The Midianites enticed the Jewish people to commit sins of idolatry and sexual immorality, causing the death of 24,000 Jews in a plague. As a result Hashem commanded Moshe “Tzaro’r et Hamidyanin” — “Harass the Midianites” — “vehikitem otom” — “and smite them” (25:17). The details of the actual battle are recorded in this week’s parshah of Matot.

Moshe instructed the people to select one thousand warriors from each tribe, a total legion of 12,000 men that could inflict Hashem’s vengeance on Midian. The Jewish army experienced phenomenal success. The Midianite Kings and the males were killed, and everyone else was taken captive. All their wealth was taken as spoils.

When the Jewish army returned from the battlefield, Hashem commanded that the spoils should be divided. After taking a detailed inventory, the Torah relates that the officers of the thousands and the officers of hundreds, a total of 132 people, approached Moshe saying, “Your servants took a census of the men of war under our command, and not a man of us is missing (31:49)

According to the plain sense, the commanders reported that there were no casualties of battle. The Sages (Shabbat 64a), however, interpret this as an allusion to the spiritual standing of the warriors. None of them were led astray by the same Midianites who had not long before succeeded in seducing thousands of Jews. To express their gratitude to G‑d, the commanders contributed their share of all the jewelry that had been plundered.

There is a fascinating Midrash on Shir HaShirim that interprets a part of King Shlomo’s description of the love between Hashem and Klal Yisrael as an allegory to the war of Midian and also connects their success with the mitzvah of putting tefillin on the hand and head.

In the fourth chapter Hashem describes the beauty of “His friend” (Klal Yisrael) and says “shinaiyich ke’eidar haketzuvot she’alu min harachtzah shekulam mat’imot v’shakulah ein bahem” — “Your teeth are like the flock of ewes coming up from the washing all of them unblemished with no miscarriage of action in them” (4:2) This is saying that all soldiers who took part in the war against Midian were exceptionally pious and extremely meticulous in their Torah observance (see Rashi, Bamidbar 31:11).

The next verse alludes to what Moshe said about them, “kepelach harimon rakateich” — “Your temples are like a pomegranate split open” (4:3), meaning, “The emptiest of you are as well packed with religious observances and good deeds, as a pomegranate is full with seeds.” Everyone tempted to sin who escapes it and refrains from doing it performs a highly religious act. How much more, then, is this true of those being, as the verse continues, “miba’ad l’tzamateich — “within your veil” [who renounce the allures of the world, restraining themselves for the exclusive study of Torah].

The Midrash continues that Rabbi Huna says, “The Jewish warriors have come out unscathed because none of them put on the tefillin shel rosh (of the head) before that of tefillin shel yad (of the arm), for had one put on the tefillin shel rosh before that of the arm, Moshe would not have commended them nor would they have come out uninjured.”

Obviously, the Midrash must be saying something of profound significance about the warriors. It cannot be simply that because of not putting on the shel rosh before the shel yad their piety is established and proven. Donning the shel yad first is an elementary and universal rule that everyone knows regarding tefillin. So what special quality did Moshe Rabbeinu observe in these people?

The Midrash is indeed speaking in allegory. Perhaps the following is the meaning:

Putting tefillin on the hand and head may be analogous to the doing and understanding of the Jewish people’s proclamation “na’aseh v’nishma.” The hand represents doing and action, while the head is for learning and understanding. When the Jewish people were offered the Torah, their immediate response was “na’aseh v’nishma, and they placed na’aseh before nishma. They were telling Hashem, “We are committed to kabbalat ol — subjugating ourselves to your yoke — and will observe everything in the Torah even if we do not know the rational or significance of the mitzvah.”

This concept is expressed by us daily in the way we put on our tefillin. Donning the shel yad first followed by the shel rosh emphasizes our resolve that doing has priority over our need to comprehend.

When Hashem commanded Moshe “Take revenge for the Children of Israel against the Midianites” (31:2), the Torah tells us that “Va’yimasru” — “there was delivered [from the thousands of the Children of Israel a thousand from each tribe]” (31:5). Rashi explains that the term “va’yimasru” — “were delivered” — implies that the Jewish warriors had to be coerced into going to war. This is to their credit because they knew that Moshe would die when the war was won. Hence, they did not want to go to war until they had to be “delivered” against their will.

Thus, according to logic, they had a valid reason not to go to the war, but they went with kabbalot ol. They submitted themselves to the will of Hashem and went to battle contrary to the dictates of their own understanding.

