Balak: By the “mouth” of the sword

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses;
but we will make mention of the name of the Lord our God.
(Psalms 20:8)

One of the great questions that the religious personality grapples with is: What role is trust in God (bitachon) to play in human activity?  The answer, I suggest, can be found in understanding Rashi’s use of a Midrash he saw fit to repeat in two separate places within the narrative of Balaam, the magician hired to curse Israel.

Balaam, upon setting out to fulfill his ignoble errand, is confronted by an angel blocking his way, sword drawn in opposition (Numbers 22:23).  Rashi notes that an angel could surely stop a man without resorting to a sword, and as such, he brings a Midrash to explain the sword in symbolic terms:

[God] said, “This wicked man has forsaken the tools of his own craft – i.e., the weapon of the nations is the sword – and he is coming against them with [the power of] his mouth, which is their craft.  I will, in kind, take hold of his craft and accost him with it.”  This indeed was his end [as it says], “and Balaam the son of Beor they slew with the sword” (Numbers 31:8).

The message here is that God executes the wicked by their own devices; in this case, by the sword.  Curiously, Rashi paraphrases this same Midrash again on the verse: “and Balaam the son of Beor they slew with the sword”:

He came against Israel and exchanged his craft for theirs – for they are victorious only with their mouths, through prayer and petition, and he came and took their craft to curse them with his mouth. So they too came against him by exchanging their craft for the craft of the nations, who come with the sword, as it says [concerning Esau], “And you shall live by your sword” (Genesis 27:40).

The super-commentaries try to explain Rashi’s need to comment on this verse, but their attempts are found wanting, as Nechama Leibowitz writes: “For years I searched Rashi’s super-commentaries for an answer, without success.”  She continues, however, saying, “until I came across Nefesh HaGer, a commentary on Targum Onkelos by Mordechai ben Zevi Lowenstein.”

Rabbi Lowenstein explains that throughout the Torah and Prophets, “whenever the sword was held by Israel the text says ‘by the edge of the sword’ (lefi herev) … however, when the sword is in Gentile hands, the text simply says, ‘by the sword’ (laherev or baherev).”  In order to decipher the significance of this subtle difference in terminology, Rabbi Lowenstein quotes a Talmudic discussion on the term sword:

“I [Jacob] have given thee [Joseph] one portion (shechem) above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow” (Genesis 48:22).  Did he take it with his sword and with his bow’? Surely it has already been said, “For I trust not in my bow, neither can my sword save me” (Psalms 44:7)!  But ‘my sword’ means ‘prayer’ and ‘my bow’ means ‘petition’. (Baba Batra 123a)

Based on this usage of “sword” as “prayer”, Rabbi Lowenstein explains that lefi harev –translated by Onkelos as “by the word of the sword” – thus means “by the word of prayer.”  From here it might seem that one is to “trust in the Lord” to the exclusion of human action – the edge of the sword being exchanged for the word of prayer.

Before coming to hasty conclusions, let us investigate this idea further.  Rashi’s interpretation of the verse in Genesis quoted by the Talmud is most telling.  Initially he explains that the verse may be talking about Jacob’s actual wielding of a sword against the people of Shechem.[1] He then brings at alternate interpretation, explaining that the verse may be referring to Jacob’s dealings with Esau, the terms “sword and bow” referring to “wisdom and prayer.”  This interpretation is quite novel as it is at odds with both the Talmud, that has “sword and bow” as “prayer and petition”, and the Midrash, that has “sword and bow” as “commandments and good deeds” (Maharsha, Baba Batra 123a).

Given that it is extremely rare for Rashi to substitute his words for the remarks of the sages, he clearly sought to convey a critical point.  I suggest that he rejected the interpretation of “commandments and good deeds” because these are devices through which one gains merit but are not “weapons” to be wielded – actively – at a time of confrontation.  As for “prayer and petition”, the phrase is poetic but didactically redundant.  Instead, Rashi explains the craft of confrontation to be comprised of both “prayer and wisdom” – prayer being indicative of trust in God and wisdom, of human action.  This accords well with his comment describing how Jacob confronted Esau: “with prayer, with gifts, and with warfare” (Genesis 32:9), for “gifts and warfare” are human activities that one is to employ – with “wisdom”.

This combination of trust in God with human action is, even according to Rabbi Lowenstein, what the term “lefi harev” comes to express.  He brings, as support for his interpretation of the term, the verse: “And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword (lefi harev)” (Exodus 17:13).  Rabbi Lowenstein explains that this war was won through the power of prayer, as the verse states: And Moses’ hands were emuna (steady) – translated by Onkelos as “prayerful”.  Here, then, is a classic example of man taking action, animated, however, through prayerful trust in God.  And it is precisely this combination of trust and action that the Mishna teaches is the lesson of this war:

Was it Moshe’s hands that won or lost the battle? Rather, this teaches you: As long as Israel looked heavenward and subjected their hearts to the Father in Heaven – they would prevail, but if not – they would fail. (Rosh Hashana 3:8)

Returning to the question of Rashi’s repeat comment – that Balaam exchanged his craft for Israel’s craft – Rabbi Lowenstein provides an inspiring answer.  He explains that, though Israel is always said to wield the sword “lefi harev”, when Israel kills Balaam it is “beharev”.  This is the only place in the Torah and Prophets that the Jews kill “beharev”!  As such, at the outset of the narrative Rashi brought the Midrash to explain the symbolism of the sword in the hands of the angel – foreshadowing a key message of the episode; and he brought it at the conclusion of the story to explain this singular instance when Israel did not fight lefi harev.

Through his judicious repetition of the Midrash, Rashi has highlighted a fundamental rule in the Bible which, as it turns out, is also a fundamental rule of faith.  The term lefi harev is not only an expression of the way Israel wielded the sword in the Bible, but a paradigm for how we are to conduct our daily lives – with bold action and profound trust.  The directive to the religious personality is then: spare no effort in the quest to actualize potential, but realize that success is assured only by unequivocal trust in God.

This approach has been a guiding principle of faith, expressed in liturgy and lore, throughout Jewish history – most poignantly in the prayer for the military victory of the greatest king in Israel’s history:

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses;
but we will make mention of the name of the Lord our God.


[1] Rabbi Lowenstein noted this usage is of Jacob wielding a sword “beharev”, however, he explains, Onkelos translates it as “pitgam deharba” – as he does for the occurrences of “lefi harev” – thus indicating that even here (before there is a nation of Israel) the principle of “lefi harev” is maintained.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at