Beshalach: Did Moses’ Hands Win The War?

Moses’ buddies supported his arms “in faith,” which connects to God’s faith in us.

Table for Five: Beshalach

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Now Moses hands were heavy; so they took a stone and placed it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one from this [side], and one from that [side]; so he was with his hands in faith until sunset. Ex. 17:12


Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School

Excuse my alliteration, but who the heck is Hur? He receives scant mention in the Torah. He is best known for supporting Moses’ arms during the war against Amalek. Who is he, and what did he do to merit being Moses’ right (or left) hand man?

The Talmud identifies Hur as the son of Miriam and Caleb. Tradition also identifies him as the grandfather of Bezalel, architect of the Tabernacle. But the Torah itself leaves Hur oddly anonymous.

Perhaps more revealing is Hur’s name. “Hur” is a modified version of the Hebrew word ḥor, meaning hole. What a sad name! A hole is negative space, the absence of substance. Even worse, a hole can be destructive if it undermines structure. A hole in a boat or dam can be catastrophic. A hole in the heart implies sorrow and loss. However, a hole can also form the basis of resiliency and stability.

Every building needs its foundation, which is nothing but a big hole in the ground. The deeper the hole, the more solid the structure. Hur’s job is to lend support and stability to Moses. If Moses is the pillar of Israel, Hur becomes that pillar’s foundation. So too with our own experiences. We all suffer losses in life, some of which seem to leave gaping holes in our spirits. We can leave those holes open and empty, or we can slowly build upon our losses, growing stronger and firmer for having experienced them.


Kylie Lobell, Contributor, The Jewish Journal

Moses held his hands up in prayer to defeat the evil Amalek, and when he got tired, his fellow Jews were there to help him. Could there be any greater metaphor for how we can combat anti-Semitism?

Unfortunately, the Jewish community has always been very divided, and it seems more polarized than ever thanks to constant fighting on the social media battlefields. I know firsthand that it’s not easy to build bridges. My fellow Jews disappoint me when they have opinions I don’t agree with. I’ve had to keep quiet at Shabbat dinners so I wouldn’t make anyone feel bad. I’ve deleted Facebook comments because I knew they could be destructive. Even though it’s tempting to fight, I always try to have a dialogue instead.

Today, people don’t have the time or patience to have real, open discussions. Instead, if they see someone who has different views, they’ll simply “ghost” or “cancel” them. This is destructive to society and especially detrimental to Jews, a tiny minority in a vast world that is increasingly proving its intolerance of us. Now is the time to stick together, just as Moses and his fellow Jews did. He had to deal with much higher stakes and chutzpah than we’ll ever have to, like Jews who witnessed the revelation and still disobeyed HaShem. If Moses can do it, so can we. By unifying and relying on Hashem for chizuk, strength, only then will we defeat our enemies and rise above the hate.


Ilana Kurshan, Author, “If All the Seas Were Ink”

The Torah tells us Moses’ hands were instrumental in the Israelites’ war against Amalek. Moses needed to keep his hands raised so as to ensure the Israelites’ victory, but even the greatest leaders get tired, and so Moses was supported by his brother and by Caleb’s son so that he might hold his hands “in faith” until the sun set. But why “in faith”? The Mishnah in tractate Rosh Hashanah (3:8), amidst a broader discussion of the role of intention in religious actions, questions whether Moses could really control the outcome of the war with his hands, a notion that suggests that Moses had magical powers, or at least that there was some spooky action-at-a-distance involved. The sages explain that no, it was rather that “as long as the Israelites turned their eyes upward and subjected their hearts to their father in heaven, they prevailed, and if not, they fell.” That is to say, when the people saw Moses’ arms raised, they lifted their eyes in prayer to God, and it was this posture of submission that ensured their victory.

God did not need Moses’ upraised arms, but we human beings sometimes we need visible reminders—like tzitzit or mezuzah or a kipah—to sustain our faith in God, an idea captured by the following limerick:

Did Moses’ hands win the war?

Is that what he lifted them for?
No, the people would see

And pray dutifully

Please God, do not let Amalek score!


Rabbi Shraga Simmons, Journalist and Educator at Shraga.com

The stone Moses sat on, explains the 19th century commentator Malbim, hearkens to an earlier event in Jewish history: Genesis 28:11. Jacob dreamt of the ladder, lying on a pillow of 12 stones – representing his 12 sons, the 12 tribes of Israel. These stones miraculously joined into one stone, symbolizing the historical theme of “Jewish unity” (Talmud – Chullin 91b).

Jewish unity is so central to our peoplehood that it was the prerequisite for receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (Rashi – Exodus 19:2).

What precisely is “Jewish unity”?

Life has three primary relationships: with self, with others, and with God. When these three facets merge, says the Malbim, we activate a perpetual Jewish Unity Machine that propels our idealistic vision of a perfected world.

Back to our verse, with Moses sitting on the rock of Jewish unity, arms raised on both sides. Holding one arm is Aaron, the “lover of peace” (Mishnah – Avot 1:12) exemplifying unity between Jews. Holding Moses’ other arm is Hur, who at the Golden Calf willingly gives up everything to protest taking God out of the picture. Both aspects of unity are essential.

Living in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, I saw Saddam Hussein firing missiles at our cities, with near-zero damage. When the U.S. later delivered Patriot anti-missile systems, we recognized that ultimately God protects. As the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 29a) explains our verses: With Moses’ hands raised, the Jewish people focus Heavenward – completing the unity cycle that remain till today the prerequisite for our longed-for redemption.


Salvador Litvak, accidentaltalmudist.org

Translations of this verse usually say that Moses’ weary hands were made “steady” by Aaron and Hur. The word in question, however, is emunah, meaning faith or faithfulness. Moses and the Children of Israel needed faith to prevail over Amalek, and that faith was made tangible in Moses up-reaching arms.

The first words a Jew utters upon awaking each day appear in every prayer book: I give thanks before You, Living and Eternal King, for You have restored my soul within me. Your faithfulness is great!

Isn’t faith about us believing in God? Yet our Sages decreed that we greet every new day by thanking God for believing in us! What is the nature of that faith?

Perhaps it means that every day I’m given is an affirmation by God that I have the oomph I need to accomplish my unique mission. Now that’s a pretty thought, but it’s one I can easily forget later in the day when things go haywire, especially on bleak days when I despair that I picked the wrong project, the wrong career or the wrong road, and I’ve trapped myself in a cell without a key.

That’s when I need a hand from Aaron and Hur, people who care about me and recognize why God has faith in me. It might be a word of encouragement, or a reminder to get back to basics. It might even be a pat on the arm at just the right moment reminding me that the Almighty created me for a purpose, and gave me exactly the tools and experiences I need to achieve it.

With thanks to Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Rabbi Shraga Simmons, Ilana Kurshan, and Kylie Lobell.

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