s influence on synagogue music. It is a graceful waltz, sweeping us along into what is certainly the most famous Ma Tovu setting in the repertoire. The brief cantorial part in the middle (from Psalm 26:8 and 95:6) is not in waltz time but is recitative in style — Adonai ahavti m’on beitecha, um’kom mishkan k’vodecha. Va’ani eshtachaveh v’echra’ah evr’cha lifnei Adonai osi: Adonai, I love Your temple abode, the dwelling-place of Your glory. I will humbly bow down low before Adonai, my Maker.

The Choir then comes back, singing Psalm 69:14 and ending the composition with the return of Lewandowski’s wonderful dance. There is a calm certainty in the music that God will respond.

Hearing this dearly beloved piece gives us a peaceful connection with past generations and leads us into the prayer service with calm attentiveness.

Also in waltz time, Frederick Piket’s setting from the mid-20th century borrows some ideas from Lewandowski’s vision but also has many contrasting aspects. Piket has the Cantor begin, stating the first verse strongly. The Choir responds with a soft, intimate Va’ani b’rov chasdecha avo veitecha: I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house. They quickly build to a very dramatic eshtachaveh el heichal kodsh’cha b’yiratecha: I bow down in awe at Your holy temple.

The cantorial recitative that follows is the same text (from Psalms 26 and 95) as in the Lewandowski version and serves the same purpose, breaking with the waltz-time and providing a more speak-singing style. The Choir returns, repeating the Cantor’s opening melody quietly with the Psalm 69 text, Va’ani t’filati l’cha Adonai et ratzon: As for me, may my prayer come to You, Adonai, at a favorable time.

Cantor and Choir then join together and grow to a full, exciting climax at Elohim, b’rov chasdecha, aneini be’emet yishecha: O God, in Your abundant faithfulness, answer me with Your sure deliverance. Piket then, surprisingly, pulls back; the Cantor yearningly sings each word separately — aneini: answer me, be’emet: with truth, yishecha: of Your deliverance — with the Choir responding quietly in beautiful harmony to each word. The piece ends with hope and quiet faith that God will answer.

Max Janowski’s composition from the 1970s interprets the prayer in yet another way. The Cantor and then Choir begin with a bright, energetic declaration of the first verse. The Cantor and Choir never sing together at all in this setting; they only sing antiphonally. The opening melody is repeated through the piece three times by the Choir, punctuating and contrasting with the very low, quiet and introspective cantorial verses. The text from Psalm 95 — Va’ani eshtachaveh, I will prostrate myself — even contains several meditative sighs (Ah) by the Cantor, contemplations on God, the Creator.

In the last verse from Psalm 69, there is another sigh just before the Psalmist pleads twice with God to answer with the truth of His deliverance. The Choir ends with Ma Tovu, sung with power and belief. Janowski’s setting tells us that we each indeed can speak personally with God. Adonai hears and will support us.

A hauntingly beautiful, quiet melody in the bass voices of the Choir begins Andrea Jill Higgins’ contemporary Ma Tovu, accompanied by lush harmony in the upper voices. The sopranos then have a contrasting melody, although still soft and thoughtful, in the next verse (Psalm 5:8), Va’ani b’rov chasdecha avo veitecha, eshtachaveh el heichal kodshecha b’yiratecha: I, through Your abundant love enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy Temple.

The Cantor then sings (with one response only, Adonai, from the Choir) the same verses from Psalms 26 and 95 as in the Lewandowski and Piket settings.

The Choir soprano’s melody returns with the words of Psalm 69, with the last phrase, aneini be’emet yishecha, repeating the bass melody from the beginning of the piece.

This musical setting leads to reflection and contemplation, giving expression to our spiritual longings to see with new eyes, to develop a relationship with the Divine. A creative reading of the penultimate phrase, Va’ani t’filati l’cha, could be “I am my prayer to You.” All I have to offer You in prayer is myself, with all my inadequacies, but I offer all that I am to You. Please accept me, comfort me, help me; let me dwell in Your house, forever.

May we all find our way into prayer, traveling into ourselves and out to God, bringing us a sense of peace and inspiration, through the words and music of our tradition.

Kein y’hi ratson. May it be God’s will.

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