On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - B'shalach: Lifting Hands and Sharing Power

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses Parashat B'shalach and the powerful image of Aaron and Hur lifting Moses' hands as he grew weary. How can this story inspire us to lift our own hands in prayer and in strengthening one another, and how can we share leadership equitably the way our patriarchs did in this story?

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parasha Beshalach, focusing in on how we use our bodies in gratitude, praise, and sharing the power that we each may have.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parasha B'shalach from the Book of Exodus, also known as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, referring to the "Song of the Sea", that amazing ancient poem that is at the heart of this week's Parasha. Yes, it also includes the parting of the seas and Nashon ben Aminadav, the courageous Israelite who dove into the water, not being able to swim. All that happens, and we're going to focus on what happens just after.

In the 17th chapter of the Book of Exodus, beginning in verse 8, we have this whole encounter with one of the ancient enemies of the Jewish people, Amalek, the Amalekites. And it's soon after they've crossed the sea, had this miraculous experience of God's presence in their midst, A, being liberated from Egyptian slavery and then going free, and then very soon after, they encounter this arch-enemy of the Jewish people.

And in verse 10, Joshua said, as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses and Aaron and Hur went up to the top of the hill. So here's the scene, the Israelites are fighting this enemy, and Moses goes up on a hill overlooking the battle, and on either side, he has Aaron and Hur. And it turns out-- Here's verse 11 in chapter 17, "Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed. But whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed."

Have you ever held your hands high for a long time? I remember I was honored to hold a huppah for a friend's wedding, and the polls didn't actually touch the ground, so we were holding this couple up in the air. And it was so beautiful as the rabbi started and chanted this opening section and offered in the first words. And then I had this moment of dread going, I don't think I can hold this thing up for the next 25 minutes. There's that moment for Moses, when he holds his hands up in the air they're winning, but as soon as he starts to fade they start to fade.

There's a direct connection between our leader Moses and the people's feeling of confidence and strength. In the next verse, verse 12, it says, "But Moses' hands grew heavy." So what did Aaron and Hur do? They took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And while Aaron and Hur, on one on each side, support his hands, thus his hands remained steady until the sunset.

A kind of a remarkable image. And there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this remarkable image, including the whole notion of what is leadership after all. And you think very often of the leaders as these independent, strong willed, and physically strong, determined people. But here you had maybe our greatest teacher, who models for all of us a shared leadership.

It's not all about Moses. In this case, it's also about Aaron and Hur, and about their ability to help support our teacher. It turns out again, this podcast, if I can whisper this a little bit more quietly, this podcast is probably being heard by you a day or two or three or four after the Super Bowl. For those who are not fans of football, that's kind of the football game.

You know what happens when the referee signals a touchdown? What's the gesture? Do it in your car, do it walking along. I know people may look at you funny, but I see all of you putting your arms up in the air, signaling an actual score. And you ask yourself, where did that come from? What's the origin of holding your arms up in parallel over your head? And maybe it's a sign of victory going back to this biblical story. I don't know, I don't know, just saying, maybe.

And more importantly, there is a continuous connection of that gesture in Jewish tradition, in the Psalms. And I want to take you through some of it. But I want to ask first the question, why was Moses up on the hill and not down on the battlefield? Isn't that also where leaders are supposed to be with their troops with their people?

And I think there's a pretty powerful answer. And that is, when the people can see Moses, and again, he wasn't towering, he's not Goliath, he's not towering over them, they see him up on the hill. They have such a deep connection that seeing him and seeing him holding his hands up gives them such strength that if he were down on the battlefield they would not have seen that.

And also, it's a beautiful teaching by Marty Linsky and Ron Heifetz about leadership, and they always say, get up on the balcony when you're leading, don't just be in the moment. Get up and look at what's happening from a different perspective, so you can see the whole. So it's possible that already Moses and Aaron and Hur are up on the balcony watching a very dramatic moment and able to be the leaders that they want.

Again, I underscore today, we have a notion of shared leadership, much more developed if you're a congregational president or you're a congregational rabbi, or you're the leader of some organization or if you're PTA. The model today is, don't do it yourself, do it with others. Empower others, get others to be your partners in doing the work of the Jewish tradition, or the work of leadership writ large.

I also see, because I travel all the time, I see leaders who are weary, who are worn out, and sometimes it's because they think they have to carry the burden alone. And I think this biblical story is so powerful to teach us, we never have to carry the burden of leadership alone. And by sharing the weight, literally the weight of leadership, it's very powerful.

So just hear some of the amazing examples of lifting our hands as spiritual gestures. Psalm 63, verse 4 says, "So I will bless you as long as I live. In your name I will lift up my hands." There is a connection between lifting your hands. Think of the way the priests in antiquity, and some even to this day, lifting their hands in a gesture of blessing, making a shin with their fingers in their hands spread out, and saying the [NON-ENGLISH] the may god bless you and keep you from the book of Numbers.

There's something about raising our hands and blessing the people. I can tell you Psalm 88, verse 9, "Every day I call upon you O God. I spread out my hands to you. Psalm 119, verse 48, "I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love. And I will meditate on your statutes." Psalm 134, verse 2, "Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the eternal."

It is a dominant theme. There's something about raising our hands is an act of prayer, a gesture, a blessing, and sending a blessing out to people around. If I could speak personally, Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, was an inspiration to, I think, the entire world and certainly to the entire Jewish people, and very much to our reform movement. She came to her leadership at our camp in [INAUDIBLE].

I met her first at our camp in California, Camp Swig. And when each of our three children were born, Debbie wrote a song and a prayer. And our firstborn, our son Aaron's bar mitzvah, Debbie wrote, "Lift your hands of Israel and bless the people, bless the people." And when she sang it for the first time at Aaron's bar mitzvah, there was a spontaneous-- we all lifted our hands. It was a gesture of extending the blessing to him, to all of us, to our world.

So I got a lot of things going on in this podcast. So what's new rabbi? That sounds like what happens pretty much every week. I want us to remember the story of our battle against the Amalekites. I want us to remember that leadership is not something that's solitary if we do it right. Moses learned it the hard way, his arms and his hands grew weary, and he was supported by Aaron and Hur.

We also learned that to be a good leader, sometimes it means not actually being on the playing field or on the battlefield, but actually getting up on the balcony and see more clearly what is the larger reality and what is the most effective thing to do. We also see that leaders and followers are sometimes very, very interconnected. And just seeing Moses with his hands held high gave inspiration to our people. We've now taken that to be physical gestures of blessing.

So when you go to-- next time you're in temple, I'm not suggesting this to start waving your hands, but we should also understand the physicality of spirituality. Movement, prayer, dance, these are all ways that we extend meaning. Words, song, all very powerful. But here we have a model of leadership, we have models of spirituality, we have models of living holiness.

And I kind of love all this. And does it really relate to a touchdown on a football field? I don't know, and you know what, it ultimately doesn't really matter. And I'm not connecting football to spirituality, because I'm actually not sure there's a lot there. But I am sure that we need leaders on every field and in every place. And I am sure that we'll be, each of us, better leaders if we share the leadership. And I'm also absolutely convinced that our job is to bless other people. So lift your hands, O Israel, and let's together bless the people.

[URJ Outro]

Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand, 10 minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

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On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitraot.