What's Bothering Rashi? Parshat Bechukotai: Friendly Fire
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Bechukotai(Leviticus 26:3-27:34)

Friendly Fire

We have a double portion Torah-reading this week, Behar-Bechukotai. We will analyze Rashi on the following verses, which speaks of the blessings Israel will reap when they follow the word of God.

Leviticus 26:6-7

"And I will give peace in the land and you shall lie down and none shall make you tremble; and I will rid an evil beast from the land, neither shall the sword pass through your land. And you shall pursue your enemies and they shall fall before you by the sword."

 

RASHI

Before you by the sword - Rashi: One by the sword of the other.

 

WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?

This comment tells us that the enemy will kill themselves by their own "friendly fire." What would you ask on this strange comment?

Your Question:

 

QUESTIONING RASHI

A Question: An obvious question is: Why does Rashi now say that the enemy falls by the hand of his fellow comrade-in-arms, and not that he fell by the sword of the Israelite, which is the more simple interpretation? What led Rashi (and the Midrash) to this far-fetched interpretation? What's bothering Rashi here?

Hint: Look at the verses before this one.

Your answer:

 

WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?

An Answer: Had not the previous verse said "The sword shall not pass through your land"? If there is no sword in the land, how can the enemy fall by your sword? Another indication that this war was not waged in the Land of Israel is that the earlier verse also promised: "I will give peace in the land..." So there was neither war nor sword in the land. If so, how did the enemy "fall before you by the sword"?

Actually, this question can be answered satisfactorily even without Rashi's interpretation that they died by their own hand.

What answer would you give?

Your Answer:

 

An Answer: The verse says clearly "and you shall pursue your enemies..." Thus, the battle may have been waged outside the borders of the Land of Israel. Outside of Israel, there may be both war and swords and the Israelites may have killed the enemy there.

Why, then, must Rashi resort to the unlikely explanation that the enemy will kill each other?

Your Answer:

 

AN UNDERSTANDING

An Answer: Some commentators on Rashi say that the words "before you" are the clue; they are superfluous. The enemy always falls "before you." These commentators conclude that these redundant words lead Rashi to claim that the enemy will die even before you reach them - "before you." How? By their own comrades.

But another, fascinating, answer has been suggested.

 

AN AMAZING ANSWER

An amazing answer has been suggested which shows the subtle nuances that can be uncovered in the Torah, if we only look for them. The Nefesh Hager, a commentary on Targum Onkelos, points out an astounding consistency throughout the Torah: Whenever the Torah speaks of Jews or (God) killing others, the words used are, in Hebrew, "l'phi charev" - "according to - or by - the sword."

Whenever gentiles are described as doing the killing, the word used is "l'charev" alone.

Examples of the former can be found in: Genesis 34:26; Exodus 17:13; Numbers 21:24; examples of the latter can be found in: Isaiah 65:12; Psalms 7:62.

But our verse is the exception because it uses the word "l'charev" (and not "l'phi charev") even though the Israelites are attacking the gentiles. This is evidence that the gentiles, and not the Israelites, are the ones who are doing the killing! "Each by the sword of the other."

 

WHAT DOES "LE'PHI CHAREV" MEAN?

The term is a colloquialism. It literally means, "by the mouth of the sword."

What sense can be made out of this strange nuance? A little thought should give you the answer.

Hint: See Genesis 48:22 where Jacob tells Joseph that he took the city of Shechem "be'charbi u'vekashti" and Rashi brings Onkelos' translation of the words "sword" and "bow" as "my prayer and my requests."

 

A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING

An Answer: On the basis of that Rashi we can conclude that when the Jew wages war he precedes battle with prayer to the Almighty. The symbolic meaning of the phrase "l'phi charev" is that the mouth (prayer) always precedes the sword in battles waged by Jews!

 

Shabbat Shalom,
Avigdor Bonchek


Published: May 8, 2004

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