Parshat BeshalaX : Exodus 13:17-17:16 Jewish Continuity and the origins of"Ben Hur"

(Note in this we use the modern transliteration "X" for Xet and "Kh" for Khaf in place of the 19th cent. German transliteration  which used "Ch" for both.)

This week's Parsha - BeshalaX - is loaded with material. It includes the pursuit, the crossing of the Sea, the Song of the Sea, the Song of Miriam, the travels in the desert, and the battle with Amelek. It has two sets of bad role models at each end. In the beginning, it has Pharaoh and his advisors who advise him to pursue the Israelites. At the end, it has Amelek, which midrash has made into a model for those who prey on weak, and that group of Israelites who grumble and form small groups to undermine Moses.  It is this group who make it possible for Amalek to temporarily get the upper hand.

Between these bad role models are sandwiched a collection of wonderful role models Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Joshua, and in midrash, Naxshon ben Amitai. In addition there is one positive but quite obscure positive role model - Xur (Hur). Xur is so obscure that a Christian noticed an obscure Biblical name, and named his hero Ben Hur-- and as they say, the rest is Hollywood.

Who is Xur ? What does he do? How is he rewarded? There are only twenty references to Xur, in Tanakh. Many are in the form of patronymics- Ben Xur; some are not names but a noun; one is a reference to an Edomite Chieftain and one to a Midianite king.

The references to Xur in today's parsha are Exodus 17:10 and 17:12. Amelek is attacking Israel from the rear. When Moses lifts his arms, Israel, led by Joshua, wins. When he lowers his arms from exhaustion, Amelek wins. Aaron and Xur assist Moses by holding up his failing arms until the battle is won. Xur is not a priest (the only one is Aaron), he is not a Levite. Later genealogies in Kings, Nexamiah and Chronicles indicate he was of the tribe of Judah. He simply sees the need, does the job and like Cinncinatus of Rome, fades into the background.

But there is more to the story --it is in the meaning of the name Xur. By the time of Esther and Daniel - the name is the name of the white linen that is the mark of kings and priests. Later in Mishnaic and Talmudic times Xet waw resh means leper. A similar shift in meaning occurs in the white linen garments of the Christian priest being call Diaporos in Greek and now in the US and Canada, diaper has a different meaning. Both meanings are important for the understanding of Xur.

Xur is clothed in priestly linen by his name-- and acts out that name. He does what is needed to support Moses and Aaron. He then claims no reward for himself or his descendants as Aaron and Pinchas do.

Many midrashim support my view of his role: for example-

All of them gathered against Aaron and said, "Moses will not come down again." Aaron and Xur responded, "Any moment he will be coming down from the mount." But the mixed multitude paid no attention to them." (This according to Midrash Abba Gorion.)

It goes on to say that Xur was killed for his efforts defending Moses. It seems as if his reward is the white linen of the shroud or being shunned like a leper.

But the text gives this white linen hero a reward-- the architect and artist who designs the mishkan and repairs the damaged first temple has a name in which both father and grandfather and named- Bezalel ben Uri ben Xur. Uri is the one who rises up when necessary (uri, Dvorah arise Deborah).

That is the reward-- that he is recognized as the one whose influence made the third generation's work possible. The reward is two generations later. He makes it possible for there to be a mishkan-- a central place for the Jewish community, a dwelling place for their spirituality-- simply by helping Moses when Moses needed help. As a midrash states concerning the First Temple:

"From one side of the lamp stand there extended seven golden branches, upon which were wrought the likenesses of the seven patriarchs of the world: Adam, Noah, his eldest [son] Shem, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, together with Job. From the other side of the lamp stand there also extended seven golden branches, upon which were wrought the likenesses of the seven pious men of the  world: Levi['s son] Kohath, Amram, Moses and Aaron, Eldad and Medad, and Xur was between them."

He may be obscure, but he is an important role model. When people admire the mishkan, the spiritual center of a Jewish community and one says "What a beautiful job Bezalel did!" The response is " Yes, but his grandfather made it possible" --And that is what Jewish continuity is all about.

Eric Mendelsohn
member, and Past President
Congregation Darchei Noam
Toronto, ON