The Shema (Deut. 6) is Moses calling upon the people with a proclamation: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone”. Mah Tovu in this week’s portion is Bilam, the heathen prophet, telling Israel how impressed he is with them: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel”.
On one level the tents and dwelling places are the homes in which the Israelite people live. According to the rabbinic sages, what made Bilam so impressed was that there was an instinctive principle of privacy and respect for other people that led to the Israelite tents being arrayed in such a manner that no-one could see straight into anyone else’s tent.
A community with an inbuilt sense of modesty and respect was worthy of praise.
The praise was also warranted, say the sages, by the sight of the synagogues and places of study of the people. Even in unpromising surroundings they refused to abandon their prayer and study.
Bilam saw from outside what the Israelite people themselves probably did not notice, that they were a wonderful people precisely because when they did what they saw as perfectly natural they were endowing themselves with survival power.
If Bilam were alive today he would also find a great deal to praise. Jewish identity and commitment are strong, visible and growing.
The temptations of the environment cannot extinguish the little light of Judaism. The drift and apathy that characterise the minority of Jews cannot overwhelm the faithful majority.
Years ago one had reason to bemoan that Jews were to be found everywhere, but not in Judaism. Today the picture is being reversed. Jews are to be found everywhere, especially in Judaism. And all by voluntary choice. No-one is coercing us to be Jewish, nor to desert Judaism. The choice is ours.
Fortunately, most Jews choose to count themselves in. The so-called “Non-Jewish Jew” about whom so much has been written in gradually becoming a thing of the past.
How goodly are our tents and dwelling places!