Matos Masai 5764
We have often alluded to midrashist's encyclopedic grasp of syntax and lexicon of Lashon Hakodesh. This superior command of the language frequently allows him to express remarkable insights into the meaning of certain verses and phrases. We, with our imperfect command of the Holy Tongue perceive these insights as drash whereas they are nothing if not most remarkable pshat.
One such example can be found in Bamidbar 31, 8. The verse states: …and Bilaam son of Beor, the sourcerer, they killed "b'cherev", with a sword. Rashi makes the following comment: He came against Israel and exchanged his device for theirs for they conquer only through their mouths and by the means of their prayer and pleas but he came and seized their device by cursing them with his mouth. Therefore they also came against him and exchanged their device for a device of the nations who come with the sword, as it states (Genesis 27:40) "and by thy sword thou shall live". Although this sounds as a bone-fide drash, that is not the case.
R. Mordechai Levenshtein in his work on Targum Onkelos, Nefesh Hager points out that in Tanach whenever the sword is in the hand of Jews, the expression that is used is "lfi Chorev", "by" or "according" or "with one blade" of a sword. Whenever a gentile is described as wielding the sword, the espression is "b'cherev", "with sword". There is only one exception, this verse here. In this unique instance it is the Jews who are wielding the sword and still the expression "b"cherev" is used. A sensible explanation for this anomaly is that in this case, Jews are using the sword in the manner of Gentiles. From here it is but a short distance to the claim that Bilaam exchanged his device, the sword for their device, prayer, and that they, in return, dealt him the sword in a way and in a manner that belonged to him.
Here we see an example of a midrash that presents the deep pshat. Our limited understanding of Ancient Hebrew usage prevented us from understanding or appreciating this fact until it is pointed out to us.
1 See Rashi to 22:23 for a slightly different version of the same midrash which is found in Tanchuma to that verse and also in Midrash Hagodol in our parsha.
2 Hashmotos, Lfi Cherev
3 One simple explanation of this usage is that a gentile uses his sword indiscriminantly and without serious consideration of the grave moral issues involved. A Jew, on the other hand, uses only the appropriate blade or side, only as much force as is required.