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Parshas Mattos (5774)

Prayer: Our True Protective Edge

In this week’s exciting Torah portion, Bilaam, the wicked prophet who had been hired by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the Jewish people, finds his ignoble end, as the Torah tells us: “…and Bilaam son of Beor they slew with the sword” (Numbers 31:8).

In his commentary to the above verse, Rash”i seems to be bothered by the Torah’s need to tell us that Bilaam was killed “with the sword”. After all, who really cares how that wicked man got killed, so long as he’s dead!

Rash”i explains that “with the sword” implies that they used a method of killing that was uncharacteristic of the Jewish nation. He bases his explanation on a Midrash Tanchuma in Parshas Balak which states the following amazing idea:

“Bilaam came against Israel and exchanged his craft with Israel’s craft, for the Israelites triumph only with their mouth, through prayer and supplication, and Bilaam came and seized their craft by cursing them with his mouth. They, too, came against him and exchanged their craft for the craft of the [other] nations, who come with the sword, as it says, ‘By your sword you shall live’ (Genesis 27:40).”

What this means in plain English is that although it might appear as if we are killing our enemies with the sword – or the Uzi or the missile or whatever – that’s not what’s really going down. It is actually our Tefillah - the power of the prayers that come from our mouths - that gives us our true ‘protective edge’ and allows us to vanquish our enemies.

One time in history, though, we exchanged our craft with the craft of the nations around us and killed someone with an actual sword – and that was Bilaam the wicked. Otherwise, it has been our prayers, and our prayers alone, that have been protecting us all the time. Wow! What a concept!

Now of course it goes without saying that we need to have an army “protecting” us at all times. But we must always remember that it is the power of our craft, our prayers, that is killing the bad guys and not the sword.

This powerful idea is illustrated in the weekly Torah portion, Parshas Mattos, where Moses prepares the Jewish people to go to war against the evil nation of Midian (see Numbers 31:3). The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 22:2 tells us that when Moses ran his first draft, he selected 36,000 soldiers, each group of 12,000 having a distinct function. While 12,000 actually went into battle, 12,000 attended to the weapons and supplies, and the remaining 12,000 prayed.

This is because Moses understood that prayer is an essential component of war. It provides the quotient for success, for without prayer, the bullets and the rockets are of no avail. They will not hit their targets. And to pound this lesson home, he appointed a ratio of 1:1 so that for every single soldier fighting with his sword on the front lines, there was another soldier praying to G-d on his behalf that he should destroy the enemy and come home safely.

King David writes about those who are out to destroy him: “Through You [G-d] shall we gore our foes; by Your name trample our opponents. For I do not trust in my bow, nor does my sword save me” (Psalms 44:6-7).

In this Psalm, King David is echoing this eternal truth of the Torah – that it is neither the bow nor the sword but our prayers and supplications that will ultimately save us from our enemies. Our ‘craft’ is our mouth, the power of tefillah, and not the sword.

In fact, the Talmud in Bava Basra 123a teaches that when Jacob told his children that he conquered his enemies “with my sword and with my bow” (see Genesis 48:22), he wasn’t referring to actual weapons. Rather, the sword refers to prayer and the bow refers to supplication.

Mahara”l in his commentary Gur Aryeh explains that the prayer of the righteous is like a sword because it “pierces” the Heavens, and their supplication is like a bow because, just as an arrow’s swiftness, power, and distance depend on the pressure exerted on the bow, so too the efficacy of a supplication depends on the degree of the supplicant’s concentration and sincerity.

So let’s remember now that our boys are going into Gaza where the risk of being killed, G-d forbid, is very high, that it is only our continued heartfelt prayers and supplications – the craft that we Jews have always lived by – that will protect our soldiers from any harm, and that will give all of our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel the protective edge they need.

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