We are a nation famous for many things; for teaching monotheism to the world, surviving against natural odds, for being the only nation to have returned to our homeland three times after exile, to name but a few. And that is not even starting with the inventions Jews have been responsible for - from the remote control to the fax machine, from the uzi gun to the vaccination needle and external pacemaker/monitor, and from the telephone to mercury batteries. However, there is one thing that we are not particularly famous for nor do we pride ourselves on - athleticism. And with good reason; after all, how can one train for the Olympics whilst still honouring the mitzvah to have three meals on Shabbes plus a malave malka - and that’s not even mentioning all the fully-catered simchas and kiddushim that beckon attendance! What we shall discuss, however, is our concept of strength. In truth, this dvar torah could really be said on any number of sedras, but we shall speak about it here in parshas Mattos due to the victorious war we have against Midyan therein, with the relevance hopefully being fully explained later . [Most is based on Rabbi Reisman]
Let’s begin with a couple of questions to open up the topic. Firstly, it is important to note that many of our leaders had exceptional strength. As examples, Avraham Avinu battled the kings, Ya’akov Avinu single-handedly rolled the stone off the well [a job which all the shepherds would normally to together], Moshe held the tablets which were rather heavy, Shimshon’s strength is openly recalled in sefer Shoftim [he removed city gates from their hinges, amongst other feats], and Chazal say that David HaMelech killed eight hundred people with one arrow. There are no extraneous details in Tanach and Chazal; why is it important information that our leaders were strong?
The second problem involves a piece of gemarra in Nedarim (38a). There, the gemarra cites Rav Yochanan that ‘HaShem only places his shechcinah (ie gives prophecy to) upon someone who is strong, rich, wise, and modest.’ And the gemarra proceeds to learn all of these qualities from Moshe Rabeinu; strength from the fact that Moshe could hold the tablets, etc. Thus, it seems that the gemarra is referring to physical strength here.
However, when the Rambam records the gemarra (hilchos yesodei hatorah 7;1), he understands the word ‘strong’ in the gemarra to be referring to someone who is ‘strong in his [good] middos’ and who is constantly conquering his yetzer hara. From where did the Rambam find room to understand this in the above gemarra which seems to refer to physical strength alone? This is the question of the kesef mishna. Because of this question, the kesef mishna is forced to say that the Rambam’s source of this halacha is not actually the aforementioned gemarra in nedarim, but rather the Rambam is delineating the criteria for prophecy that he understood by himself. So why did the Rambam not use the criteria of the gemarra Nedarim? For that gemarra is speaking about a fixed, constant prophecy like only Moshe Rabeinu was privy to (as the Rosh comments there); hence it learning the criteria from Moshe Rabeinu - but the Rambam here is speaking about the level of prophecy attainted by the other prophets. [The level of Moshe’s prophecy was qualitatively different from others’ prophecy, as demonstrated by the fact that the Rambam has separate articles of faith for belief in prophecy in general and the belief in Moshe’s prophecy.] Perhaps one can add support to this answer by noting that the Rambam here does not seem to clearly mention humility nor richness as criteria here; it seems that he is speaking about a different type of prophecy than that of the gemarra.
However, there is another answer given to the above Rambam - the answer that we shall focus on for our topic of strength. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz in his ‘sichos mussar’ (parshas Beshalach 5731) notes that when Ya’akov Avinu rolled the stone off from the water well, Rashi comments that ‘it was as easy as taking off the top from a bottle; it teaches us that his strength was great.’ What type of strength are we talking about here? He brings that in the piyut we say in tefillas geshem, we ask HaShem that He should give us rain in the merit of Ya’akov having rolled the rock from the well. If we are dealing with physical strength exclusively here, why should the fact that Ya’akov was physically strong be a source of merit to us? Rather, says Rav Shmulevitz, from here is to be gleaned the secret of what our concept of strength really is. Outer, external, physical strength, always comes from internal focus and internal strength. Thus, we are asking for the merit of Ya’akov’s internal strength and commitment, that which led to his physical strength, which was able to remove the rock. Rav Shmulevitz says that a modern-day comparison can be seen in the fact that someone who is faced with danger (a fire, for example), becomes much stronger and can do things which would be otherwise physically impossible for them to do. I remember hearing on the news when I was younger that a certain swimming school in Australia started to put an alligator in the pool after the children had commenced their race to motivate the children to swim faster - because the innate danger of the situation made them more focussed and thus made them swim harder and faster.
