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Jewish Continuity and the origins of “Ben Hur”

This week’s parasha — Beshalakh — is overloaded with material: 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, Pharaoh and his advisors advise who him to pursue. At the end, confronted by Amalek (whom midrash has made into a model for those who prey on the weak), a group of Israelites grumble and form small groups to undermine Moses (making Moses feel that that the People of Israel are about to stone him.) It is they who make it possible to 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, Nakhshon ben Aminadav. In addition there is one positive but quite obscure positive role model – Hur (חוּר). Hur 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 Hur ? What does he do? How is he rewarded? There are only twenty references to Hur in Tanakh. Many are in the form of patronymics (Ben Hur = “son of Hur”); some are not names but a noun; one is a reference to an Edomite Chieftain, and one to a Midianite king.

The references to Hur in today’s parsha are Exodus 17:10 and Exodus 17:12. Amelek is attacking Israel from the rear. When Moses lifts his arms, Israel, led by Joshua, wins; but when he lowers his arms from exhaustion, Amelek wins. Aaron and Hur assist Moses by holding up his failing arms until the battle is won. Hur is not a priest or a Levite . Later genealogies in Kings, Nekhemiah, 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 Hur. By the time of Esther and Daniel, “Hur” becomes the name of the white linen that is the mark of kings and priests. Later in Mishnaic and Talmudic times, the root ח-ו-ר means “leper.” (A similar shift in meaning occurs in the white linen garments of the Christian priest, which are called Diaporos in Greek. Now in the US and Canada, “diaper” has a different meaning.) Both meanings are important for the understanding of Hur.

I would argue that, metaphorically, Hur is clothed in priestly linen by his name — and acts out that name. He does what is needed to support Moses and Aaron, andthen claims no reward for himself or his descendants as Aaron and Pinchas do.

Many midrashim support my view of his role. For example, Midrash Abba Gorion recounts that “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.”

The midrash 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 Hur. Uri is the one who rises up when necessary (as in chapter 4 of Judges, where we read “Uri, uri D’vorah” — “arise, arise, Deborah!”).

This is Hur’s reward, coming two generations after him: he is recognized as the one whose influence made the third generation’s work possible. 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 Hur was between them.”

The figure of Hur may be obscure, but he is an important role model. When people admired the mishkan , the spiritual center of a Jewish community, and one said “What a beautiful job Bezalel did!” the response was “Yes, but his grandfather made it possible.” That is what Jewish continuity is all about.

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