Jeremy England
Former- MIT-physics-prof-turned-rav in Israel

The Unmagical Temple: Defeating Amalek

Photo Credit: Jeremy England

The Torah provides detailed advice on how to defeat Amalek during the first mention of the enemy nation in Chapter 17 of the Book of Exodus:

9 And Moses said unto Joshua: ‘Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand.’

10 So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, and fought with Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.

11 And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.

12 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.

13 And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. {P}

Moses, Aaron, and Hur go to the top of “the hill” together, and Moses raises his staff that had turned into a serpent at the burning bush. The victory of Joshua, leading the battle against Amalek below, is somehow tied directly to whether Moses manages to keep the staff raised in the air. For this reason, Aaron and Hur are there to help him, each supporting one of his hands.

The first implication here is that there is a basic sense in which Aaron and Hur are extra: the fundamental things we need for victory are Moses and the staff. In other words, we need the laws of the Torah (which Moses brought to us) and we need the serpentine staff because it reminds us that hashem is master over everything, and if we do a good enough job keeping his laws and trusting in Him even when it’s tough, then things can turn out unexpectedly, and even miraculously well. Principal among the relevant laws in this case must be the direct commandment to wipe out the memory Amalek, as well as the accompanying enjoinder not to forget. At some level, the determination to accomplish this task because it is what hakadoshbarukhu asks of us might be enough on its own, and all we have to do is know that He is with us and can make us successful if He chooses to.

And yet, the involvement of Hur and Aaaron suggests that relying on Moses and his staff alone is practically unworkable. There is something too heavy, to difficult to sustain, about professing perfect faith in hashem’s deliverance while taking big risks for the sake of carrying out his commands. But what do Moses’ two helpers add? In particular, though we are quite familiar with Aaron, but who is this mysterious fellow Hur, and what is he doing here in the story?

It turns out that understanding the identity of Hur through other sources in tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is the key to making sense of the whole symbolic structure laid out here, and to see this we first need to lay out all the “data” of relationships. Hur, we are told in Chronicles, is the son of Kalev and Efrat. In addition, Hur is also the grandfather of Bezalel, the Judaite craftsman who led the construction of the mishkan, the holy tabernacle. Efrat, in turn is also the name of the place on the way to Bethlehem where Rachel, the wife of Yaakov and mother of Joseph, died giving birth to Benjamin.

When you add this all up, what you get is a clustered simultaneous reference to: the temple in Jerusalem, the “efratite” prophet Samuel and the beginning of the Davidic dynasty, the unification of the tribes, and the ancestral claim of the Jews to their rightful homeland. The easiest part is the temple: Bezalel (descendant of Hur) builds the temple, or mikdash, and Aaron and his sons are the priests who work in and operate the temple on har habayit, the “hill” in Jerusalem. The beauty of using Hur here, though, is that he can both refer to the temple aspects, but also evoke something much more tribal and political. Kalev and Joshua are the two scouts who come to the land to check it out and bring back an encouraging report of “we can do it”. Kalev’s phrase is “aloh naaleh“, we will surely go up [to the land]”. Perhaps for this reason, Kalev merited in the conquests of Joshua to be given Hebron, with the graves in the Cave of Machpelah. The fierceness of Kalev’s sense of tribal loyalty is mirrored the name of his bride, Efrat, who is a woman named for the place where Rachel was buried separately from her other contemporaries. Hur, as the offspring of Kalev and Efrat therefore represents the reuinification of estranged and separated tribes, the gathering together of all of our usually separated forefathers and foremothers. Not only this, but since the Torah refers to Efrat as being ‘on the road to Bethlehem’, we then get the idea of the transition from Saul (who was a king born from the tribe of Benjamin) to David, who was the Judaite from Bethlehem that replaced Saul and insisted on builiding a mikdash, a temple for God. The theme of reunification of Leah (buried in Hebron) and Rachel (buried in Efrat by Bethlehem) is compounded by the way that Leah’s children stand on the hill while Joshua, a descendant of Rachel, is down in the valley fighting Amalek for them.

All taken together, then, this rich framework is telling us that beating Amalek is about having a conquerer (Joshua) inspired by the possibility of hashem’s miracles, and guided by his study of the Torah, leading the fight. But it is also specifically about needing to have a strong sense of the nation being a unified whole made of separate tribes that can join together in brotherhood as they lay claim to their ancestral lands. All this combines with an intimate connection to and sense of dominion over the Land of Israel that runs back through the spies who first clamoured in favor of aliyah, all the way to the patriarchs and matriarchs who gave birth there to the nation. And lastly, it’s about the temple we build, the messianic leader who (by definition) will help get it built, and the service we perform there “on the hill” with the help of priests. The remaining puzzle is, why should the temple matter so much in this discussion?

National unity and tribal connection to the land are clear givens when trying to design a war effort on home territory that will never flag or bend under pressure. But what is the point of having a temple? What does that have to do with victory over the Amalekite enemy? The simple answer would seem to be, we need to know what we are fighting for. Many nations face threats and have to fight to hold onto their territory, yet the exigencies of war are so immediate that we rarely ask ourselves in the midst of things what makes life worth living, and what is our nation’s mission here on earth that makes us deserve victory so we can thrive and flourish. The temple represents the idea of service of hashem as an enduring national project with diverse and complexly interwoven physical dimensions in the here and now. We are not expected to fight our wars just to survive or just to hold onto prime real estate: as the mamlekhet kohanim, the nation of priests, we have a unique mission to teach humanity about hakadoshbarukhu through the example we set in serving him, and the greatest tangible emblem of that service is the temple.

In this era, it is easy to discount emblems as being insubstantial, and to forget that symbols have real power. Our enemies have taught us the power of symbols time and again, by naming their murderous assaults on us after their own word for the temple mount. Rather than use the temple purely as a symbol to motivate mass-killing as others do, however, we are commanded to build and operate it so that a much richer framework of positive symbols involving gratitude, repentance, joy, kindness, and national unity can be made available to all Israelites. When the Judaic nation lifts its eyes and sees the emblem of wisdom, beauty, and devotion to the Living God that the temple constitutes, the value and meaning of life after victory over Amalek become so clear that victory is assured. The road to Bethlehem runs through Hur, reminding us that David was our first political and military leader devoted to the idea of serving hashem by using his might to conquer and subdue the land in order to build a house that will bring hashem’s presence into our midst.

About the Author
Jeremy England is physicist, biologist, and machine learning researcher who also has received ordination as an orthodox rabbi. Previously a physics professor at MIT, he now resides in Israel and loves exploring the Torah’s commentaries on scientific reasoning.
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