The words of the non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, are the first words read by the congregation at every morning service: "Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov; mishkenotecha Yisrael!" The words, which begin the piyyut (liturgical poem) are followed by words from the book of Psalms:
I, through Your great love, enter into Your House. I prostrate myself before Your holy Temple in reverence to You. (Psalms 5:7)
Adonai, how I love the refuge of Your House, the place of the dwelling of Your glory! (Psalms 26:8)
I prostrate and bow; I offer blessing before Adonai my maker! (Psalms 95:6)
I offer prayer to You, Adonai, at the time when it is accepted; God, in Your great love, answer me faithfully with Your redemption! (Psalms 69:14)
Together, these verses form a poem about being in sacred space. We begin the morning service by reminding ourselves what it means to stand on the sacred ground of God's House in worship.
But, why should that be necessary? If we are in the synagogue, the sacred gathering place of the Jewish people, why should we need to declare ourselves to be standing in sacred space? Aren't we there already?
The answer, of course, is that, from a Jewish perspective, holiness is a matter of intention, kavanah. Without the right kavanah, a synagogue is nothing more than a fancy building with a closet at one end to store some old scrolls. The building does not become a synagogue until we enter the space with the intention to be in a synagogue.
In a very real sense, we recite the verses of Mah Tovu in order to sanctify the space in which we stand. Every morning, as we begin the service with the words of Balaam, we turn a building into a synagogue and create sacred space all around us.
This is the secret of Mah Tovu. With a turn of the heart, we place ourselves in sacred space. We discover that we can spend our entire lives living in holiness just by having the intention to be aware of God's presence.