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Israel's Sword & Bow

07/07/2017 12:37:57 PM


Rabbi Eliezer Wolf


"Balak the son of Zippor [king of Moav] saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.”

This is the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion. Simply understood, the verse is introducing the ensuing story why Balak wished to curse the Jewish people. Just recently the Jews had successfully defeated Sichon & Og, powerful kings of the Amorite nation, and without their protection, Balak feared that his downfall would be soon coming.

Commentators are bothered as to why the Jews are referred to as ‘Israel’ in the verse – typically the Jews are referred to Bnei-Yisrael – the Children of Israel. Moreover, in the very first 3 verses of the portion the Jews are referred to by four different names: Israel, Am (Nation), Bnei Yisrael (Children of Israel), and Kahal (Congregation)!

A most original interpretation was offered by Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619) in his classic commentary Kli Yakar:

Before the invention of the printing press, the general population had very little access to any written works. People knew very little about world history as there were no printed books from which to learn from. But throughout world history, all events were recorded in ledgers, and these records got passed down from king to king, nation to nation.

Balak was in possession of one of these ledgers. He knew about an episode that occurred three hundred years earlier. Before Jacob passed away he blessed his twelve sons. To his beloved son Joseph he said, “I will give you an added portion of my inheritance, because I took possession of the firstborn birthright from my brother Esav with my sword and with my bow.” But Jacob never fought against Esav with any weapons? The Talmud (Bava Batra 123a) explains that ‘sword and bow’ are figurative terms that refer to ‘prayers and supplications’. Jacob, through his steadfast faith in, and relationship with, G-d, merited to defeat his evil brother and to gain possession of the birthright which he duly deserved.

Jacob was teaching Joseph a most important teaching about the true strength of the Jewish people. True, we have experienced many military victories throughout our history (though sadly not nearly enough). In most recent times, our great army the Israel Defense Forces have thankfully become a leading world power which has brought unprecedented protection and strength to the Jewish people.

But our greatest weapons, the ones that irk and intimidate our enemies most, are our spiritual fortitude and conviction of faith, our stubbornness not to acquiesce to the immoral trends of each era, our devotion to our values at all costs, and our pride in our way of life. Nothing has riled our enemies more than these weapons.

Now we can discover a new interpretation of our opening verse. “And Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites” is not referring to the recent military defeat of kings Sichon & Og to the hands of the Jews, but rather to the defeat that Israel (another name for Jacob) brought upon the Amorite (another name for Esav) centuries earlier. And it wasn’t a military defeat but a moral and spiritual one. This Jewish strength is what caused Balak’s greatest fears.

Today, the 13th of Tamuz, marks the 90th anniversary of the liberation of the Previous Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, from his tortuous prison experience, and his close call with the death penalty. In 1927, members of the Yevsektsia (the Jewish arm of the Soviet Communist Party) led the effort to imprison the Rebbe. His crime? That he was the head of a massive underground network that was servicing and strengthening Jews and Jewish communities all over Soviet Russia, despite the Communists’ harsh efforts to forbid and eradicate any trace of Jewish practice.

In his personal diary, it becomes clear how the Rebbe approached the entire saga – with stubborn confidence and fearless heroism. The Rebbe didn’t bend even one iota from his values and principles, and he continuously refused to comply with the demands and threats of his captors.

The Rebbe insisted to wear his tefillin, even though he was thrown off a staircase for this and suffered a very painful injury. He refused to stand when the Soviet officers entered the room, even though he was badly beaten for this. During the interrogations with the Yevsektsia, who sadly were Jews who were raised in observant homes but left to join the Communist party, he insisted on responding in Yiddish, which they understood, even though the law required that he respond in Russian. He refused to eat non-kosher food, and demanded that he be allowed to receive the food gifts sent by his family, and went on a three-day hunger strike until his captors caved in. He refused to offer information in the interrogations, even when a gun was pointed at his head.

Many things helped achieve the Rebbe’s liberation, including international outrage and pressure from Western governments. But the Rebbe’s own ‘sword and bow’, his deep faith and proud conviction, certainly contributed to the humiliation of the Soviet’s, and to the complete reversal of their intended plans.

Dear friends, let’s continue to strengthen ourselves with swords and bows, with faith and fortitude, with pride and persistence, with courage and commitment, with happiness and heroism!

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782