“וַאֲנִי נָתַתִּי לְךָ שְׁכֶם אַחַד עַל אַחֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר לָקַחְתִּי מִיַּד הָאֱמֹרִי, בְּחַרְבִּי וּבְקַשְׁתִּי.”
Before his death, Jacob gathered his sons together and blessed them. To his beloved Joseph, Jacob promised an additional portion — “which I took from the Amorites with my sword and bow” (Gen. 48:22).
It is striking just how out of character this statement is for Jacob. Jacob was the ish tam, the scholarly man who dwelled in the “tents of Torah.” Jacob was the one who greeted his angry brother with gifts, not with battle. Jacob was the one who cursed his sons for slaughtering the residents of Shechem after they kidnapped his daughter. So what is this talk of swords and bows?
The Sages interpreted his statement as referring — not to weapons of war — but to weapons of prayer:
“Does it not say, ‘I do not trust in my bow, and my sword will not save me’ (Psalms 44:7)? Rather, ‘my sword’ refers to prayer. And ‘my bow’ (be-kashti) refers to supplication (bakashah).” (Baba Batra 123a).
Is this just a homiletical interpretation of Jacob’s curious pronouncement? What do swords and bows have to do with prayer?
Thousands of years ago, a sect of especially pious individuals, known as the chasidim rishonim, lived in the Land of Israel. The Mishnah records their practice of meditating for a full hour before each prayer. They would not begin to pray until they knew that “their hearts were fully directed toward their Father in heaven” (Mishnah Berakhot 5:1).
What kind of meditative techniques did these chasidim rishonim use?
Rav Kook suggested that Jacob’s “sword” and “bow” are mental tools used to ready oneself for prayer. These weapons represent methods to clear one’s thoughts and refine one’s mental images in preparation for a pure experience of prayer.
“The meditative method which utilizes the refined visualization of ha-shlilah ha-gedolah (‘the great negation’) — necessary in order to cleave to the light of the Ein Sof — this technique purifies all of life’s forces. It raises them above all lowly, mundane qualities. It also elevates all that is associated with the individual who meditates using yichudim (mystical unifications), as he reflects on this profound thought with all the depths of his spirit and soul, with spiritual clarity and elevation.”
The “sword” is thus a technique by which one slashes and cuts away all erroneous thoughts, pruning away all limiting concepts of God. This is the “great negation.” We reject the idolatrous defining of the Infinite and Unlimited, and gain awareness of the all-encompassing light of the Ein Sof.
And what about Jacob’s “bow”? This refers to focus and concentration. As Rav Kook continues:
“Prayer which is based on this lofty yearning is saturated with pure inspiration. It scores its mark like a bow and arrow of a champion archer. ‘With my sword and bow’ — ‘with my prayer and supplication.'”
Thus the “bow” is a metaphor for a state of mental focus during prayer. The imagery is taken from the practiced art of an expert archer, who takes careful aim before releasing the arrow. In fact, the Hebrew word for intention — kavanah — literally means “to take aim.”
This is a quality of pure Divine service which Jacob was able to free from the idolatrous influence of the Amorites — “with my sword and bow.”
(Adapted from Shemonah Kevatzim II: 198. Orot HaKodesh vol. IV, p. 448)