Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!
This parsha tells of the war waged by the Jews against the nation of Midian, in retaliation for the Midianite women's enticement of the Jewish men. Moses (Numbers 31:3) charges the people to prepare "anashim" (men) to wage this war, which Rashi understands as meaning "righteous people." According to the Midrash (Shir HaShirim Raba 4:3), these people were righteous because they never donned the tefillin of the head before donning the tefillin on the arm. Had they had done so, Moses would not have praised them as righteous people and they would not have been victorious in war.
This seems strange, for two reasons. First of all, Jewish law requires that a person don the box of tefillin on the arm before donning the box on the head. Why, then, is doing so considered a righteous quality that renders a person fitting for war? Furthermore, the Torah does not mention the proper donning of tefillin as a requirement for any previous war. Why is it specifically mentioned in regard to the war against Midian?
The Slonimer Rebbe (Netivot Shalom) addresses these questions with a striking statement: "Judaism is dependent upon the lesson gleaned from the commandment of tefillin." This lesson is that a Jew must dedicate both his heart and his mind to the service of God. (It should be noted that a person can benefit from the message of tefillin even without wearing it.) Let us take a closer look at the essence of the heart and the mind in order to further understand this lesson of tefillin.
The heart is the source of our passions and desires, whereas the mind is the source of our outlooks and intellectual views. Human nature tempts us to give free reign to our passions and then to create intellectual justifications for succumbing to them. This is precisely why Jewish law requires us to don the arm tefillin before the head tefillin. The box on the arm, which lies opposite the heart, teaches us to channel our passions to God. Only then can we dedicate our intellectual energies to the Divine and trust that our philosophies are not distortions of reality.
For this reason, the Torah refers to tefillin as an "ot" ("sign") (Exodus 13:9). The sign of a true Jew lies in his mastering the art of channeling his heart's desires to God, therefore enabling him to trust that his intellectual reasoning is correct and true.
This idea helps us understand why men who donned tefillin properly were the soldiers in the war against Midian. In order to defeat Midian, the Jews needed to counteract the scheme of the gentile prophet Bilam, who arranged the downfall of the Jewish people. Bilam encouraged the daughters of Midian to become prostitutes in order to entice the Jewish men to acts of immorality. Bilam knew that God would be unable to tolerate such behavior (see Sanhedrin 106a, based on Numbers 24:14) and would swiftly destroy the perpetrators of the immoral acts.
From here we see that Bilam understood how to use the lesson of tefillin in a destructive way. He first planned to corrupt the hearts of the Jewish people, because he knew that, once their hearts were swayed, their minds would follow.
This idea is borne out in the order in which the Torah discusses the event. First, the passions of the heart are mentioned - "The Jews began to commit immoral acts with the [Midianite] daughters" (Numbers 25:1) - and then, several verses later, we see the subsequent impurity of the mind, when the people began worshipping idols (Numbers 25:3). The people's idol worship provided an intellectual justification for their immoral actions - since, according to the idolatrous Midianite philosophy, all behavior is acceptable. The sin of the Jewish men with the Midianite women demonstrates that, once we have a desire in our heart, our minds can fabricate any justification to carry out that desire.
Because of this, the Jewish retaliation against Midian required that the people use the lesson of tefillin in a positive way. This was accomplished by selecting soldiers who donned the arm tefillin prior to the head tefillin. The box on the arm, which channels the heart's desires to the Divine, prevents immorality, while the box on the head, which channels the mind's philosophies to the Divine, prevents idolatry. Therefore, we can understand that the men who went to war were not righteous simply because they fulfilled the technicality of tefillin; rather, they embodied its powerful message! They first directed the heart's passions to God in order to then successfully channel the mind's philosophies to God as well.
BELIEF IN GOD
Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (in Kovetz Ma'amarim) uses this idea to explain why even some of the world's greatest thinkers and philosophers have been unable to acknowledge the existence of God. In his view, the existence of an Ultimate Creator is simple and obvious. Just as a home testifies to a builder, so does the world, which is far more complex and sophisticated, testify to a Creator. Nevertheless, many great minds have not recognized this self-evident argument, for the simple reason that accepting it would require them to change their lifestyle. Belief in a sophisticated God, who imposes guidelines for proper conduct, prevents people from living according to their desires. Therefore, in order to carry out the heart's desires, people can conjure up outrageous philosophies to justify that lifestyle.
This idea also enables us to understand the Torah's command to believe in God (Maimonides, Sefer Mitzvot, positive #1, based on Exodus 20:2). How could the Torah possibly command an unbelieving person to believe in a Creator? It is simply not within that person's power! The answer, according to Rabbi Wasserman, is that the command is not intended to force a person to have belief. Rather, we are commanded to remove the obstacles that prevent us from believing in God - which is to say, the unbridled passions of the heart. Once we remove these blockages, belief in God is a natural result.
May we all merit to become real Jewish soldiers, by channeling first our heart's passions and then our mind's outlooks, so that we can stand as a sign for the rest of the world that there is only one God who created the universe.