This is why it is important to know that many of our leaders were physically strong - not because there is necessarily great pride in being physically strong alone - but rather that it showed and was a product of their internal focus and strength. Additionally, this is why the Rambam understood ‘strong’ as referring to spiritual strength; he was indeed recording the gemarra in nedarim, but the Rambam understood that when the gemarra talked about Moshe’s physical strength, it was just a vehicle for expressing Moshe’s inner spiritual focus and strength - and that spiritual strength is what the Rambam recorded in his sefer. This holds true for all the leaders of Bnei Yisrael who’s great physical strength is recorded; it is to tell us about their internal spiritual strength, which is the main thing. To cite one example, we know of Shimshon’s extraordinary physical strength in swiping away the pillars from underneath the building it supported - this strength emerged from his inner spiritual strength; the gemarra (Sotah 10a) reveals that Shimshon judged Bnei Yisrael like HaShem Himself, and his name was a semblance of HaShem’s Name in that ‘just as HaShem protects the entire world, so too did Shimshon protect Bnei Yisrael in his generation.’ In fact, the gemarra proceeds to tell us that Shimshon was actually lame in both of his legs; making clear to us that his strength was indeed miraculous and had to have stemmed from an internal spiritual strength and focus.
Likewise, this is the explanation for the definition of the Misha in Avos (4;1) ‘Who is strong? One who conquers his yetzer hara…’ - the mishna is not just giving a cute ‘mussar vort,’ but it is defining what our concept of physical strength is; that it comes from spiritual and internal strength. Lastly, we shall tie this into our sedra of Mattos somewhat. After we already have beaten Midyan in war, we are given laws about kashering utensils. This paragraph receives an interesting introduction; it starts with the words 'and Elazar the Kohen said to the people of the army who are coming to war' (31;21). Why are they not called 'the people who came FROM war?' The Chovas Halevavos answers this point in explaining that though the Bnei Yisrael had won the physical war, they were now coming to the real war; the war with the yetzer hara to avoid haughtiness about their victory and to attribute it to HaShem - they were really coming TO war. Here too, the point is that the Torah did not define these victorious warriors by the strength they had displayed in the physical battle they had just successfully faced, but rather focussed upon their upcoming spiritual battle as the pivotal one; the battle against the yetzer hara.
Though the main idea and principle to understand from all the above is the Torah view on strength, this is part of a bigger principle, which we shall mention briefly. In most things in life, there is the part that we see and the part that we do not see. Examples can range from as basic to ‘the food of a restaurant’ (seen) versus the ‘atmosphere of the restaurant’ (not seen) to the relationship of how well one knows their friend or partner - something not purely based on their physical actions, but on what their internal personality is like. The problem we face is that since we can only physically see the visible part and impact, we often neglect the importance of the unseen/hidden part, which is the part which is often responsible for the visible impacts. The concept of strength above is a great example; whilst we only see the physical strength, we forget that the real cause and more important facet is that of internal spiritual strength. So too with mitzvos like tefillah and learning Torah, etc. since we do not see the immediate physical repercussions of our spiritual efforts, we might undervalue them, or might find something physically-based more attractive because it gives us a more immediate and noticeable impact.
The point to keep in mind is that our spiritual pursuits do create a valuable and lasting impact, even thought we might not see them immediately or at all. As one small example, [apart from the sources that say that no tefillah is rejected, etc.] in the 1991 gulf war Israel was threatened with destruction and serious damage from Iraq’s scud missiles, the same scud missiles which had caused much loss of life in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Jews around the world got together to daven and say tehillim in an outpour of emotion and unity. The result was that a total of 39 missiles were fired into Israel, with the result of just one direct fatality; many miraculously missed, went off course, or did not cause harm. And just in case we were in need of a further hint that this was ‘hidden’ Divine Providence, the day Saddam Hussein surrendered was none other than Purim. This is but one of the results of tefillah that we see; there are many more that we do not see, and they are no less important.
Have a great Shabbes,

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