Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Averting the Evil Decree – In the Parasha and at the Protests (9)

4 March Jerusalem demonstration outside the President's House. Photo: Diana Lipton

This is my ninth consecutive post connecting the parasha to the pro-democracy protests taking place all over Israel. Scroll down for photos. 

Israel is in its ninth week of protests. A staggering 400,000 demonstrators around the country took to the streets after Shabbat. They are desperate to avert the legal reforms that are almost universally viewed as the death knell for a democratic Israel.

How timely, then, are the two world-class lessons we receive this week about how to avert an evil decree.

The first lesson was taught by Queen Esther, who managed to save the Jews of Shushan from destruction. First, she united the entire community in a three-day fast (Esther 4:16). God is famously absent in Megillat Esther, but Esther’s fast was surely a wordless plea for divine support. Second, she softened up her husband the king over the course of two fancy dinners, and got him onside against his evil courtier, Haman (Esther 7). Destruction averted.

For this strategy to work, you need to be an insider, which, thanks to her uncle Mordecai, Esther was (Esther 2:10). And you need to be courageous, which Esther also was. Israel ‘s Government is tragically short of brave insiders, but we shouldn’t give up hope.

The second lesson on how to avert an evil decree will be taught by Moses in this week’s parasha, Ki Tissa,

While Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites make a golden calf. God is furious, and says he wants to destroy them all and start over with Moses. Using a variety of carefully calibrated rhetorical strategies, Moses persuades God to change his mind.

Exodus 32:11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people…

Moses reminds God that the Israelites are ‘his’ people, hoping, perhaps, to evoke compassion or a sense of responsibility.

…whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

Moses alludes to the tremendous effort God made to bring Israel out of Egypt – all for nothing if he destroys them now.

12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’?

Moses reminds God that he brought Israel out of Egypt in part to teach the Egyptians a lesson about his great power. If God destroys Israel now, the Egyptians will believe henceforth that he uses his power for evil and destruction.

…Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

Moses flatters God. Human kings like Ahasuerus cannot their minds. Once Ahasuerus banishes Esther’s predecessor, Vashti, he can’t bring her back, even though he misses her. He projects an all-powerful image, but he’s a servant to the machinery of state. God alone is above the state and can change his mind.

13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants…

Even if God won’t change his mind for the benefit of the generation who destroyed the golden calf, Moses speculates, he might relent for the sake of their ancestors, the patriarchs.

…how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ”

Indeed, by punishing Israel, Moses dares to suggest, God may even be breaking the promises he made to the patriarchs of myriad descendants and a land for eternity.

By the time Moses has finished speaking, he has averted the evil decree.

14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Israel will not be destroyed.

These lessons from Esther and Moses are certainly timely, but of course we already knew them. We’ve heard and read them year after year, and internalized them. Maybe that’s partly why present-day Israel’s protest playbook is so very impressive.

Like Esther, the pro-democracy demonstrators are willing to speak out. The protests resound with drums, horns, songs, speeches, and catchy slogans. Too catchy. I’m tired of waking up at 2am with a voice in my head telling Amir Ohana (despised Bibi sidekick) that ‘this is not Hungaria’.

Again like Esther, the demonstrators show courage – both at the demonstrations themselves, where the police are starting to use violent intimidation, and through tactics such as strikes and refusal to serve, which do not come easily, especially to high ranking active and reserve military personnel.

Like Moses, the protestors deploy a range of rhetorical strategies.

Demonstrators allude to their own status as loyal citizens, many of whom fought wars to defend Israel.

‘How do you know when Bibi is lying and inciting? His lips are moving’, IDF Combat Veteran. 20 Feb Knesset Protest. Photo: Diana Lipton

They recall earlier generations who came to this country, often fleeing persecution, with hopes and dreams of liberty and security that this Government is poised to dash.

Jerusalem Demonstration, 4 March. Photo: Diana Lipton

They connect what’s happening to Israel now with historical catastrophes such as the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Government of the Destruction of the Third Temple, 4 March Jerusalem Demonstration. Photo: Diana Lipton

They evoke compassion by including young people whose future in this country is now uncertain.

Children demonstrating in Jerusalem, 4 March. Photo: Diana Lipton

They also include the not so young, who’ve spent their lives here.

Demonstrator, 4 March Jerusalem demonstration. Photo: Diana Lipton

They spotlight unexpected victims of the legal reforms. A recent Tel Aviv demonstration was addressed by a Haredi woman. She spoke about the negative impact the reforms will have on Haredi women, who often rely on the secular courts to protect them from abusive family members, and husbands who refuse to divorce them.

They call out violence and persecution.

Letter signed by researchers in Jewish Studies and Archaeology at Tel Aviv University condemning the violent attacks at Huwara.

They activate the public through WhatsApp groups with almost hourly updates offering opportunities to demonstrate.

They stage audience-specific protests – prayers at the Western Wall for religious demonstrators, runners for democracy.

They organize by profession – physicians for democracy, academics for democracy…

Doctors for Democracy, 20 Feb Knesset demonstration. Photo: Diana Lipton

They educate about democracy in general and our situation in particular – in real life and on zoom.

They use humor.

What’s this mishegas?’, 4 March Jerusalem demonstration. Photo: Diana Lipton

And last but not least, Israel’s demonstrators are extremely creative.

‘Handmaids’ at the18 Feb Jerusalem demonstration. Phot credit: Diana Lipton

Israel protests in the spirit of Esther and Moses, but can we avert the evil decree…?

If you haven’t already, this is the time to join a post-Shabbat demonstration almost anywhere around the country. Tel Aviv, 19.30, Eliezer Kaplan Street, Jerusalem, 20.00, Beit Ha’Nasi, President’s House.

And in the meantime, if you’re in Jerusalem this Thursday 9 March at 20.00, you’re warmly invited to an event I’m co-organizing on activist art at a time of political crisis. The starting point is Eviction, Omer Kriger’s provocative performance event, premiered at the last Israel Festival. There’ll be a video presentation and a panel discussion with Omer and artists Sara Benninga and Hannan Abu Hussein, moderated by Ronen Edelman, the editor of arts and culture magazine, Erev Rav. Feel Beit, 4 Naomi Street (behind Yes Planet). In Hebrew. Free. All welcome!

Free. All welcome!

Shushan Purim Sameah and Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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