Imagining Moses


If asked to visualize Moses, a variety of pictures may come to mind. We may imagine Moses descending Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, or stretching out his staff parting the sea. We may imagine Moses standing up in defiance of Pharaoh, or a young Moses defending an Israelite from an Egyptian taskmaster. The image that I think does not come first to our minds is the one that appears at the end of Beshalach, when Moses stands on the mountain during the battle with Amalek. He needs to keep his arms up; as long as his arms were up, the Israelites were winning the battle. When he lowered his arms, the Israelites began to lose. It is difficult if not impossible to keep one’s arms lifted for an entire day. Moses needed to sit on a rock and have two people at his sides supporting his arms. I don’t think that is the image of Moses that comes to mind: an elderly, exhausted man, sitting on a rock, needing others to keep his arms lifted.

This parashah takes us through a number of important steps at the beginning of the Israelite journey out of Egypt and into the desert. They include the miraculous parting of the sea, and the struggles for food and water, which included fear, complaints and miraculous acts providing sustenance. Throughout this time the Israelites struggled with their transition from slaves to free individuals, from life in Egypt to traveling through the wilderness, and in their understanding and relationship with both Moses and God. This was a painful and glorious process.

One interesting motif that runs through this process is the image of hands. The Israelites march out of Egypt “b’yad ramah” (“in high-handed triumph”) [Exodus 14:8]. In order to part and then close the sea, Moses is told to bring his staff, but he needs to stretch his hand out over the sea to effect the change [Ex. 14:16-26]. Miriam leads the women (and perhaps the men, as well) in song with a drum held “in her hand” [Ex. 15:20]. Moses is told to take his staff “in his hand” in order to bring water out of the rock [Ex. 16:5]. Moses’ hands need to be raised in order to ensure Israelite victory over the Amalek [Ex. 17:11-12]. And finally, the victory over Amalek is celebrated with an expression of joy in the strength of God’s hands [Ex. 17:16].   

It’s important to look at the image of Moses sitting on the rock, with Aaron and Hur holding his hands up, in this context. Throughout Beshalach, hands are a source of strength and power. Moses uses his hands to elicit miracles. Miriam uses her hands to celebrate a miracle. The Israelites raise their hands in joy and victory. Moses accomplishes remarkable feats using his hands. While his staff was presented from the beginning as a vehicle of miracles, it is clear in the text that it was essential that Moses use his hands as well.

It is interesting to imagine Moses’ thoughts about his own power, and the Israelites’ views of his strength. One could imagine that some Israelites saw him carrying Divine power. This could lead to their total reliance on Moses, or feelings of distance from him. Moses himself may not have known how to think about himself vis-a-vis the Israelites. We see those conflicting thoughts playing out in the parashah. The Israelites complain to Moses, pushing him, leading him to feel that he is alone. Moses cries out to God at one point, “What can I do for this people? Very soon they will stone me!” [Ex. 17:4].

As they begin their journey together, there is a sense of distance forming between Moses and the people. Perhaps this relationship needs to be worked on before the Israelites arrive at Sinai to ratify their relationship with God and embrace their destiny as a people. Perhaps the best way to do that is to add depth to the relationship between Moses and the people. Moses’ hands may be able to perform miracles, but, as we see in this important scene, he needs others to help him. He needs to be able to rely on those Israelites about whom he expressed fear, and the people need to see that he needs them. The Israelites need to see this very complex image of a vulnerable, struggling, man of great power. 

We are accustomed to honoring those who lead and serve the Jewish community with sure and steady hands. In this description of Moses we are reminded that we should also gratefully recognize and eagerly respond to their need for community support. This is a key to prevailing in the challenges that confront us.

Ora Horn Prouser is the executive vice president and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers.

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat Candles: 4:48 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31
Havdalah: 5:51 p.m.