Moshe was impressed with the piety of the Jewish warriors and proclaimed that their success in the battle and returning uninjured was due to the fact that they did not first don tefillin shel rosh — that is, the did not follow their own wisdom and conviction first. They followed the lesson of putting on shel yad first — the service of kabbalot ol — to favor action over comprehension even when logic stands in stark opposition.

This beautiful interpretation of the Midrash is my message to you, my dear Bar Mitzvah. Follow the lesson expressed in the order of putting on tefillin, and Hashem will shower you with His blessings and protect you physically, materially and spiritually.


The latter part of Parshat Mattot relates a dialogue between Moshe Rabbeinu and representatives of the tribes of Gad and Reuben when the Jewish people were close to crossing the Jordan River and getting ready to enter and conquer the Land of CanaanEretz Yisroel.

People from Gad and Reuven presented a request to Moshe that they be permitted to settle in Eiver haYardein — the eastern side of the Jordan River. Thinking that their intention was to avoid participating in the long and strenuous war to conquer Eretz Yisroel, Moshe responded forcefully and critically. He accused them of forsaking their brothers in a time of danger and dampening the moral of the Jewish people, similar to what the spies had done years before when they returned from their visit exploring the land.

Gad and Reuven then clarified their request. Far from seeking to free themselves from the impending wars for the land, they were fully prepared to take a leading role in the wars until they were successfully concluded.

Moshe accepted their proposal, but made a few subtle changes in their plan of how they would fight and how they would settle their families and belongings. The children of Gad and Reuven agreed saying: “Your servants shall do ka’asher adoni metzaveh — as my lord commands. And your servants shall cross over — every armed person of the legion — before G‑d, to do battle, ka’asher adoni doveir — as my lord speaks.” (32:25, 27)

Why in the first pasuk did they say that they would do, “ka’asher adoni metzaveh — “as my lord commands” — while in the second pasuk they say they will do, “ka’asher adoni doveir” — “as my lord speaks”?

Originally, the people of Gad and Reuven asked for permission to settle on the east bank of the Jordan. Moshe turned down their request, explaining that it would be improper to expect other members of the Jewish people to go to war for their land while they sat safely east of the Jordan. Realizing that Moshe was right, they approached him and said, “We will arm ourselves swiftly in the vanguard of the Children of Israel until we have brought them to their place. We will not return to our homes until each of the Children of Israel inherits his share” (32:17,18)

Moshe listened carefully and accepted their proposal with a modification: In their statement they failed to mention Hashem, and it appeared as though they presumptuously expected to conquer the land of Canaan through their own strength. Moshe reproved them and explained how a Jew should speak: “If you do this thing; if you arm yourself before Hashem for battle and every man among you shall cross the Jordan before Hashem until He drives out His enemies before Him and the land shall be conquered before Hashem, and then you shall return” (32:21).

Realizing their two-fold error, namely, not mentioning Hashem in their proposal and originally expecting the others to go to war while they stayed home, they replied to Moshe, “Your servants shall do as my lord commands” meaning that they would indeed participate and help their brethren conquer Eretz Yisrael. In addition, from then on they would speak, “As my lord speaks” — i.e. always giving proper recognition to Hashem.

My dear Bar Mitzvah, it is apparent that Moshe was not only addressing the people of Gad and Reuven, but also conveying a message to posterity, something that every person throughout all generations should realize.

People at times erroneously think that it was their seichel and wisdom that brought them success; they tend often to forget that it was the doing of Hashem and all credit is due to Him.

I once heard an old wise man say that he came to the conclusion that 99% of the time it is Hashem who runs the world, and the remaining 1% is very difficult to get through without Him.

We must always bear in mind what Moshe Rabbeinu cautioned us to remember that “Ki Hu Hanotein lecha ko’ach l’asot choyil — “It is He that gives you the strength to succeed” (Devarim 8:18, see Targum Onkelos).

To you, my dear Bar Mitzvah, I would like to add the following: In the Rebbe’s letter to you he wished you that with Hashem’s help may you succeed being a חסיד, ירא שמים, ולמדן. The acronym of these three words Chassid, yirei Shamayim — G‑d fearing Jew — and lamdan — Torah scholar — is chayal (חַיָל) soldier. May you merit to be a decorated chayal in Hashem’s army and He will bless you with choyil (חָיִל) — success — materially and spiritually.