“How to Win a War” Parashat Mattot 5774

The Tribes of Reuven and Gad decide to swap their share of the Land of Israel for the Land of Gilead, on the East Bank of the Jordan River. Moshe is initially shocked, but he eventually agrees[1] to their demands with one condition: that Reuven and Gad lead the charge into Israel, deferring their aspirations to live in the Gilead until after the Land of Israel has been captured. Reuven and Gad agree to Moshe’s terms, telling him [Bemidbar 32:32] “We shall cross over as an armed force before Hashem to the land of Canaan, and with us shall be the possession of our inheritance on this [east] side of the Jordan”.

Rav Yaakov, the son of the Ro”sh, writing in the Ba’al HaTurim, notices that the word “we” is written in a strange manner. While “we” nearly always appears as “anachnu”, in this case it appears as a shortened “nachnu”. While in today’s Hebrew this kind of swallowing of the first letter of a word is perfectly acceptable, Biblical Hebrew is much less forgiving. The Ba’al HaTurim observes that the word “nachnu” appears in only two other places in the entire Tanach. The first location is in the Torah, in Parashat Mikketz. Joseph has just charged his brothers with espionage and is threatening to throw them into jail. Joseph’s brothers, shocked at the accusation, attempt to defend themselves [Bereishit 42:11]: “We are all sons of one man. We are honest. Your servants were never spies”. The first “we” is written as “nachnu”. The second location is in Megillat Eicha, written by the Prophet Jeremiah, mourning the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash. In the third chapter Jeremiah writes [3:42] “We have sinned and rebelled; You did not forgive [us]”. Here again, the word “we” is written as “nachnu”.

The Ba’al HaTurim ties these three instances of the word “nachnu” together to teach a powerful lesson, that success in battle can only be achieved through national unity:  “Nachnu – We shall cross over as an armed force”.  And why are they certain that they will vanquish the enemy? Because “Nachnu – We are all the sons of one man”. But if we do not maintain our unity, then [like in the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash] “Nachnu – We have sinned” and we will be, Heaven Forbid, punished.” While Megillat Eichah describes the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash, it is clear that the Ba’al HaTurim is directing our attention to the second Beit HaMikdash, which was destroyed because of unwarranted hatred (sin’at chinam). In the siege of Jerusalem, Am Yisrael were splintered into factions who spent more time warring with each other than with the Romans. The Ba’al HaTurim is telling us that this infighting directly caused the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and the dispersion of our people to this day. Only had we stood shoulder to shoulder would we have had even a chance of defeating the Roman legions.

Rav Moshe Alsheich also notices that the word “nachnu” is rare, except where the Ba’al HaTurim finds three instances of “nachnu” in the Tanach, Rav Alsheich finds four. Other than the three instances pointed out by the Ba’al HaTurim, Rav Alsheich finds another one: After Am Yisrael cross the Red Sea into the desert, the nation thirsts for water. Am Yisrael complain to Moshe and Aharon who tell them that the correct address for their complaints is Hashem [Shemot 16:7]: “[In the] morning you shall see the glory Hashem when He hears your complaints, but [of] what [significance] are we, that you complain against us?” The word “we” is written as “nachnu”. How did the Ba’al HaTurim miss this? If this were to happen today, it would be blamed on buggy software. However, in the days of the Ba’al Haturim and Rav Alsheich, buggy software had not yet been invented.

The easiest way to explain the Ba’al HaTurim is by noting that in the fourth instance Moshe and Aharon tell Am Yisraelv’nachnu ma”. As the word “nachnu” is preceded by the Hebrew letter vav (literally “and we”), it is disregarded by the Ba’al HaTurim. The word “nachnu” – without any prefix or suffix – indeed appears only three times in the entire Tanach. Unfortunately this explanation is not completely intellectually honest. The word “nachnu” is used extremely rarely in the Tanach, with or without a “vav”. I personally find the software bug answer easier to swallow.

There is another reason why this answer is suboptimal. Let’s take a look at the structure of the third chapter of Megillat Eichah. The chapter consists of one hundred and ten verses. The verses follow the Hebrew alphabet, with five verses beginning with each letter. One of the verses corresponding to the letter “nun” is the verse quoted by the Ba’al HaTurim: “Nachnu fashanu u’marinu” – “We have sinned and rebelled…” It could be successfully argued that the only reason the word “nachnu” is used instead “anachnu” is so that the verse could be incorporated into this particular location in Megillat Eichah. In other words, had the verse been written in any other location in the Tanach it would have begun with the standard “anachnu”. Why is this instance included in the list of the Ba’al HaTurim while “v’nachnu ma” is not?

I propose that the Ba’al HaTurim excluded “v’nachnu ma” from his list for reasons that have nothing to do with grammar. Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, writing in his monumental “Tanya”, differentiates between conceptual knowledge – chochma – and understanding – bina. Chochma is the proverbial “flash of light”. It indicates the possibility of a solution to a problem, and a direction towards that solution, but nothing more. Bina is required to flesh out the solution into actions that can be implemented[2]. The Alter Rebbe rearranges the letters of chochma to spell “koach ma” – the most infinitesimal power. He refers to the above verse in which Moshe tells Am Yisraelv’nachnu ma” – “and what are we?” Moshe is telling them “Yes, we exist, but we are the smallest “something” that is greater than “nothing”. We are the mathematical epsilon[3].” It is this “ma” that lies at the source of chochma. It is the smallest, most basic Kabbalistic particle.

And it is exactly what you don’t need if you are fighting a war. A war must be fought by soldiers who are convinced of the righteousness of their cause. A soldier must be willing to fight and die for what he believes in, because in the heat of the battle the soldier and the cause that he fights for become one and the same. If he does anything to detract from his own self-worth, then he will be a less-effective soldier, and a “less-effective soldier” too often means a “dead soldier”. The Ba’al HaTurim is teaching a lesson on how to be victorious in battle. National unity is one critical ingredient, but it is not the only ingredient. The fourth instance of “nachnu” – “v’nachnu ma” – does not support the lesson that the Ba’al HaTurim is trying to teach, and so it is omitted.

These shiurim sometimes contain a passing comment on the issues of the day, but nothing more than that. This week is different. Five weeks ago three Jewish High-School students were kidnapped by terrorists and brutally murdered on their way home from school. This started a chain of events that leads to where we are today: Nine days into Operation “Protective Edge”. Hundred of rockets have been launched at most of Israel’s population centres. Thank G-d Iron Dome has intercepted many of them. Now it appears that a cease-fire is in the offing. The fact that we were willing to agree to a cease fire with no concrete gains casts a pall on the entire operation. What goals do we want to achieve in this war and what are we prepared to do in order to achieve our goals? The citizens of Israel have shown their willingness to hunker down and to wait for results. We have national unity. We need our leaders to stand firm and unashamed. They must be unwilling to accept anything less than what we deserve after two thousand years in exile: the right to live in a land in which people die only of old age.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774


[1]It’s strange that Moshe doesn’t consult with Hashem, and prefers to make the decision on his own. This is a topic for another shiur.

[2]Chochma usually occurs in the shower. Bina requires programming skills.

[3]Those readers who took Advanced Calculus know exactly what I’m talking about.