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In Moshe’s blessings to the tribes of Benei Yisrael just before his death, he likens the tribes of Yosef to an ordinary ox with the horns of a re’eim (a wild ox): “Bekhor shoro hadar lo ve-karnei re’eim karnav” (33:17). The Sifrei, cited by Rashi, explains that an ox has great physical might, but its horns are unseemly, whereas a re’eim is graced with beautiful, majestic horns, but lacks physical strength. In this blessing, Moshe speaks of his successor, Yehoshua, a descendant of Yosef, who would feature great physical might, leading Benei Yisrael to resounding victory over the nations of Canaan, but also beauty and splendor, like a re’eim.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, offers an insightful explanation of the Sifrei’s comments, suggesting that it refers to the moral “beauty” that must accompany military campaigns. Normally, when fighting like an “ox,” with fierce determination and an unrelenting desire to triumph over the enemy, the army is “unseemly” – cruel and heartless. The blessing to Yehoshua was that in leading Benei Yisrael in battle against the peoples of Canaan, he would be both powerful and beautiful, ensuring victory without compromising the standard of morals, dignity and refinement which Torah values demand.
The message of this imagery applies not only to actual warfare, but to all the various different “battles” that we are occasionally called upon to wage. Sometimes we have no choice but to “fight,” to oppose ideas and practices that run contrary to our beliefs and values. Chazal here urge us to ensure that while we wage these battles, we combine the strength and fortitude of the ox with the grace and beauty of the re’eim. When we find ourselves forced to go out to oppose our detractors, we must ensure to fight with “karnei re’eim,” with dignity and grace, and not like an ox, with a harsh, brutish style and demeanor. Moshe’s blessing to Yosef teaches us that we can and must struggle with firm resolve without compromising our ethics or our dignity, and stand strong in support of what we believe in without diminishing one iota from the beauty and grace that ought to characterize God’s special nation.