Parashat B'shalach: Moses Holds Up His Hands

B'shalach, Exodus 13:17−17:16

D'Var Torah By: Mara Katz

Why does Moses need to hold up his hands for the Israelites to be able to defeat Amalek?

The end of Parshat B'shalach (Exodus 17:8-16) tells the story of the battle between the children of Israel and Amalek. It's your typical historical battle: Israelites on one side of the field, Amalekites on the other, with commanders watching from hilltops safely behind their own lines. While watching the battle, Moses notices something strange. When he raises his hands, the battle turns in favor of his own forces. When he lowers his hands, the Amalekites seem to be winning. So Moses does the obvious thing: he keeps his hands up. But nobody can keep his hands up forever. Moses's arms eventually get tired, and he starts to worry that the Israelites will lose the battle if he puts his hands down. Luckily, Aaron, Moses's brother, and Hur, his brother-in-law, are up on the hill with him. They find Moses a rock to sit on and hold his arms up for the duration of the battle, resulting in a decisive victory for Israel.

Why does Moses have to hold his hands up? The Torah: A Modern Commentary describes Moses as holding his hands out in front of him. This position later becomes associated with the Priestly Benediction: the priest would hold his hands out over the congregation to bless them. Alternatively, Moses may have been holding the rod he had used to part the Sea of Reeds. If an Israelite looked up at Moses, he would be reminded of God, and of the miracles of the Exodus, and be inspired to keep fighting. The Israelites, as this parshah shows, have very short memories. Every time they run out of food or water, they forget past miracles and demand a new miracle to prove that God is with them. The Israelites always get their miracle-in Exodus chapter 16, God sends manna and quail to feed them, and in chapter 17:1-7, God commands Moses to strike a rock in order to produce water. But after each miracle, the children of Israel start to lose faith again. Moses therefore has to keep his hands raised constantly to maintain the focus of his army.

The job of a leader is to keep his or her followers focused on their cause. No one has much respect for a laissez-faire leader, someone who sits back and lets other people do all the work. A good leader is actively involved in whatever is going on, and if a leader cannot be directly involved, he or she should show active support for the work of others.

Related Questions

  • If a good leader is actively involved in the cause, why wasn't Moses down there fighting? 

Moses was the only person to whom God spoke with any regularity. As a result, he must have had a very good opinion of himself. Moses wanted to fight Amalek personally, and had convinced himself that since God was on his side, he must be invincible. God keeps Moses up on the hill to remind him that he is only human, and that he can die just as easily as anyone else. A good leader knows his or her weaknesses.

  • Why do Aaron and Hur have to hold Moses’s arms up?

A good leader has support from his or her followers. In holding Moses's arms up, Aaron and Hur are showing their faith that Moses knows what he's doing. They believe that keeping Moses's hands up will help them win the battle. Their support for him is both literal and figurative.

Taking Action

  • To be a good leader:

If you are put in charge of a group project, don't try to do all the work yourself, but don't sit back and let other people do all the work either! Start the project with a group planning session where you discuss everybody's strengths and weaknesses and delegate tasks accordingly. Work hard, be encouraging to the rest of your group, and do your best to make the project a success. In addition, be open to suggestions from the rest of the group about how to improve the project, and don't take criticism personally.

  • To be a good group member:

Realize that you can't do everything yourself, but realize that you are responsible to the group for doing your part. When planning the project, be honest about your strengths and weaknesses and neither take on more work than you can do nor avoid doing everything you can. Ask for help when you need it. If you feel that someone else in your group needs help, try to offer tactfully to help them, so they don't get offended: keep your tone friendly; don't sound like you could do that part of the project better if it were your job; and ask (rather than tell):  "Do you want help with that?" and not "Do you need help with that?" The latter question sounds bossier and assumes that, if the person needs help, he or she actually wants you to help.

Food For Thought

Aaron and Hur don't say a word to Moses or to each other before they step in to hold Moses's arms up. If you were Aaron or Hur, how would you have known that Moses needed help? How would you have offered to help him without offending him?

Reference Materials

B’shalach, Exodus 13:17–17:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 478–507; Revised Edition, pp. 431–461;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 379–406

Originally published: