D’var Torah: Finding peace in our own tents

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 June 2021

Ma tovu ohalecha yaakov, mishknotecha yisrael
How good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israel.

With these words in our Torah portion tomorrow morning, Balaam – hired to curse Israel – actually blesses the people.
And with his words, now absorbed into our liturgy, we began our service this evening.

Among the many questions the commentators ask about this verse, is why ohalecha and mishknotecha – why the two different words for homes.

The reason, of course, is because this is poetry, and it sounds better this way.  But this is not enough for the commentators who seek to find meaning wherever they can, and come up with a variety of possible explanations.

One is that these refer to different places – different Jewish locations that we might see when we look out over the Jewish world.
Ohalecha are places of study; mishknotecha are our synagogues

Another is that these refer to the same place but in different states
Ohalecha – was the tabernacle, the temple, when in use.
Mishknotecha refers to it when in ruins – still beautiful, but different (and now related not only to the word mishkan – dwelling place – but also to the word mashkon, meaning a pledge – our ruined places are our pledge, our promise, our obligation).

Or maybe, another explanation – the different words relate to the People inside:
Ohalecha – tents – are, according to one commentary, those who only study Torah only occasionally, to be compared to temporary dwellings, whilst the Mishknotecha are those who dwell more permanently. Yet both are beautiful, both essential parts of the people.

The most profound explanation we might imagine, though, is that these different words are actually about us: the ohalecha and mishknotecha are different parts of who we are.

Like the temple – we too have an Ohel, a tent, an outer layer – the bit of us that encounters the world, and the bit that we show to others.
And we have an inner, a mishkan, our inner lives – where we dwell, where we sit.

Our goal should be that our inner and our outer are both good – both in tune with one another: our tent, how we are outside, the fabric, the canvas, what we show to the world, should be in tune with what happens inside, what we feel and think.  As we sang just a moment ago – Yihyu l’ratson imrei fi v’hegyon libi – may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable.


Even more powerfully, if we understand ohalecha and mishknotecha as our outer and inner selves is the idea that real goodness for us is when we are able to dwell.  When we can live in our reality, be in our tent, not troubled inside by what we don’t have, not always looking for fault in ourselves or others, able to recognise the goodness of what we have.

To be able to truly dwell where we are with contentment. Mishknotecha and Ohalecha in harmony.

So perhaps not merely poetry at all – but an insight into human life and happiness.
– ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishknotecha yisrael.
Whatever our understanding on this Shabbat, may we enjoy the blessing of good tents and the ability to dwell within them.