At the end of Exodus Chapter 17, we are told of a battle between the Israelites and Amalek. Moses said to Joshua: “Choose us men and go out to fight Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand… When Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.” We are further told that Aaron and Chur helped him keep his hands up and that the final result was that Joshua and the Israelites defeated Amalek here.
By what method were the Israelites victorious here? On the simplest level, it seems that the rod of God, when raised up by Moshe’s hands, had supernatural powers and this is what caused the victory.
But many sources read additional ideas into the verses to explain what happened. On the other hand, there are other sources that deny any supernatural event here at all.
With regard to the former:
—The idea that tefilah played a role is found already in some of the early Targumim (but not in Onkelos). One of the early Targumim has: “Whenever Moses would raise his hands in prayer, the Israelites would prevail and be victorious but when he would withhold his hands from prayer, the Amalekites would prevail...” Many of our later commentators also read “prayer” into the raising of the hands.
—The idea of looking at God and subjecting oneself to him is read in by many sources as well. Here is what is found in the Mechilta: “When [Moses] lifted his hands toward Heaven, Israel would look upon him and put their trust in He who ordered Moses to do so; then God would perform nissim and gevurot for them.” Similar is the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah: “As long as Israel was looking up and subjecting their hearts to their father in Heaven, they were winning. If not, they were losing.” (Is the Mishnah an abbreviation of what is found in the Mechilta? Or is the Mechilta a later expansion of the Mishnah? It is hard for me to decide and I appreciate thoughts from any readers.)
With regard to those who seem to deny any supernatural event here at all, here are a few examples:
—Rashbam writes that the way of war is that when soldiers see a raised banner, they are strengthened but when it is cast down, they typically flee and are defeated.
—Bechor Shor writes that when Moses saw that the Israelites needed more soldiers, he would raise his arms, and this would result in more soldiers. When Moses’ arms were down, the soldiers would lose their strength as they would believe they were not doing well in the battle. As to the rod, it functioned as a sign. Typically, when an army is doing well, the sign is raised by a leader so that all should know they are succeeding, When the army is not doing well, the sign is lowered to indicate that more men are needed to come and help.
—Chizkuni writes that Moses stood on the top of the mountain so that his men could see him and be strengthened by seeing him, as the way of soldiers is for one of their leaders to stand in a high place and hold their flag to encourage them. When the soldiers see that the flag is low, they believe that their leader has died and they flee.
—Rav Hirsch writes: “It is not any magic power in the staff but the אמונה that is expressed and brought to the minds of the people by the uplifted hand, the giving oneself up with complete confidence to God that achieved the victory… [It was] the confidence in God of the people, which the leader inspired, [that] led to victory.”
It is surprising that these sources and others go out of their way to disregard the simple meaning of the verses that a supernatural event involving the rod of God took place. Perhaps the denial of the miracle is motivated by the fact that the rod of God should have its supernatural powers whether it is raised or not raised. Or perhaps it is motivated by the fact that the Israelites had just been criticized for complaining about a lack of water and were probably, on a plain-sense level, not viewed as deserving of a miracle but a punishment.
In the Mechilta, near the above-mentioned passage, there is a disagreement between two Tannaim about what kind of men were supposed to be chosen by Joshua. In one view, it is “giborim” and in the other view it is “yirei chet.” Perhaps these two were disagreeing about whether the story was describing a supernatural event.***
One source that takes the position that this was a supernatural event is S.D. Luzzatto. He writes: “Since this was their first war, and Israel was not yet trained for battle…it was necessary that they be saved by way of a miracle… Although it might have seemed that [Moses’] intention was to pray, this was not so, for the spreading forth of hands [in prayer] is to be distinguished from the raising of the hand with the staff. If Rashbam were correct in comparing Moses’ action to the raising of a battle standard, then they ought to have placed Moses’ staff on a tall pole and led it before the people… Their salvation was from God and by way of a miracle, like the other signs and wonders that Moses performed.” (Translation from the edition of D. Klein.)
Another such source is Daat Mikra. This source first writes that looking at the raised rod encouraged the fighters. But then writes that additionally (not “alternatively”): “The rod of God, raised toward the above, acted like a vessel that pulls to itself from the above “kochot shel gevurat nitzachon ba-milchamah mi-chutz la-derech ha-teva …”
Luzzatto and Daat Mikra are plain-sense commentaries. But here when the plain sense of a story is that a miracle is involved, they do not hesitate to adopt such an approach.***
The story ends with Moses building an altar and calling it “Hashem Nisi.” The meaning here is “God is my banner.” It is not: “God is my miracle.” The word נס never means “miracle” in Tanach. (See Daat Mikra to Ex. 17:15 and my article on this word in Links to Our Legacy. I realize that many disagree with this statement.) This name for the altar does not contradict that a miracle was involved.***
In a famous passage, Herzl wrote (in 1895): “A flag, what is that? A stick with a cloth rag?... A flag is more than that. With a flag you can lead men where you will… Men live and die for a flag; it is indeed the only thing for which they are willing to die in masses, provided one educates them to do it… The policy of an entire people…can only be made out of imponderables that float high in the thin air. Do you know out of what the German empire sprang? Out of reveries, songs, fantasies… Bismarck merely had to shake the tree which the visionaries had planted.”
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He often has both arms raised while holding on in the subway.