July 17, 2014
In Parshat Matot, Moshe is given the command to take revenge on the Midianites for what they did (Numbers 25:1-9) to cause the Jews to sin. In their victorious battle over Midian, they killed the kings of Midian and also Bilaam. We find the following verse and Rashi’s comment.
“And they killed the kings of Midian along with their slain ones ; Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, and Bilaam the son of Beor, they slew with the sword.”
With the sword – Rashi: He (Bilaam) came against Israel and exchanged his craft with their craft. Because they (Israel) only triumph by using their mouths, through prayer and supplication and he came and seized their craft, by cursing with his mouth. So too, they came against him and exchanged their craft for the craft of the nations, who only come with the sword, as it says ‘By your sword shall you live.’ (Genesis 27:40)
This is a beautiful Midrash; it shows the poetic justice meted out to Bilaam. On that level, the comment is in no need of explanation.
But we can still ask, why did Rashi cite this Midrash? We have made the point before: a Midrash may be illuminating, it may even make perfect sense in its context, as this one does, but Rashi would not cite a Midrash unless there was something in the verse that warranted it.
To understand what prompted Rashi’s comment , one must be very conversant with the Torah’s linguistic style. The Nefesh HaGer, a commentary on Targum Onkelos, made a brilliant discovery. He shows that whenever a gentile nation fights another nation or fights Israel, the expression used in the Torah and Tanach is always “killed with the sword (Hebrew: ‘becharev’).” On the other hand when Israel does the killing, the expression is always “killed by the blade of the sword (Hebrew: ‘lephi charev’).” Some examples of this can be found in Numbers 20:18. The nation Edom says to Israel “Lest with a sword I will go out toward you.” But when Joshua and the Israelites fight Amalek (Exodus 17:13), we find “And Joshua defeated Amalek … by the blade of the sword.”
This is consistent throughout the Torah and the rest of the Prophets.
This is an amazing discovery in its own right, even without pursuing its deeper meaning. Realizing that this style is consistent throughout the whole Tanach and considering that the Tanach was written by different authors over a period of more than a thousand years, we begin to understand the significance of such consistency. It means that there was an unspoken code passed on from prophet to prophet across the generations. This guided and informed their writing style. This “unspoken code” can fairly be recognized as “the Holy Spirit.” This, among other things, is what makes the Tanach the “Book of Books.”
But coming back to Rashi, we can now see what was bothering him. Notice that our verse speaks of Israel killing a gentile, Bilaam. In such a context, it should have said “lephi charev” but it deviated from the iron-clad rule and instead wrote “becharev.” How does Rashi’s comment makes sense of this deviation?
On the basis of this linguistic anomaly, Rashi concludes that “They too (Israel) came against him and exchanged their craft for the craft of the nations, who only come with the sword, as it says ‘By your sword shall you live’ (Genesis 27:40).” That is, Israel exchanged their craft of “with the blade of the sword” for their craft “with the sword.” That is why, even though it was Israel doing the killing, it says: “And Bilaam the son of Beor they slew becharev (with the sword).”
What is the meaning of this phrase “lephi charev” (with the blade of the sword), and in what way is it different from the simpler “becharev” (by the sword)?
The term “lephi charev” is an idiom. It means literally “by the mouth of the sword” but its actual meaning is “by the blade of the sword.” Perhaps this derives from the similarity between the two: as the mouth cuts meat while eating, so too the blade of the sword cuts (human) meat in battle.
But beyond this, why is one phrase used for Israel while another phrase is used for the gentiles?
We can understand this by referring back to Jacob’s approach in preparing for battle with his brother Esau (Genesis 32:10). Rashi tells us there that Jacob prepared himself for the potentially dangerous encounter with three things “gifts, prayer and battle.” We see that before the battle, he made sure to beseech the Almighty, in prayer, for His help. This then may explain the idiom “with the mouth (blade) of the sword” and why this phrase is used only when Israel goes to battle. For Israel has as its heritage that prayer comes before every battle. As Jacob did in earlier times and as Moses did when he raised his hand in prayer during the battle with Amalek (Exodus 17:8), so too every generation of Jews are to fight their battles , with mouth (i.e. prayer) and sword, and not with “the sword” alone.
As the prophet Zechariah (4:6) said: “Not by might and not by strength but by My spirit says God.” God is “the Man of war” and He alone brings about victory. Therefore, He must be appealed to before any human means are used in battle.
Rabbi Meir Wise