Parashat Balak opens with a report of Balak, king of Moab, seeing how Israel had totally defeated the Amorites, who challenged them in battle. Balak is in dread of the Israelites. He is afraid they "will lick up all that is around them as the ox licks the grass from the field." (Numbers 22:4) So Balak hires a hasbara, public relations, expert by the name of Bilaam, whom he hopes will curse and vilify Israel so that it becomes an international pariah. Once a pariah, Balak hopes that he will gain international support for his attempts to destroy Israel.
Thousands of years later Balak would have plenty of applicants for the job: Ahmadinejad, Morsi, Assad, those Palestinians now suggesting that Arafat was poisoned, and more. The sad truth is that there is no need to hire anyone-- there are plenty of volunteers!
In the end the strategy does not work. In a wonderful dramatic twist, Bilaam's curses come out as blessings, one of which, Mah Tovu, ironically becomes the first blessing of the siddur recited upon entering the sanctuary.
No one expects Israel's enemies to turn around and bless her, but what did Bilaam see in Israel’s tents and dwelling places, and what do they represent for Israel to be worthy of such a blessing?
The traditional response is that the tents of Israel represented schools and the dwelling places, homes. According to Nehama Leibowitz, "Bilaam was impressed by the historic continuity of our people, the vigor and firm foundations of the traditions initiated by the patriarchs and matriarchs." When schools flourish and Jewish homes are intact, no curse, ancient or modern, can defeat or destroy our people.
I once heard Irwin Cotler, a leading international expert on human rights and former member of Canada's government, speak to a group of Jewish leaders about the best response to those who would curse us. His point was that our strongest strategic asset is the belief in the justice of our own cause. If we don't assert our own ethics, he argued, how can we expect others to?
Mah Tovu, then, is a reminder that our schools and our homes are the bastions of our ethics and our goodness. They are the teaching places of the justice of our cause, the rightness of our position. When they are strong, our hasbara is strong, too, and blessings are abundant.