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Torah Attitude: Parashas Mattos-Masei: The Secret Army

This Torah Attitude is dedicated to David Deverett to celebrate his graduation. May he be blessed with all the best that life has to offer for many healthy, happy, prosperous years to come!


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 battle takes place in the house of study and prayer where the soldiers are those who study Torah and pray to G'd. Jacob's "sword" refers to the study of Torah, and the "bow" refers to the words of prayer. Our secret army is our Torah scholars and Yeshiva students.

Preparations for attack

In this week's parasha G'd instructs Moses to take revenge against Midian. G'd tells Moses to prepare the Jewish army and says: (Bamidbar 31:4): "A thousand from a tribe, a thousand from a tribe, from all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the legion". Not one word in the Torah is superfluous. So why are the words "a thousand from a tribe" repeated? The Midrash Rabbah (22:2) addresses this and explains that for each soldier that went into the battlefield, another went into the house of prayer to daven, so in fact two thousand were conscripted from each tribe. We find a similar idea in Tehillim (122:2) where King David says, "Immobile stood our feet, within your gates, O Jerusalem". The Talmud (Makkos 10b) explains that the meaning of this verse is, "what causes our feet to stand immobile and firm in the war against our enemies? The gates ("shearim") of Jerusalem where people are occupied with Torah study".

Jacob's voice and Eisav's hand

Torah study and prayer are our most powerful weapons. 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 deeper meaning of this is that the power of Jacob and his descendants is their voice, whereas the power of Eisav and his descendants is their hand. The Vilna Gaon quotes the Talmud (Gittin 57b) and explains that when the voice of Jacob is heard in the houses of prayer and study, then the hands of Eisav have no power. When Jews go into battle, the physical battlefield is only a fa?ade. The real battle takes place in the houses of study and prayer where the soldiers are those who study Torah and pray to G'd.

Powerful weapon

With this insight we gain a better understanding of the verse we say when we open the Holy Ark before the reading of the Torah (Bamidbar 10:35): "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.'" 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 one of our most powerful weapons against our enemies, we understand why this is the appropriate time to pronounce this statement.

Sword and bow

Jacob himself acknowledged this power when he blessed Joseph and gave him the land of Shechem before he passed away. Jacob said (Bereishis 48:22), "I am giving you this land which I have taken with my sword and my bow". However, this seems very strange, for Jacob never fought at Shechem. He actually chastised his sons Shimon and Levy for attacking Shechem. So what does it mean that "he took it with his sword and bow"? Moreover, if anyone should get the land of Shechem it is Shimon and Levy who fought there. So why did Jacob give it to Joseph? Rashi explains homiletically that the "sword" refers to the study of Torah, and the "bow" refers to prayer. When we study Torah it strikes down our enemies as in face to face combat. And when we pray, our prayers reach up to the Heavenly Throne and hit our enemies from a distance (see Berachos 6b). Although Jacob was upset with Shimon and Levy for taking up arms against Shechem, he nevertheless fought for them with his special power of "the voice of Jacob". Shechem, therefore, belonged to Jacob, as it was he who had conquered it, and he could give it to whomever he saw fit. He decided to give it to Joseph, in lieu of Joseph taking care of his burial.

G'd's Countenance The fact that the study of Torah is our strength, rather than our physical might, is expressed by King David, as he describes how the Jewish people succeeded to conquer the land of Israel. He exclaims (Tehillim 44:4): "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". The Targum explains that the Jewish people merited the light of G'd's Countenance through their study of Torah. This corresponds to what we say every day in our prayers, "For with the light of Your Countenance You gave us, HASHEM our G'd, the Torah of life". At the revelation at Mount Sinai G'd let His Divine presence descend. He revealed the light of His Countenance to us, as He gave us the Torah. Since then we can continue to merit the light of His Countenance through our Torah study.

Not so secret

These secret weapons of the Jewish people, Torah study and prayer, were not so secret in ancient time. Our ancestors always knew that when they went into war, their success depended upon Torah study and prayer. This is most evident when Moses sent a message to the King of Edom requesting permission to go through their country. In his introduction, Moses mentioned that in Egypt they had prayed to G'd Who "listened to us" (Bamidbar 20:16). Rashi explains the underlying message in Moses' statement: "We have this blessing from our father, the power of the voice of Jacob; when we pray, G'd answers". It did not take long for the response to come back from Edom, "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 Isaac had said in his blessing to Eisav (Bereishis 27:40): "You will live by the strength of your sword".

Gentiles aware

Even the gentiles were aware of this special power and took it into consideration when they went to fight the Jews. The Torah relates that the Canaanites who lived in the south heard that the Israelites were coming (see Bamidbar 21:1). Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma (18) that points 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. In this way their prayers would not be effective. This is how strongly the Amalekites believed in the power of Jewish prayer. They tried to disguise their identity so that the Jews would say the wrong prayer and ask G'd to assist them against the Canaanites rather than the Amalekites.

Amalekites' ruse

The Jews outsmarted them and saw past the ruse. The Amalekites changed their language but not their clothing. The Jews were not sure who they were and prayed to G'd for assistance without mentioning any name. As it says: "If You [G'd] give this nation into our hands, we will dedicate all spoils from their towns to the Tabernacle" (Bamidbar 21:2).

The secret army

Whoever sincerely 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 protect and 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 (Tehillim 20:8): "Some with chariots and some with horses, but we call out in the Name of our G'd. Our enemies attack us with katushyas and mortars, but we fight back 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 our secret army, and encourage more to join and utilize this power, the better we will be able to protect the land of Israel from our 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.

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

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel