Our parsha closes with the battle against Amalek. The scene painted is Moshe with his hands raised on the top of the hill and the battle raging below. We are told that as long as Moshe’s hands were raised our forces were victorious and while they were lowered it was the Amalekites who had the “upper hand”.
The Mishna in Mesechet Rosh Hashana, quoted by Rashi and most other commentaries, poses the obvious rhetorical question: Do the hands of Moshe make or break the war? Why is it that the outcome of the battle was a function of Moshe’s hand? This is a clear and obvious question to those of us who sit around our Shabbat tables eating cholent and talking about parshat hashavua.
However, let us put ourselves in the place of Am Yisrael at the time. How would we respond to such a question? Do the hands of Moshe have the power to make or break a war? The answer would be a resounding YES.
Let’s review a bit of the “powers” of Moshe’s hands:
(7:19) And Hashem said to Moshe, tell Aharon to take his staff and stretch out his hand over the waters of Egypt…and they will turn to blood”
(8:1) And Hashem said to Moshe, tell Aharon to take his staff and stretch out his hand over the waters of Egypt…and bring the frogs on Egypt
(8:13) And Hashem said…And they did so, and Aharon stretched his hand with his staff….and there were lice
(9:8) And Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon, take a handful of ash….and there will be boils
(9:22) And Hashem told Moshe stretch your hand to the heavens and there will be hail…
(10:12) And Hashem said to Moshe stretch your hand out on Egypt with locust…
(10:21) And Hashem told Moshe stretch your hand to the heavens and there will be darkness…
(14:16) And Hashem said to Moshe…Raise up you staff and stretch out your hand on the sea and split it…
(14:26) And Hashem said to Moshe stretch your hand out on the sea and return the water…
(I have debated with myself if I should add the very first mentioning of his hands at the burning bush as it was something that only Moshe experienced. It is there that we see that his hands become a motif in the entire story and the relationship between Moshe and the staff begins.)
Well, given the list above, I imagine that when they saw Moshe’s hands up in the air it was obvious that the battle was won and the lack of hands indicated disaster.
So what prompted Chazal to question the efficacy of Moshe’s hands in this particular case?
I think that there are several items that led to the question:
Firstly our very small episode uses the word “yad”, hand, excessively. As a matter of fact it appears seven times (which according to some is the “magic” number needed to be considered a “key word”); the last time it is not referring to Moshe’s hand but rather to God’s (in the manner of an oath being taken). Clearly, in this case, the hands are meant to play an important role in our understanding of the parsha.
The second point I believe is even more important. In all of the cases listed above the raising of Moshe’s hands is always prefaced by the commandment by God to do so. In the battle against Amalek there is no record of any instruction by God to this effect. This would be a very strong reason for Chazal to raise the question in this case as opposed to the others. When God tells Moshe to do something it is no wonder that it works and even in very miraculous manners. The question is when He said nothing and Moshe initiated the use of this “secret weapon”, in that case why should the hands of Moshe have the power to make or break war??
In addition there is another unique element to the war with Amalek – it is the only instance where normal everyday tactics are employed to concretize the demonstrative act of the hands. In all other cases the hands are lifted and a miracle occurs; here the hands go up and a battle takes place and one side wins.
Finally, Chazal may have asked their question here not in relation to the raising of the hands but actually in relation to the lowering of the hands. In all other cases we are simply told of the raising of the hands and the miracle where here we find that when Moshe lowers his hands they lose the battle.
All of these distinctions point to a single fundamental idea. The battle against Amalek was the first challenge that Am Yisrael faced on their own. They raised the army and went to battle as any other nation would. It is the perfect example of the worldly affairs being handled in a worldly fashion. It is precisely in this case that the real credit could be forgotten. A victory in battle would be assigned to the military prowess of the officers and a defeat would fall in the same arena. It is specifically here that the hands of Moshe play such a central role. It is specifically here that the question of Chazal, “Do the hands of Moshe make or break war?” gains validity to those present at the time, as well as to us cholent eaters. After all, what do Moshe’s hands have to do with the battle? There is nothing like the splitting of the sea or the plagues, requiring Divine intervention.
Moshe’s position on the hill was incredibly important. He was there to tell the people that under all circumstances, especially the most mundane ones, we need to find the Divine. We need always to remember that without His help we are lost. Only if we subject ourselves to His rule and really integrate the idea that we are dependant upon Him do we have a chance to be victorious in our endeavors. This message is easy when it is clear and yet complicated when we confuse His help with our input.
The entire account of the exodus from Egypt is referred to as taking place by “a strong hand and an outstretched arm”. The context of the reference is to the “arm” and “hand” of God (with all of the anthropomorphic issues involved) yet possibly it could also be referring to the arm and hand of Moshe, which is actually a representation of God in any event.