As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. — Exodus 17:11
The Torah portion for this week is Beshalach, which means “when he sent them away,” from Exodus 13:17–17:16, and the Haftorah is from Judges 4:4–5:31.
The children of Israel were not out of Egypt very long when they faced their next enemy: The nation of Amalek. In describing the battle that took place, the Bible explains that as long as Moses had his hands up, the Israelites were winning, but when his hands came down, the battle favored the Amalekites. How can it be that the course of the battle was determined by the motions of Moses’ hands?
The Jewish sages explain that Moses’ hands weren’t responsible for the tide of the battle; the people’s hearts were. And their hearts were connected to the hands of Moses. When his hands were up, they looked up — literally and figuratively — to God as their hope and savior. When his hands were down, their faith faltered. Without faith, no amount of arrows in the world could penetrate the enemy of Amalek.
You see, Amalek was not like any other nation, and this battle was not just any other battle. Amalek represented the biblical paradigm for evil in the world. More specifically, the nation of Amalek symbolized a “godless world,” where things happen randomly and there is no such thing as reward and punishment. In a godless world, anything goes and anything can happen. We are at the mercy of the role of the dice.
Further, Jewish tradition teaches that the numeric value of the word “Amalek” is the same as the Hebrew word for “doubt.” (In Hebrew each letter of the alphabet is assigned a numeric value, giving words a numeric value which often indicates a deeper or hidden meaning.) This is because the godlessness of Amalek makes us doubt the existence of God and His involvement in our lives.
This is why the battle against Amalek had to be fought with faith: It could only be won with faith. The antidote to the evil espoused by Amalek is the faith taught and lived by Israel. Tradition teaches that Amalek and Israel will be locked in battle until the end of time. Amalek says God is nowhere; Israel says God is everywhere. The two ideas are mutually exclusive, and only one will emerge victorious.
The battle between Amalek and Israel rages on today, only it’s a spiritual fight, fought in the deep recesses of our minds and hearts. Rabbi Chanina Bar Chama, a Talmudic sage in the third century, used to say, “No person hurts his little finger, without it having been first ordered from Above.” He taught that God’s Providence extends to every detail of our lives on earth and nothing happens without His knowledge. The more we integrate this message into our everyday lives, the more we will weaken the remnant of Amalek. When our faith is complete, we will have finished the battle that began with Moses and ends with each and every one of us.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President