Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Controlling anger – in the parasha and at the protests (30)

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, outside the President's House last week. Photo: Diana Lipton

This is my 30th consecutive post connecting the parasha with Israel’s pro-democracy protests.

In this week’s parasha, Ekev, Moses is forced to relive what must have been for him one of the most challenging episodes of the wilderness wanderings: God’s extreme anger after the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). At Horeb, Moses reminds Israel, you so provoked God that he was angry enough to destroy you (Deuteronomy 9:8). Let me alone, God said then, so that I can destroy them and blot their name from under heaven and start again you with you (Deuteronomy 9:14). But Moses did not let God alone.

Foreshadowing Israel’s prophets, especially Jeremiah, Moses responded to divine anger with anger of his own. When he saw what Israel had done, Moses grasped the two tablets, flung them away, and smashed them in front of the watching Israelites. What strength of emotion he must have mustered to shatter two blocks of stone, inscribed by God’s own hand, and given to him from heaven.

In his brilliant Introduction to the Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel describes this phenomenon as prophetic empathy. The intercessor, in this case Moses, must first learn to feel approximately what God is feeling by experiencing anger of his own. From that point he must work in both directions – with Israel and with God – to restore their relationship. The goal is that Israel will identify what it did wrong and feel remorse, and God will control his anger.

That’s exactly the process Moses describes in parashat Ekev. Having referred to the broken tablets (v. 17), he tells Israel that, because of their great wrong and his fear that God would wipe them out, he prostrated himself before God, fasting for forty days and forty nights (vv 18-19).

Similarly, when he feared that God was angry enough to destroy Aaron for making the Golden Calf, Moses responded with his own act of anger and destruction. He threw the Calf into the fire, broke it into pieces, ground it up, and scattered the dust in a stream (vv 20-21). Following a short digression about another occasion when Israel made God angry (complaining about the manna), Moses returns to the subject of his forty-day fast on Sinai and explains his wider strategy for calming God down. Do not annihilate the people you brought out of Egypt, he told God (v. 26); remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 27); don’t pay any attention to Israel’s stubbornness (v. 27); and don’t give Egypt an opportunity to accuse you of impotence (v. 28).

From a theological perspective this is complicated. Is God allowing a human being to control his anger, to control him? Several midrashim, imaginative rabbinic interpretations, respond to precisely that challenge. It’s like the case of a king who was angry enough to kill his son, they say, but was prevented by his son’s tutor or his son’s mother. Like the king, God wanted to be talked down. He relied on someone in a special relationship – a person he himself had chosen, as the king had hired his son’s tutor and married his son’s mother – to do just that. Tragedy will ensue when the tutor is not around to intercede, or when the king’s wife dies. And on that day, according to a particularly powerful example of these midrashim (Tanhuma on Deuteronomy 34:5), God will weep.

As the Knesset goes into recess for the summer, and we can pause for thought (though not for long), journalists and others are speculating about the causes of Israel’s current catastrophe. I’ve read recently that support for the judicial reform is revenge by the political and religious rightwing for the disengagement from Gaza. That it’s payback by the same group for the Oslo Accords. And, my interest here, that it’s the response to years of discrimination by Ashkenazi Jews against Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

The Haredi motivation for supporting judicial reform – they hope to get something in return (increased funding and exemption from military service) – though unreasonable in political terms, is perfectly rational. It may backfire, but they have clearly defined goals, and, from their perspective, a realistic hope of achieving them.

By contrast, supporters of judicial reform who are motivated by anger and grievances, however justified, are making a serious mistake. The notion that judicial reform will, at one fell swoop, level the playing field is a dangerous fantasy. A similar fantasy drove aggrieved Brexit voters, who’d been sold the lie that their lives would be better if they got even with the class/party who looked down at/betrayed them. I guess they enjoyed their victory for a while, but they’re not enjoying it now. They’ll be paying a very steep economic price for leaving Europe for a very long time.

The State of Israel has had forty years of right-wing governments. The current Prime Minister has held office for fifteen years, not consecutively, but plenty of time to bring social injustices to the table. These governments weren’t prevented by the Supreme Court from addressing historic inequalities. No-one stopped them from trying to ensure that the makeup of the Supreme Court reflects the general population, which could have been achieved without making the Court a puppet of the government – the current objective. The Likud party didn’t even strive to shape its own political elite in the diverse image of the country!

Israelis who feel angry and aggrieved should just say no to having their anger manipulated against their interests by the coalition government. I wish they would take control of their own anger and bring their issues to the pro-democracy demonstrations, where they belong. And I wish that the demonstration organizers, who are trying so hard, could find a way to welcome communities who now feel excluded. Many of their members have lost faith in Bibi and reject the Government’s right-wing extremism, and are now politically homeless.

Persistent inequality across the board has been a major factor in creating and driving our present crisis. We need to see a lot more of that on the streets, not in the trick costume of pro-judicial reform, but at pro-democracy protests, called out for exactly what it is: an obstacle to building a truly democratic Israel.

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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