Parshat Matos describes the war Bnei Yisrael waged against Midyan after the incident of Ba’al Pe’or, as recorded at the end of Parshat Balak. Upon the soldiers’ return from their successful campaign, a group of generals approach Moshe, bringing an offering from the spoils of war. They say to Moshe (Bamidbar 31:49):
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲבָדֶיךָ נָשְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדֵנוּ וְלֹא נִפְקַד מִמֶּנּוּ אִישׁ
Your servants took a count of the men of war that were with us, and not a man has been lost.
The Midrash in Shir HaShirim 4:3 suggests a homiletic approach to the verse, which does not speak to the physical survival of all the troops, rather their spiritual success during the operation. “Not a man has been lost” means that no man was spiritually lost; that all the soldiers maintained and practiced the proper belief in Hashem on the battlefield.
The proof provided by the generals, according to the Midrash, is that “not one of [the soldiers] gave precedence to the tefillin shel rosh over the tefillin shel yad.” As is our tradition remains to this day, one must bind the tefillin of the arm, before affixing the tefillin of the head. According to the Midrash, the generals proudly attested to their soldiers’ strict compliance with this law.
Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson, in his Divrei Shaul, explains this Midrash by suggesting a symbolic meaning behind the tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh. Chazal comment that one must wear the tefillin shel yad on “yad keiha” = the weaker arm. The Divrei Shaul suggests that the tefillin shel yad thus symbolizes the “weakness” of the human hand — the notion that our efforts are only as successful as Hashem sees fit. The tefillin shel rosh, by contrast, are a symbol of grandeur and nobility. Some sources even speak of tefillin shel rosh as a crown on our heads.
Putting teffilin on in the proper order, expresses the belief that we are too “weak” and too limited to achieve majestic heights without the help of the King of Kings. We acknowledge the inherent limits of our “arm,” our strength and our efforts. Only once we have done this, can we hope to achieve the crown of honor. The binding of the teffilin on our arm is the binding of our need for Hashem’s assistance with the efforts of our “arms” and with the toil of our hands.
[I believe this fits well with the parshiot in our teffilin, which are so closely connected with the concept of being Hashem’s firstborn, and what that meant during Makat Bechorot and Yetziat Mitzrayim. The only active role we played in Makat Bechorot was putting blood on the doorpost. We demonstrated that we were willing to make the efforts demanded of us, but of course only Hashem would decide which firstborns to kill and which to leave unharmed. We bind ourselves to Hashem, and He binds Himself back to us. As the Gemara in Brachos tells us, that in Hashem’s teffilin the parshiot read:
מי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ
We acknowledge His power and try to emulate Him, and He will empower us.]
The generals reported to Moshe that the battle against Midyan was a success because the soldiers understood the message of yad keiha – the weak arm that characterizes human effort in the absence of divine support. As a result, they achieved victory, rooted out the cause of their sins, and once again donned the crown of Hashem.
I write this to myself, as a reminder, that every time I am wowed by, please G-d, the continued success of Iron Dome and the efforts of Tzahal, that it is Hashem squarely behind everything, protecting us from those that are intent on our destruction. As a new phase of the ongoing battle in Israel puts our soldiers in more dire straits – Hashem yishmor – it is the hope that the day is soon upon us when we can say, “lo nifkad mimenu ish,” when Am Yisrael defeats its enemies without losing a single member of achienu kol Beis Yisrael, and we intensely feel the “hand” of Hashem and the “zeroah netuya” protecting us and guiding our physical and spiritual efforts.