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Torah Attitude: Parashas Mattos-Masei: The Secret Army


Revenge was taken only against the Midianites and not against the Moabites. For every thousand from the tribes of Israel that went into the army, another thousand went into the study halls to battle our enemies. The physical battlefield is only a fa?ade. The real confrontation takes place in the house of study and prayer where the soldiers are those who study Torah and pray to G'd. The "sword" refers to the study of Torah, and the "bow" refers to the words of prayer. The power of prayer depends on sincerity and truth. Our secret army is our Yeshiva students who fight with studies and prayers.

Revenge against Midianites

In last week's Torah portion, the Moabites and the Midianites seduced the Jewish men to commit various acts of immorality. Yet G'd commanded Moses to take revenge only against the Midianites. Rashi quotes two reasons from our sages why the Moabites were spared. One reason was that they were acting to protect their homeland from invasion; whereas, the Midianites made no pretensions whatsoever to justify their attack on the Jewish people. The Midianites hated the Jewish people and their hatred was the only reason why they attacked (see Rashi on Bamidbar 31:2). Rashi also mentions that since Ruth, the "mother" of the royal house of King David and eventually the Mashiach, was going to be born a Moabite, the whole nation was spared from attack (see Rashi Bamidbar 25:17).

Preparations for attack

G'd commanded Moses to prepare the Jewish army for attack, and said to him: "A thousand from a tribe, a thousand from a tribe, from all the tribes of Israel shall you send to the legion" (Bamidbar 31:4). Not one word in the Torah is without meaning. So why are the words "a thousand from a tribe" repeated? The Midrash says that for each soldier that went into the battlefield, another went into the house of prayer to daven. We find a similar situation in Tehillim when King David said, "Immobile stood our feet, within your gates, O Jerusalem" (Psalm 122:2). The Talmud says, "what was the cause that our feet stood immobile, firm in the war against our enemies? The gates ("shearim") of Jerusalem where people were occupied with Torah study" (Makkos 10b).

Jacob's powerful weapons

Prayer is the most powerful weapon of the Jewish people. As our Patriarch Isaac said when Jacob came to receive his blessing, "the voice is the voice of Jacob and the hand is the hand of Eisav" (Bereishis 27:22). The power of Jacob and his descendants is their voice whereas the power of Eisav and his descendants is their hand. When the voice of Jacob is heard in the houses of prayer and study, then the hands of Eisav have no power (Gittin 57b as quoted by the Vilna Gaon). When Jews go into battle, the physical battlefield is only a fa?ade. The real confrontation takes place in the house of study and prayer where the soldiers are those who study Torah and pray to G'd. This explains the verse we say whenever we open the Holy Ark before the reading of the Torah: "And it was when the Ark traveled, and Moses said, ‘Arise G'd and let your enemies scatter and let those who hate you flee from you.'" (Bamidbar 10:35) This sounds like a battle cry and would appear to be out of place in a synagogue prior to the Torah reading. However, with the realization that reading and studying the Torah is our most powerful weapon against our enemies, we understand why this is the appropriate time to pronounce this declaration.

Sword and bow

Jacob himself acknowledged this when he gave Joseph an extra piece of land, the land of Shechem. Before he passed away, he said, "I am giving you this land which I have taken with my sword and my bow" (Bereishis 48:22). However, our Sages explain that Jacob never fought at Shechem. He actually scolded his sons Shimon and Levy for fighting there. What does it mean "he took it with his sword and bow"? Moreover, why was the land of Shechem not given to Shimon and Levy who fought for it? Why was it given to Joseph? Rashi explains that the "sword" refers to the study of Torah, and the "bow" refers to words of prayer. The study of Torah strikes down the enemies of the Jewish people as in face to face confrontations. The prayers of the Jewish people reach up high to the Heavenly Throne and strike at our enemies from a distance (see Brachos 6b). This same idea is expressed by King David as he exclaims: "For not by their sword did they possess the land, nor did their own arm help them; but by Your right hand, Your arm, and the light of Your Countenance" (Psalm 44:4). The Targum explains that they merited the light of G'd's Countenance through their study of Torah. Everyday in our prayers we say, "for with the light of Your Countenance You gave us, our G'd, the Torah of life". In return, we merit the light of His Countenance through our Torah study.

Not so secret

Study and prayer, the secret weapons of the Jewish people, were not so secret many years ago. Our ancestors always accepted that when they went into war, they would rely on study and prayer. Even the gentiles were aware of this and took it into consideration when they went to fight the Jews. When Moses sent a message to the King of Edom requesting permission to go through their country, his introduction mentioned that in Egypt they prayed to G'd Who "listened to them" (Bamidbar 20:16). Rashi explains that this was Moses' message: "We have this blessing from our father, the power of the voice of Jacob; when we pray, G'd answers". The message back from Edom was, "don't even try to enter our land, since our sword is against you". As descendants of Eisav, they knew that they had the power of the physical sword. As Jacob said in his blessing to Eisav: "You will live by the strength of your sword" (Bereishis 27:40).

Praying with sincerity

In this week's Torah portion, it also mentions that the Canaanites living in the south heard that the Israelites were coming (Bamidbar 21:1). Our Sages point out that the nation living in the south were Amalekites, not Canaanites. Apparently, they changed their language to speak the Canaanite language so that the Jews would pray that G'd should help them to conquer the Canaanites, and their prayers would have no or little effect. So strong was the Amalekites' belief in the power of Jewish prayer that they tried to disguise their identity in order that the Jews would say the wrong prayer by asking for G'd to assist against the Canaanites rather than the Amalekites. Although G'd takes everything into account and good intention has value, the truer the words, the more powerful the prayer will be. As King David says, "G'd is close to all who call upon Him - to all who call upon Him in truth" (Psalm 145:18). G'd knows what the person praying means to say, but in order that the prayer shall be real effective it is extremely important that the prayer is said sincerely and truthfully. This is why it is so important to say our prayers clearly and correctly and we should make an effort to understand what we pray. In this case, the Jews saw past the ruse. The Amalekites changed their language but not their clothing. So when the Jewish people prayed to destroy the Amalekites, they did not mention them by name. Instead, they prayed: "if You [G'd] give this nation into our hands, we will dedicate all spoils from their towns to the Tabernacle" (Bamidbar 21:2). "This nation" did not refer specifically to the Amalekites but to the nation in the south.

The secret army

Whoever cares about the security of the people of Israel must realize the need to maintain this secret army. By allowing the Yeshiva students to defer their army commitments, one enables them to save their people in a unique way. These students do not fight with conventional weapons. They fight with their studies and prayers. As King David reminds us, "Some with chariots and some with horses, but we - in the Name of our G'd, we call out (Psalm 20:8). Our enemies come to battle with their tanks and infantry, but we come with our study and prayer. And as King David concludes, "They slumped and fell, but we arose and were invigorated, G'd Save! May the King answer us on the day we call" (ibid 20:9). The sooner we rediscover the power of our secret army, and the more who join and utilize this power, the better we will be able to protect the land of Israel from its enemies and live in true peace.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel