15.6. The War with Amalek (17:8-13)
(8) Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.
(9) Moses said to Joshua, “Pick some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand.”
(10) Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.
(11) Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.
(12) But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.
(13) And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword.
(8) Amalek came: How could Amalek undertake a war with Israel, when all other surrounding nations were left trembling in the wake of the annihilation of Pharaoh’s army?
Amalek is Esau’s grandson (Gen. 36:12). Thus, as a descendant of Abraham Amalek claims that he too is an heir to Abraham’s “chosenness” (albeit its negative aspects). He is a great opponent of the Jews: Balaam in his prophecy describes Amalek as “a leading nation” (Num. 24:20). Because Amalek is the antithesis of everything that Israel represents, Amalek cannot but attack the Israelites when they leave Egypt to take their place in history.
Amalek’s attacks on Israel continue to occur throughout Jewish history. But we shall postpone our analysis of this topic until we examine the passage in Deuteronomy (25:19) where God commands that Amalek must be obliterated.
And fought with Israel at Rephidim: The Midrash sees this war as the result of the Jewish people’s failure to feel gratitude to the Almighty, and to recognize His presence. The Midrash describes this situation with the following parable:
“A man raises his young son onto his shoulders, and they set off for a stroll. The son notices some object on the ground and says, “Give it to me, father.” The father picks it up and gives it to his son. And so a second time and a third. When soon they meet a passerby, the son asks him, “Have you seen my father?” Says the father to his son, “So, do you really have no idea where your father is?” He throws his son to the ground, where he is soon bitten by a dog.”
The above Midrash notwithstanding, a nation that does not know how to fight, or is unable to fight, can never be a nation in the full sense of the word. It was therefore necessary that God’s “program” for raising the Jewish people to responsible, independent “adulthood” would include the ordeal of battling their enemies.
(9) Moses said to Joshua: Later we will learn that Joshua was one of the leaders of the tribe of Ephraim. His name was originally “Hosea,” which was only later changed to “Joshua” (Num. 13:16). And yet he is here already called “Joshua.” The Torah will often refer to people and places using the names by which they will come to be known at some future time, which might happen only in a later generation (for more about Joshua, see below.)
“Pick some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek: During the clash with the Egyptians at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, Moses tells the people, “The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” But here he gives the order to fight. At the first stage of the Exodus, the people of Israel were not yet ready for war, and were not capable of fighting for themselves. But now God is educating them as a free people, and therefore demands that they take responsibility for their own destiny.
Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand: From the outset of the war, Moses believes that the Jews will emerge victorious by virtue of a miracle.
(10) Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill: Rather than going alone, Moses proactively takes Aaron and Hur with him as his “support group.”
Hur: Hur was a son of Miriam, who was married to Caleb, a leader of the tribe of Judah, and one of the twelve scouts sent to spy out the land of Canaan (Num. 13:6). Hur’s grandson was Bezalel, the chief architect of God’s Tabernacle (Exod. 31:1 ff.).
(11) Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed: The Talmud adds: “But did Moses’ hands actually wage war or crush the enemy? Not so. The text only signifies that so long as Israel turned their thoughts upward and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they prevailed, but otherwise they fell” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, 3:8). Thus, Moses’ hands served as a kind of banner. When the Israelites cast their eyes upon Moses’ raised hands, they turned their thoughts to Heaven, and sensed that they belonged to the Almighty, which led to victory. But when Moses’ lowered his hands, the people turned their eyes toward the ground, which led them to lose sight of their destiny and thus to suffer defeat.
The perspective of the Torah text itself, however, is somewhat different. There is an organic interconnection between Moses and Israel that operates in both directions. The position of Moses’ hands reflects Israel’s frame of mind. Just as Moses’ raised hands support the faith of the people, so does their faith strengthen Moses’ hands. When the people lose faith, Moses finds it difficult to keep his hands uplifted.
(12) But Moses’ hands grew heavy: It is quite difficult to hold one’s hands uplifted for any significant length of time. At some point, the people’s faith weakens to such a degree that Moses has no more strength.
So they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it: When in a crisis situation Moses sits down, his “stature” (and with it, the level of Jewish faith) is reduced. But this is necessary so that Moses can find the support he needs.
While Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands: In a difficult moment, Moses needs Aaron and Hur. A little later we shall discuss an approach to understanding this passage within the historical context of the development of monotheistic faith.
Thus his hands remained steady until the sun set: The word emunah here indicates steadiness or stability, but the word’s far more common meaning is, simply, “faith.” We can thus understand this verse as saying that Moses’ hands served as a symbol of faith.
Until the sun set: The battle lasted the entire day. But the future war with Amalek will continue throughout human history, “until the sun sets.”
(13) And Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword: The literal meaning of vaychalosh is “weakened.” Amalek was weakened in this battle, but not destroyed, for it had to survive in order to continue its war against Israel.