Parashat Beshalah

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

The narrative of parashat Beshalah describes numerous dramatic events immediately following our ancestors’ liberation from slavery, in which the power of God plays a central role. God leads the people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; when the Israelites reach the Sea of Reeds and seem to have no way forward God instructs Moses to raise his rod and the sea splits, allowing them to cross to safety. There is the destruction of the Egyptians who chase after them; there is the shirat hayam, the song at the sea in praise of God. There is also complaining, and bitter waters made sweet by the rod of Moses at God’s commandment, and manna from heaven, the daily portion, again provided by God.

Then towards the end of this week’s story Amalek approaches, and Moses instructs Joshua to lead the battle against him. Here, the tone changes as we witness a different form of power. We read:

“Joshua did as Moses had told him, to fight against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron and Hur ascended to the top of the hill.  It came to pass that when Moses would raise his hand, Israel would prevail, and when he would lay down his hand, Amalek would prevail” (Exodus 17:10-11).

We can imagine Moses, Aaron and Hur on the top of the hill, far from the battle, surrounded in stillness and quiet. Even God is silent — God does not instruct Moses to lift his rod so that Israel would prevail; rather, it is a “vayehi” moment (“it came to pass…”).

The narrative continues: “Now Moses’ hands were heavy; so they took a stone and placed it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one from this [side], and one from that [side]; so he was with his hands in faith until sunset” (Exodus 17:12).

Aaron and Hur notice that Moses’ hands are becoming heavy and they provide help. There is no commandment from God, and we don’t know what motivated them to provide this act of kindness towards Moses. Perhaps it came out of love and respect for their leader, or from a more fundamental human response to the need of the other. On the other hand, Aaron and Hur’s motivation might have been more pragmatic, sharing a common goal to defeat Amalek. They may even have resented being there, wishing that they could participate instead in the battle below. No matter what their motivation however, they took action to help Moses.  It is possible that without the power of their support Moses might have faltered, Amalek might have won and our ancestors might never have survived.

Now Aaron is a familiar figure as the brother and helper of Moses, but who is this person Hur who accompanies him? Hur will show up again with Aaron when Moses goes up to receive the tablets of the commandments from God (Exodus 24:14); and he is mentioned later as the grandfather of Bezalel (Ex 38:22).  He does not speak in any of these citations.  In any case here, while we might assume that Aaron probably considered it his duty to accompany Moses up the hill, we are not given any reason for Hur’s presence.

Perhaps Hur is a kind of “Everyman” figure. Everyman was a 15th century Catholic allegorical play, whose moral was that while we may spend our entire lives seeking companionship, when we die we are alone; the only thing we have with us at the moment of facing death are the good deeds we committed during our lifetime. Hur is given no words to indicate relationship with Moses or Aaron, his presence seems to be only for the purpose of performing the deeds, along with Aaron, which will help Moses to ensure victory against Amalek.

For all the power demonstrated by God through miracles, these simple acts of kindness represent a form of power that we each possess. Sometimes we are like Aaron with a designated role, more often we are Hur, the anonymous “everyman.” Either way, the power of performing deeds of kindness belongs to us. We must use this power, not because we are commanded to do so, but because we can. We must use this power, lest the Amaleks of the world prevail.


John Everett MillaisVictory O Lord! (1871)


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.