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Bamidbar/Numbers 24:5 contains the famous verse which is also recited in the Mah Tovu prayer: How goodly are thy tents, O Ya'akov, thy dwellings, O Yisrael - מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.

When saying the Mah Tovu there seems to be some sort of transformation from Ya'akov to Yisrael, and from ohalecha (ohel) to mishkenotecha (mishkan).

What's the spiritual(figurative/methaphorical) difference between Ya'akob and Yisrael, and between Ohel and Mishkan?

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The Malbim answers:

מה טבו אהליך יעקב
האהל הוא אהל עראי והמשכן הוא הקבוע,‏
ובמדבר שכנו באהלים אבל היו מוכנים אז לכנס אל הארץ ולשכון במשכנות קבועים
ובלעם ראה כל זה, ואמר על האהלים שבמדבר מה טבו אהליך יעקב
ועל מה שמוכנים לשכון במשכנות בארץ ישראל אמר מה טובו משכנותיך ישראל
ושם ישראל גדול משם יעקב, כי כשיכנסו לארץ יהיו במעלה יותר גדולה ויקראו בשם ישראל:‏

To paraphrase:
A tent (Ohel - אֹהָלֶיךָ) is a temporary structure and a dwelling (Mishkan - מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ) is permanent.

In the desert - where this blessing was pronounced - they dwelled in tents and when they would eventually enter the Holy Land they would dwell in permanent structures.

Bilam realized this and praised their current tents - מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב- as well as their future dwellings - מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Similarly, the status of Yisrael is greater than that of Yaakov, hinting to the fact that once they enter the land they would be on a higher spiritual level than currently during their wanderings.

To summarize:
How goodly are thy [temporary] tents [in the desert], O Ya'akov, [and] thy dwellings [once you enter the Holy Land], [and you will then be elevated to the status of] O Yisrael [by entering the land].

  • Malbim brings a beautiful incite to a bracha recited by one of B'nai Israel's biggest enemies. One would think that even though, Hashem controlled what he was saying, perhaps, Bilam should have been given some credit directly for this. – DanF Jun 4 '18 at 21:33
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Sefer Chanukas Hatorah Bamidbar 24:5 ספר חנוכת התורה במדבר כד ה

בפסוק 'מה טובו אהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל'. ויש לדקדק פעם מכנה אותם בשם יעקב ופעם בשם ישראל. וגם הבית המקדש מכנה פעם בשם אהל ופעם בשם משכן. ויש לבאר דאיתא בגמרא דבזמן שישראל עושים רצונו של מקום אז הם נקראים ישראל, וכשאין עושים רצונו של מקום נקראים בשם יעקב. והנה איתא במדרש חזית דבזמן שבית המקדש קיים אז נקרא אהל וכשחרב נקרא משכן שנתמשכן וכו' כדאיתא במדרש וברש"י פרשת ויקהל עיין שם. והנה איתא במדרש דכל זמן שבית המקדש היה קיים היה הדור רשעים, ובזמן שנחרב נעשו צדיקים. לפי זה יובן הפסוק וכך אמר 'מה טובו אהליך יעקב' - רצה לומר כשנקרא המקדש אהל, דהיינו בזמן שהוא בנוי ואז הוא טוב אבל נגד זה נקראים אז יעקב, רצה לומר דנקראים רשעים כנזכר לעיל. מה שאין כן משכנותיך רצה לומר כשחרב המקדש אז מקרי משכן על שם שנתמשכן בעוונותם, אבל כנגד זה ישראל רצה לומר דאז הם צדיקים ועושים רצונו של מקום ונקראים בשם ישראל.

In the verse, "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!" It may be noted that sometimes he efers to them as Jacob and sometimes as Israel. The Holy Temple is also refered to sometimes as a tent and sometimes as a Mishkan. And it is stated in the Gemara that when Israel do the will of a Hashm then they are called Israel, and when the will of a Hashem is not done, they are called in the name of Yaakov. And so it is stated in the Midrash Chazit that at the time that the Temple existed then it was called called the Ohel, and when it was destroyed it was called Mishkan, as it was taken as a mashkon (collateral) etc. as it is written in Midrash and Rashi, Parashat Vayakhel, see there. And behold it is brought in the Midrash that as long as the Beis Hamikdosh stood the people of the generation were wicked, and when it was destroyed they became righteous. And this is what he [Bilaam] said, "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob" - He wanted to say that when the Temple was called Ohel, that is, when it is built, then it is good, but on the other hand you are called Yaakov. As if to say that they are wicked, as stated above, but conversely, when it is called Mishkan, meaning when it is destroyed, for it was taken as collateral for their sins, Yet, this is the time when Israel are righteous and are called Yisrael.

In Summation: While the Bais Hamikdosh stood it was called "OHEL", yet that was a time when the people sinned and were wicked, and they were called "YAAKOV". When the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed it was referred to as MISHKAN", (taken away as a mashkon - collateral), but the Jews became righteous and were referred to as "YISRAEL".

Bilaam says: On the one hand the time of [OHALECHA], when the Bais Hamikdosh stood, was good, but there was the negative aspect of the Jews being called "YAAKOV", wicked. Conversely, at the time of MISHKAN", when the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, there was the upside of being called "YISRAEL", as they were righteous.

  • I'm not sure as to the exact answer to the OP's question: "So what does this comparison teach us?" - (The understanding of the different terms Mishkan, Ohel, Yaakov, Yisrael have to be known before understanding the passuk, so I don't assume that this what it is teaching us.) - Is the passuk teachng us that there is a (silver-lining) upside to churban Beis hamikdash? – RibbisRabbiAndMore Jun 4 '18 at 10:46

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