6 Adar II
Raising Up Our Spirits
FROM THE DESK OF RABBI LEONARD OPPENHEIMER
Purim is once again around the corner, and we look forward to the joy, the fun and good cheer that it brings. After all, one of the main themes of Purim is Venahafoch Hu, that there was a great “turnabout.” And do we ever need one!
We live in a very difficult time. Surely, if we ever needed the added joy that the month of Adar is supposed to bring, it is now.
The joy of Adar, however, is a mitigated one. We do not say Hallel on Purim, nor do we wish each other Good Yom Tov. The joy of Purim is preceded by the pain of Ta’anit Esther and Parshat Zachor, in which we remember the frightful & everlasting enmity of Amalek, our untiring nemesis who seeks to do us harm in every generation. While we can no longer precisely identify this “national body,” there is no question that the Hamans, Hitlers, Stalins, and a few current European leaders are it’s spiritual, if not blood, descendants.
Our Sages foretold that in pre-Messianic times the descendants of Amalek will join forces with the descendants of Ishmael, and wreak great havoc upon the world. At such time, we would do well to look back at the first great battle with Amalek, and recall how Moshe Rabbeinu conducted a successful war against them.
We read on Purim morning from Exodus 17, which recounts the encounter with Amalek: “And Amalek came and fought with Israel at Refidim.”
Why did they come? The standard practice of Amalek is an unprovoked attack on those who stand for the G-d of Israel. The forces of Amalek take any opportunity to assault a weakened Jewish people, without thought to advantage or gain of any kind. Whence Refidim? Our Sages say that Refidim comes from the words Rafu Yadayim, which means, “loosening of the hands.” Which hands? Our hands had become weakened, or less energetic, in their exercise of Torah and Prayer. They point to the previous verse, where we are told that the thirsty Israelites demanded water in Masa Umri’va, named so “because of the quarreling of Israel, and on their testing of G-d saying, ‘is there or is there not a G-d amongst us?'”
What is Moshe’s response to Amalek’s attack? Twofold: To Joshua Moshe says, ‘choose some men and go fight.’ In the meantime, he climbs a rock and raises his hands in prayer. As we all know, the Torah then describes how Moshe’s arms faltered, and how Amalek prevailed momentarily, but that, with the support of Aharon & Hur, Moshe then kept them raised until sunset. And as long as those arms were raised, the Israelites were successful. “And Joshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword!” The Mishna in Rosh Hashana famously comments, Moshe’s hands are symbolic of the hearts of the Jewish people: So long as they looked up and subjugated themselves to the will of Heaven, they would be victorious-and vice versa.
One of the greatest privileges I had while sojourning in Israel was to attend the weekly shiur given by Rav Moshe Shapira shlit”a, a spiritual giant in our midst. As part of a much longer presentation, Rav Shapira quoted Rabbi Akiva Eiger (at the very beginning of Hilchos Tefilla), who explained that we ceased raising our hands in prayer, as it became part of pagan practice. Nevertheless, we must ask: what was the original purpose of raising our hands in prayer?
For, surely it is one’s heart and mind that prays, not one’s hands! Furthermore, it is fascinating to recall that Yitzhak (Isaac) famously pronounced: “The Voice is that of Ya’akov (Jacob), while the hands are that of Eisav (Esau).” A well-known Midrash takes this as prophetic: The power of Jacob’s descendants will be in their prayerful voices, while that of Esau’s descendants will be in the use of their hands! Since we look not to the power of our hands as our ultimate power – why then the mixed metaphor of “raising our hands in prayer”?
But in fact, that same verse is key to the answer. Our “voice” is representative of our inner lives: providing a clue to what is in our hearts and minds. After the voice stops, the ‘voice’ ends. There is no permanence to it. In contrast, our hands represent our deeds, which may or may not reflect our inner being, whose impact remains permanently. To effect the world with one’s voice is only to plant an idea, while to fashion it with one’s hands is to attempt to physically alter it. One of the most important lessons we must learn in life is that the effect of our actions in this world is limited. All we are called upon to do – all that we can in fact do – is to plant seeds. Whether those seeds ultimately bear fruit; which fruit they will bear; how the fruit will further affect the world – none of this is in our ‘hands’. Our hands can only initiate; it is up to Hashem whether and how things will turn out. The nations of the world believe in the permanence of their actions. “Their idols of silver and gold are the work of human hands.” (Ps 115:4)
In the Refidim incident, the Israelites had been guilty of a “loosening of the hands.” As Rav Shapira explained it, this denoted a lowering of standards: what they ought to have done is to symbolically hold their hands at bay, remembering that their mission lay in planting seeds only and then to consciously hold back their hands, allowing Hashem to direct the outcome of events. Instead, they questioned Hashem’s efficacy and their need for having Him in their midst. They in effect said to Him, “we will use our hands to solve our problems. We have it in our power to take care of business. All we ask of you, O Lord, is to get out of the way and let us do what needs to be done.” Enter Amalek, descendant of Eisav, the Master of Hands.
In correcting this, Moshe sends Joshua to fight. It is true, we cannot be passive, we must do our part in the effort that uses our hands. But that is the less important of our tasks. More importantly, Moshe ascends the hill at Refidim , and lifts those very hands in prayer to Hashem, and with the help of the community (represented by Aharon and Hur) supporting him, those hands were “emuna until the sunset.” (Ex 17:12). Explains Rashi: “And Moshe’s hands were spread out in Emunah prayerfully to the Heavens, in a “Tefilla Ne’emana U’nechona”, a prayer that was loyal and proper. What is Rashi emphasizing to us?
Explains Rav Shapira, “Loyal” clearly refers to our being totally loyal to Hashem, symbolically raising our Hands to Him and saying “these hands are but Your loyal servants – They know that they can only begin – They are not the master of our destiny! “Proper” refers to the essence of prayer: “All of me is directed to You, and You alone!” Nechona has the same letters as Kavana – “with deep intent, directed to You”. It is the Voice of Jacob, together with our Hands raised to Heaven, united in Prayer, that ultimately defeats Amalek and his prodigal son, Haman.
We do not raise our hands in prayer today, as per Rabbi Akiva Eiger. But we must ready ourselves for the final showdown with Amalek. We must know and declare that we are finally, truly ready to recognize Hashem’s role in running world affairs, and know that our effect on them is limited. We must do our part. We must try to help to protect and defend against the forces of evil in the world, with whatever means we can: military, diplomatic, financial, or otherwise. But we must also learn and teach the world that, ultimately, we can do no more than ‘plant the seeds’. We look & pray to Hashem to bring the Redemption to its fruition.
In Shushan of old, it was only once the Jews turned to Hashem in fasting and prayer, that the tide was turned. Then, they were able to use their hands to win over their enemies! It was only when they solemnly rededicated themselves to Torah, that Joy & Gladness again reigned. May we soon merit to see the darkness lifted from the world, and bask in the wonderful elation of being forevermore in Hashem’s presence
Rabbi Leonard Oppenheimer is the rabbi at Kesser Israel of Portland, Oregon. He recently enjoyed a sabbatical in Yerushalayim.