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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parshios Mattos- Masei(66)

These two sedras end our readings in the Book of Numbers. Mattos tells us the laws of vows; the preparation for death of Moses; the war with Midian; the request of the tribes, Gad and Reuben, to take possession of land in TranJordan instead of taking their portion in Israel proper. Masei tells of the journeys during the 40 years in the wilderness; the borders of the Land of Israel; the laws of the cities of refuge.

Let us examine a Rashi-comment and its midrash. After the victory over Midian the Torah tells us the following:

Numbers 31:8

They killed the kings of Midian along with their slain ones: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian ; and Bilaam son of Beor they killed with the sword.


With the sword: Rashi: He (Bilaam) came against Israel and exchanged his craft with their craft who are victorious only by means of their mouth, i.e. through prayer and supplication and he (Bilaam) came and grabbed their craft by cursing them with his mouth. They (Israel) also came against him and exchanged their craft for the craft of the gentiles who come with the sword as it says (Genesis 27:40) "by your sword shall you live."


The Midrash teaches a relevant and historically accurate idea. The gentiles wage war relying on their arms while Israel wages war relying on G-d through their prayers to Him.

But as you look at this comment and think about it, can you think of a question?

Your Question:


A Question: Is Rashi telling us that the Jews never fight wars with swords? Certainly Jews may be a peace loving nation, but they also fight wars (like right at this moment in Lebanon and Aza!! But they're not using swords now!). In the Torah we also find Jews fighting wars of self-defense and they fought wars to conquer the Land of Israel in Joshua's time.

So what is Rashi saying?

What is bothering him that lead to this comment?

Hint: Look at his Lead Word

Your Answer:


An Answer: This is a very subtle point. There is a little known rule in Biblical language use. Whenever the gentiles wage war against Israel the language is "becharev" "with the sword" . But when Israel wages war the language is always "l'fi cherev" "by the mouth (blade) of the sword." The fact that this subtlety is consistent throughout the Tanach is truly amazing. We will discuss what this implies later on.

Rashi is reacting to the fact that our verse is an exception to this rule. Here Israel is waging war but the language is "becharev" which is the language used when the gentiles wage war against Israel. Why this exception?

This is what is bothering Rashi?

How does Rashi's comment deal with this?

Your Answer:


An Answer: Rashi says that here Israel has co-opted the gentiles way of waging war, just like Bilaam "grabbed" Israel's way of fighting its enemies - by the mouth. Bilaam tried cursing Israel, which is a verbal assault. That is why here, when Israel kills Bilaam, it uses the language of "becharev" instead of Israel's appropriate language of "l'fi cherev." It is a measure for measure punishment.


But we would ask: What significance does this verbal nuance between "becharev" and "l'fi cherev" mean? There must be some significance to it., otherwise the Torah would not be so consistent about its use.

Can you think of an answer?

I'm sure you can.

Your Answer:


An Answer: Jews resort to prayer ("the mouth of the sword") before their wars, because they know that victory depends not on armed strength but on G-d's will. "Not by armies and not by might, but by My spirit says Hashem" (Zachariah 4:6).

So Israel prays first - "the mouth of the sword" meaning the mouth (prayer) enables the sword to be successful.

The pagan, on the other hand, relies exclusively on his might, on the sword alone.


An important thought to remember at all times - and especially in these difficult days for Israel.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi." The 5 Volume set is available at all Jewish bookstores.

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