Skip to content

Parashat Beshallach 5773 — 01/23/2013

Parashat Beshallach 5773 — 01/23/2013

And when he [Moshe] lowered his hands, Amalek prevailed (17:11)

According to the plain way of interpretation, it is saying that when he lowered his hand under duress as a result of the heaviness of his hands, he noticed that Amalek prevailed, so he instructed Aharon and Chur that they should support his hands so that  he would not lower them any more.  But our Rabbis say in the Midrash: Now would Moses do something through which Amalek would prevail!?  But it is forbidden for a person to keep his hand outstretched in prayer to heaven for more than three hours, so Moses was forced to lower his hands (Sefer haBahir sec. 138).  (Ramban ad loc)

Rabbeinu Bachya explains the reason for this prohibition [it is forbidden to keep one’s hand outstretched to Heaven for more than 3 hrs] as follows: The raising of hands in this manner counteracts the effects the prosecuting angels (or forces) against Israel, and it is necessary to lower them from time to time so that these angels (forces) not be completely annulled, as these forces were created for a purpose and are necessary for the existence of the world.  According to this Midrash, then, Moshe did not lower his hands because his strength waned, but because he was compelled to do so.  (Artscroll ad loc, page 414, note 58).

This is quite an amazing halachah, and it is well placed in the esoteric literature.  First, it should be obvious that this halachah is hardly relevant to the likes of you and me.  I actually tried raising my hands, just to see how long I could do it for, and it was more like 5 minutes before my shoulders started to do some serious protesting to my brain.  Furthermore, since most of my attention was on the pain in my shoulders, I was hardly in a position to pray with any kind of kavvanah (focus/intentionality).  In the words of Shakespeare: My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./ Words without thoughts never to heaven go. (Hamlet III:3)

Apparently the halachah is very relevant to people on or near the level of Moshe Rabbeinu.  We find stories throughout the Rabbinic literature of the form “if only Moshe had done <x>, no nation could have oppressed us” or “if only Moshe had not done <y>, the Messianic Age would have come immediately.”  Of course, every year we read the same words in the Torah, and recall the same Midrashic explanations, and we have to wonder why it is that we seem to be set up for failure time and time again.  Since the Torah is said to be the “blueprint of creation,” these “failures” were apparently programmed into our history for a reason, and since we believe that Gd is our merciful Father in heaven, this programming must be for our ultimate good.

Now interestingly Rashi, quoting the Talmud (Rosh haShanah 29a), asks, “Now did Moshe’s hands cause Israel to prevail?”  The passage continues:  No – when the Israelites would see Moshe’s hands upraised they would turn their hearts to Gd in Heaven and He would strengthen them.”  In other words, according to the Talmud (exoteric tradition), Moshe’s raised hands were nothing other than symbolic and inspirational, raising the Israelites’ morale.  The esoteric tradition, as indicated by Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya, points to something much deeper.  There are apparently “prosecuting angels” which bring Israel’s (yours and mine!) sins to Gd’s “attention” so to speak.  I think what that really means is that there are forces which tend to suppress Gd’s aspect of mercy and activate Gd’s attribute of strict justice (midat haDin).  The important point to be made here is that these forces cannot, at this stage in history, or perhaps better, in the current stage of our growth as individuals and as a people, be completely destroyed or neutralized.  Thus we find that in the battle with Amalek, even with Moshe’s hands raised high, Yehoshua is only able to “weaken” Amalek (in Jewish thought, evil incarnate), but not destroy him completely.  And at the end of the Parashah, the final, cryptic verse indicates that Gd Himself will be, in some sense, incomplete as long as evil continues to exist from generation to generation.

Perhaps the oldest question any religious philosophy needs to address is the existence of evil.  In this case our tradition answers very forthrightly that evil is built into the structure of creation, and that human beings are forbidden from destroying it (But it is forbidden for a person to keep his hand outstretched in prayer to heaven for more than three hours).  Of course we are commanded to destroy our own (individual) evil inclination, or, even better, sublimate it to Gd’s purposes.  But it appears that evil per se is a necessary part of creation.  How are we to understand this?

In the great tradition of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread, I will attempt some sort of answer.  First as to the existence of evil.  The Kabbalistic tradition describes Gd’s first act of creation to be a “contraction” of Gd’s infinite essence (tzimtzum) to leave a “space” in which finite values can exist.  Just as a small candle’s light is imperceptible in the bright noonday sun, so nothing finite can sustain itself in the infinite effulgence of Gd.  So if Gd wants a creation, He has first to “make room” for it.  However this process creates distance between Gd and creation, and it is Gd’s “absence” or “hiddenness” that we experience as evil.  Obviously this makes evil an integral part of creation – as long as any part of creation is hiding Gd, we will experience evil.  When it is the impurities in our own personality, be it our soul or our body, that hides Gd, then we are participating in evil.  Fortunately, our tradition gives us various means to restore purity to our life, which means we can overcome the evil in ourselves and begin to manifest Gd in our individual lives and in our environment.  I am actually writing this on Erev Yom Kippur; in a few hours we will all begin what is perhaps the most powerful technique we have as a people for individual and group purification.

While it is our duty to purify ourselves to the greatest extent possible, it seems that there is a cosmic process unfolding which we are to participate in, but not to anticipate too much.  In speaking of the Redemption, Gd tells us b’ito achisheina – I will hurry it in its time.  As usually expounded this means “If Israel merits I will hurry it.  If Israel does not merit, it will come in its time.”  Perhaps we can consider an additional/alternative understanding.  The process of Creation and Redemption is just that – a process.  Any process has a sequence of steps it must go through, and each part of the system – that’d be each individual human being who is capable of making moral choices – has a unique part to play in that process.  If we play our parts properly (“Israel merits”) then the process can come to its conclusion more quickly – with fewer detours and derailments.  If not, Gd has promised us that the process will indeed come to its inevitable conclusion, but it will take longer – perhaps much longer.  But I believe our esoteric halachah is telling us that each step in the process must take place in its proper sequence.  We can speed the process along somewhat, but we cannot short-circuit it, or parts of it, entirely.  Suppose Moshe Rabbeinu had kept his hands aloft for the whole battle.  Yehoshua would presumably have annihilated Amalek.  Now the annihilation of Amalek is something we are commanded to do (who Amalek is in our day is a topic for another discussion).  Saul was commanded to do so; he didn’t and we had to take a detour through Purim.  But had there been no Amalek for Saul to fight, he, and the nation as a whole, would not have had the specific challenges they needed to face those many centuries later.  In fact, we too would be facing a whole set of different challenges had Amalek been destroyed by Yehoshua – perhaps challenges we are ill-equipped to meet.

Our Sages wisely tell us that anyone who tries to calculate the time of the Redemption, it is better for him had he never been born.  Our faith gives us the most direct path to the Redemption through our actions.  Ultimately though, any action we take must be with the perspective that we are but small actors in the great, cosmic play that Gd has arranged for us.  We have control only over our own thoughts and actions; by putting ourselves in tune with Gd’s Will we know that we will be doing the best possible job to bring the process of Redemption to its final fulfillment.