In this week’s parsha, Bilaam, the wicked prophet who had been hired by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the Jewish people, finds his ignoble death, as the Torah tells us: “…and Bilaam son of Beor they slew with the sword”.
Rash”i seems to be bothered by the Torah’s need to tell us that Bilaam was killed “with the sword”. After all, what difference does it make how that wicked man got killed, so long as he’s dead!?
Rash”i explains that “with the sword” implies that they used a method of killing that was uncharacteristic of the Jewish people. He bases his explanation on a Midrash Tanchuma in Parshat Balak which states the following amazing idea:
“Bilaam came against Israel and exchanged his craft with Israel’s craft, for the Israelites triumph only with their mouth, through prayer and supplication, and Bilaam came and seized their craft by cursing them with his mouth. They, too, came against him and exchanged their craft for the craft of the [other] nations, who come with the sword, as it is stated, ‘By your sword you shall live’.”
This means that although it might appear as if we are killing our enemies with the sword – or the rifle or the missile,etc – that’s not what’s really happening. It is actually our Tefillah, the power of the prayers that come from our mouths that gives us our true ‘protective edge’ and allows us to overcome our enemies.
Now of course it goes without saying that we need to have an army “protecting” us at all times. But we must always remember that it is the power of our craft, our prayers, that is killing the bad guys and not the sword.
One time in history, though, we exchanged our craft with the craft of the nations around us and killed someone with an actual sword, and that was Bilaam the wicked (Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson drew his sword and slew him). Otherwise, it has been our prayers, and our prayers alone, that have been protecting us all the time.
This powerful idea is illustrated in the weekly Torah portion, Parshat Mattot, where Moshe prepared the Jewish people to go to war against the evil nation of Midian. The Midrashtells us that when Moses ran his first draft, he selected a small army of 12,000 tzadikkim, a thousand per tribe. None of them had sinned with the Moabite women: sinners are not worthy of avenging the Almigthy. Another 12,000 attended to the belongings, weapons and supplies of the army, and a third thousand per tribe stood in prayer near the battlefield.
This is because Moshe knew that prayer is an essential component of war. It provides the quotient for success, for without prayer, the bullets and the rockets are of no avail. They will not hit their targets. And to pound this lesson home, he appointed a ratio of 1:1 so that for every single soldier fighting with his sword on the front lines, there was another soldier praying to G-d on his behalf that he should destroy the enemy and come home safely.
King David writes about those who are out to destroy him: “Through You [G-d] shall we gore our foes; by Your name trample our opponents. For I do not trust in my bow, nor does my sword save me”.
In this Psalm, King David is echoing this eternal truth of the Torah. It is neither the bow nor the sword but our prayers and supplications that will ultimately save us from our enemies. Our ‘craft’ is our mouth, the power of tefillah, and not the sword.
In fact, the Gemara teaches that when Jacob told his children that he conquered his enemies “with my sword and with my bow” (see Bereshit 48:22), he wasn’t referring to actual weapons. Rather, the sword refers to prayer and the bow refers to supplication.
Mahara”l in his commentary Gur Aryeh explains that the prayer of the righteous is like a sword because it “pierces” the Heavens, and their supplication is like a bow because, just as an arrow’s swiftness, power, and distance depend on the pressure exerted on the bow, so too the efficacy of a supplication depends on the degree of the supplicant’s concentration and sincerity.
So, the big lesson for us is to remember always that when our boys are going into action, where the risk of being killed, G-d forbid, is very high, that it is only our continued heartfelt prayers and supplications, the craft that we Jews have always lived by, that will protect our soldiers from any harm. The power of our prayers and that will give all of our sodiers the protective edge they need.
 Bamidbar 31:8.
 Bereshit 27:40.
 Bamidbar Rabbah 22:3.
 Tehilling 44:6-7.
 Bava Batra 123a.