Exodus 17:8-13, the traditional Torah reading for the morning of Purim, tells the story of the attack of Amalek on the nation of Israel less than two months after the Exodus from Egypt. Amalek was a nomadic group of tribes that inhabited the Negev and Sinai Peninsula and appears to have relied on seasonal migrations and raiding expeditions for sustenance. The Amalekite attack is unprovoked and occurs in a location called Rephidim, in the vicinity of Mount Sinai. According to the biblical timetable, the war takes place shortly before the Revelation on Mount Sinai.
A close reading of the biblical account reveals that the Hebrew root yad, hand, is a key word in the Amalek story. For example, in Exodus 17:9, Moses charges Joshua to fight Amalek in the field while he ascends the hill with the staff of God in his hand. Later, the progress of the battle is described in light of the experience of Moses’ hands.
“And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.” (Exodus 17:11-12)
Why the emphasis on Moses’ hands in the Amalek narrative? And why the switch from a description of Moses’ hand in the singular in verse 11 to Moses’ hands in the plural in verse 12?
In the initial stages of the battle, Moses charges Joshua to fight the enemy actively while he ascends the hill with the staff of God. Apparently, at this juncture Moses saw two possible paths to victory. Victory might come, as it had at the splitting of the Red Sea, through a supernatural miracle brought forth by Moses’ extending the staff of God in his hand. But victory might also come through the military talents of Joshua, the future conqueror of the land of Canaan. And so, as a prudent leader should, Moses prepared for both possibilities. He sent Joshua to the battlefield while he – Moses – ascended the hill with the rod that had in the past brought forth supernatural miracles.
Once the battle began, Moses realized that no miracle was forthcoming from the staff of God in his hand. But the raising of Moses’ hand was nonetheless affecting the course of the war. The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 29a understands this as follows:
“And when Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed…
“Now did the hands of Moses make or break the war?
“Not so. Rather, the text signifies that so long as Israel directed their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they prevailed; otherwise, they would fall.”
The Talmudic conception of Moses’ role as that of a human leader who inspires his people during a natural war rather than as the performer of an overt miracle is consistent with the text as whole. In the war of Amalek there is no command by God to perform a miracle. Furthermore, the text deliberately emphasizes that Moses is subject to ordinary human frailties. His hands grew heavy. He needed to sit on a stone. And he needed the support of Aaron and Hur on each side so that his hands might remain steady until sunset.
The Talmudic premise that Moses’ hands symbolize his inspiration may help us understand the textual switch from Moses’ hand in the singular to his hands in the plural. This change represents Moses’ redefinition of his own leadership role during the war of Amalek. Moses realized that his task was not to effect a miracle by brandishing a rod with a dramatic gesture but to draw the thoughts of Israel consistently toward heaven. And so, he raised both hands, keeping them “steady until the sun set.”
It is the ultimate challenge of an effective leader not only to prepare for all contingencies, as Moses did in his division of labor between himself and Joshua. Rather, a successful leader is one who adapts his intended course of action as the demands of a situation crystallize. This is a critical lesson that emerges from the changing hands of Moses’ leadership in the Amalek narrative. In the war of Amalek, Moses must play the role not of a miracle worker, as he had until that historical moment, but of a leader who inspires and a leader who prays in the context of a natural war.
In an essay called “Leadership at the Turn of the Century,” John Kotter distinguishes between leadership and management. Management, he suggests, is about maintaining the status quo but leadership is about “coping with change.” Times of change are moments of opportunity for great leaders – they demand strength, initiative, vision, and the ability to persuade others to alter the status quo in response to an urgent challenge. Indeed, the essential quality of a leader, as opposed to a manager, is to acknowledge change in the environment and lead change among his followers.
This was the position in which Moses found himself during the Amalek episode. The Amalek scenario did not fit neatly into the current Israelite status quo. The Israelites would have to fight a naturalistic war without the aid of overt miracles – just as they would soon have to learn to conquer and defend the land of Canaan through this worldly means. Moses recognized that the functional role of his staff was no longer as a magic wand but as a tool of guidance and motivation. Through his leadership, a mass of weary slaves was transformed into a victorious army.
Of course, in the real world, no good leader can work alone. And this is the message of the Amalek narrative as well. Moses needs Joshua to take charge of the battle in the field. And Moses needs Aaron and Hur to support his arms so that he may guide the warriors to victory. The picture of Moses supported on each side by two of his trusted confidantes, Aaron and Hur, as he raises his hands continuously to heaven, is a perfect metaphor for the need of a leader to recruit a core group of supporters who share his values and vision. Only then will he be able to persevere “until the setting of the sun” – that is, until the job is done.
The story of Purim, like that of the attack of Amalek on a fledgling nation of Israel, is the story of human response to a changing reality. The Megillah does not even mention God’s name, let alone tell of supernatural miracles. God brings about Israel’s salvation through the versatile, creative leadership of Mordechai and Esther. Though Mordechai had earlier forbidden Esther to reveal her Jewish identity to King Ahashverosh, he changes course and asks Esther to reveal her ancestry to the king of Persia because, “who knows, Esther, if it is for this very reason that you have risen to royalty.”
The stories of Amalek and Purim mirror those of our lives today. Unlike the Israelites of the Exodus period, we no longer experience prophecy, revelation, or overt miracles. It is all the more important, therefore, that we choose leaders with vision to guide us through periods of uncertainty. Whether like Moses who recognizes that he must guide the Israelites with inspiration and prayer rather than through overt miracles, or like Mordechai who rescinds his instruction to Esther about hiding her identity, our leaders must embrace an ever-changing reality with both conviction and creativity. Like the Israelites fighting Amalek, they must look to Moses’ hands for inspiration. They must remember that a great leader is defined not only by unwavering devotion, but by the ability to adjust to changing realities, even as his eyes are turned steadily towards heaven.