Choosing Your Tefillah Weaponry1
I have given you Shechem – one portion greater than your brothers. I took
it from the possession of the Emori with my sword and bow.
The sword and bow might easily refer to the military prowess of Machir ben
Menasheh, who wrested control of the land of Gilad from the Emori.
Success in battle was not assured through his demonstrable skill in
battle; it relied upon the merit of Yaakov. Therefore, Yaakov was
justified in calling them his sword and bow.
Chazal, however, saw a different skill set operating here. Both the
sword and bow are metaphorical. They refer to “tefillah and bakashah” /
prayer and request.
Our first reaction is to assume that Chazal are telling us about the potency
of Yaakov’s davening. His weapons of choice were not chosen from an
arsenal, but from a prayer book. If this were so, however, what
distinguishes the sword from the bow?
Rather, Chazal here offer a strategy to make our own prayer more effective.
The committed Jew knows of two different davening experiences. He or she
davens at set times of day, following a prescribed order. The set times of
prayer never replace the urge to throw oneself on the mercy of HKBH, asking
Him for special assistance in times of extraordinary need. Chazal refer to
the former as “prayer,” meaning the fixed service of regular davening that
has been in place since the time of the Avos. The latter, they call “request.”
Chazal have a very definite idea of how these two forms of conversation with
G-d ought to relate to each other. Excepting unusual emergency
circumstances, they tell us not to separate the two, but to combine them. We
should save our bakashah for the times of regular davening, and then implant
it in the midst of our set prayer. Those times are occasions of Divine
grace, making it more likely that our requests will be received favorably.
This appears to be the intention of the gemara : “It might be thought
that a person should first ask Hashem for his needs, and afterwards pray. It
has already been clarified that this is not so, for it is stated ‘To
listen to rinah and to prayer.’ ‘Rinah’ means tefillah; ‘tefillah’ of this
verse means bakashah.” Now Rashi understands these two options to refer to
different section of the Amidah: bakashah being the middle, supplicatory,
section, while tefillah means the praise of Hashem with which we acknowledge
His power and beneficence. According to Rashi, the gemara in effect
determines from the verse in the navi that the Amidah must begin with the
three standard, opening berachos before we present our list of request to
It is likely that Rashi resisted explaining the gemara this way, because he
wished it to remain uncontested and non-controversial. Rashi knew that there
is actually a dispute elsewhere as to whether extraordinary requests
should be voiced before or after set prayer. One opinion is that a person
should be able to unburden himself of his special, weighty issues before
offering his regular service. Rashi preferred the explanation that he
offered, because it does not run afoul either of the two opinions in Avodah
Zarah. The Targum Yerushalmi on the pasuk in Melachim, however, sees rinah
and tefillah as the same two forms of prayer that are represented by the
sword and bow of Yaakov’s statement in our parshah. This would seem to be
the intention of the gemara in Berachos – a person should always daven the
regular davening first, and roll any special requests into it.
We still ought to explain why the two forms of davening are likened to a
sword and a bow. The conduct of old military campaigns will help us
understand. It was customary for the king or a leading general to be present
at a battlefield, albeit far from the actual front. He would wait in
relative safety, surrounded by many protecting soldiers.
The opposing army could demoralize the enemy troops by killing or capturing
the enemy’s leader. To do so, they had to get past all of his surrounding
protection. This required close, up-front, hand-to-hand combat, like that
done with a sword. Once the defenders were eliminated, the leader could be
eliminated through weapons effective from a distance – like the bow.
Our prayers proceed along a similar course. We would like every word to hit
its mark, so to speak. But there are barriers between our words of
supplication and the King. Our tefillos have to get past whatever blocks
their effectiveness, whether that be the demands of din/ judgment to dilute
the rachamim/ compassion we seek, or our own inadequacies in the art of prayer.
That is the function of our fixed davening. It prepares us, and prepares the
way for our tefillos to have an unimpeded path to their destination. Once
the highway is open, we can add our special personal requests, with the hope
that the journey will be a smoother one.
1. Based on Ha’amek Davar and Harchev Davar, Bereishis 48:22, and Harchev
2. Bamidbar 32:39
3. Yehoshua 17:1
4. Bava Basra 123A
5. Berachos 31A
6. Melachim I 8:28
7. Avodah Zarah 7B