Success in War: Effort with Merits of Avot, Tefilla and Torah
And I have given you one portion (Shechem) over your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.
Did he take it with his sword and with his bow'? Surely it has already been said, “For I do not trust in my bow, and my sword does not bring me victory.” [Tehilim 44:7] But, “my sword” means prayer, my bow means supplication.
[Gemara Bava Batra 123a]
Onkelos’ Aramaic translation follows the Gemara’s elucidation.
A number of Midrashim [Lekacḥ Tov, Sechel Tov, Midrash Aggada] understand the Ya’akov to be speaking of the city of Shechem. This understanding presents two difficulties:
1. At the time of Ya’akov Avinu, the city of Shechem was controlled by the Hivites, not the Amorites, as the verse states in the matter of Dina “Shechem, son of Chamor the Hivite, a prince of the region, saw her.” [Bereishit 34:2]
2. The verses do not indicate that Ya’akov fought to capture Shechem, rather, God instilled fear in the local tribes, who therefore did not fight against Ya’akov in reaction to Shimon and Levi’s killing of the men of Shechem.
Ramban explains that the “Amorite” of whom Ya’akov spoke are the nation which will face the Children of Israel when they enter the Land, the first foe against whom they will fight. Sichon and Og, whom Am Yisrael fought before crossing the River Jordan were Amorite kings. As well, the first battles of Yehoshua were against the Amorites, as we read “On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Lord in the presence of Israel: ‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and moon, over the valley of Aijalon.’" [Yehoshua 10:12]
As far as “my sword and my bow,” Ramban explains that Ya’akov hinted that Eretz Yisrael will be conquered only by sword and bow, that is, through actual physical battle. This is stated explicitly in the Book of Yehoshua [11:19-20]:
No city made peace with the Israelites except the Hivites who inhabited Gibeon; all of them were taken in battle. For it was the Lord's intention to harden their hearts, so that they would engage Israel in battle, be completely destroyed without mercy, and be annihilated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.
After presenting this explanation, Ramban asks why Ya’akov relates the sword and bow to himself if he refers to future battles. Ramban’s answer is that it was Ya’akov who enabled his descendant’s victories:
The sword and bow are related to Ya’akov since it was his merit which allowed them to do battle, as if he, not they were actually fighting, as the verse states “For not by their sword did they inherit the Land, neither did their arm save them, but Your right hand and Your arm and the light of Your countenance, for You favored them” [Tehilim 44:4]. This refers to the merit of the Forefathers, for in truth (i.e. kabbalistically) “Your right hand” refers to Avraham and “Your arm” to Yitzcḥak, and “the light of Your countenance” to Ya’akov.
Success in Physical War is Dependent Upon Spiritual Merits – Prayer and Torah
These comments of Ramban teach the important basic concept that Eretz Yisrael may be conquered by military means, but victory is dependent upon spiritual merits, such as the merits of our Forefathers. Thus, the simple meaning of “my sword and my bow” as actual weapons does not contradict the Gemara’s elucidation that they refer to prayer and supplication. In truth, both are needed; there must be a war fought with swords and bows, but the success of that war comes from the spiritual merits of prayer and supplication.
This concept is expressed by the Gemara in Makot [10a]:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of the words: “Our feet stood within your gates, O Jerusalem? [Tehilim 122:2] What helped us to maintain our firm foothold in war? The gates of Jerusalem — the place where students engaged in the study of Torah!
In the same spirit, Rabbi Yehoshua Rosen explained the verses in Tehilim 20:
“These trust in chariots and these in horses, but we - we mention the name of the Lord our God. They kneel and fall, but we rise and gain strength.”
The intention is not that Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) does not have chariots or horses, rather, that the nations rely on their chariots and horses, while Am Yisrael realizes that ultimately their victory comes from God, not from their weapons. Thus, the result is “They kneel and fall, but we rise and gain strength.”
This approach also elucidates the verse in Tehilim 127:1: “If the Lord will not build a house, its builders have toiled at it in vain; if the Lord will not guard a city, (its) watcher keeps his vigil in vain.” It is necessary for the builder to build and the guard to keep his vigil, but their successes are dependent upon God.
Ramban’s comments teach that while physical combat is necessary to conquer Eretz Yisrael, the power to be victorious rests in the merits of the Children of Israel, including the merit of the Forefathers. This fundamental concept is the basis of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s elucidation of the verse in Psalms: “Our feet stood within your gates, O Jerusalem.” It also explains additional verses in Psalms: “These trust in chariots and these in horses, but we - we mention the name of the Lord our God,” and “If the Lord will not build a house, its builders have toiled at it in vain; if the Lord will not guard a city, (its) watcher keeps his vigil in vain.”
May it be God’s will that we internalize the idea that we must do our part to develop Eretz Yisrael, while understanding that the ultimate success comes from God. Amen.
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