Two weeks ago, a friend was standing with his young granddaughter at what would become the first weekly post-Shabbat demonstration outside Beit Ha’Nasi, the President’s House. Are we going to watch a demonstration or make a demonstration, she asked?
What a great question! That first week in Jerusalem, there wasn’t much to watch. There were no speakers, little protest chanting, and – at least where I was standing – few examples of the creative signs and costumes characteristic of Israeli demonstrations. People were milling around, catching up with friends, counting kippot (already quite a few!), and sharing their dismay at what’s happening to our country. The priority was showing up.
This past week, the Jerusalem demonstration was much more vibrant – passionate speakers, music, chanting, signs, plenty of social and religious diversity, and many more demonstrators.
But still, the question applies. What exactly are ordinary demonstrators (as opposed to demonstration organizers) doing to make a demonstration?
This week’s parasha, Bo, develops the lesson we’ve been learning about how to confront an oppressive regime bent on reducing our rights. God presents two justifications for hardening Pharaoh’s heart and the hearts of his servants. First, so that he can display these signs (the plagues) among the Egyptians. Second, so that the Israelites can tell their children and grandchildren how God made a mockery of the Egyptians and displayed his signs among them (Exod 12:1-2). In other words, God is making a demonstration.
The plagues, or signs and wonders as they are called elsewhere (Exod 7:3; Deut 4:34, 6:22, 7:19, 26:8, 29:3, 34:11…), are powerful spectacles that demonstrate God’s commitment to Israel in two different spaces, for two different audiences, at two different times.
The plagues make an impact where they occur, in the land of Egypt, but also wherever the descendants of the Hebrews end up living – from the land of Canaan though Mainz, Krakow and Odessa, to Brooklyn and Golders Green.
They affect the original audience, the Egyptians and Israelites who experience and witness them, and also the descendants of those original Israelites, who hear and read about them in synagogues and at seder tables.
And they have an effect when they occur, but also whenever people speak about them in years to come. The parasha already mentions three generations – you, your children, and your grandchildren – but their impact lasted much longer. We’re still talking about them today.
The plagues in Egypt caused the death and destruction of people, animals, and the natural world; we should never forget that. But today, I am interested in the plagues as powerful spectacles.
The plagues were heralded by a mini spectacle: a rod turned into a snake.
Then the major spectacles began. The river Nile turned from blue to red.
Frogs hopped and croaked in every nook and cranny.
A massive hailstorm destroyed everything in its wake.
Swarms of locusts invaded the land.
And every single Egyptian household, from Pharaoh’s to a prisoner’s, lost its firstborn son in a single night. Imagine the private grief and public mourning generated by this catastrophe.
Egyptians and Israelites in the land of Egypt saw firsthand these powerful spectacles, these massive demonstrations of God’s commitment to Israel. The Israelites told their children and grandchildren about them. And we’ve been reading about them in the Torah and Haggadah ever since.
This – on a small scale, and without death and destruction – is how demonstrations should work.
Demonstrations create a spectacle in the location where they take place, and they also have an impact wherever in the world we read or hear about them. In both cases, big numbers attract public interest and media attention, so it’s vital that thousands, hundreds of thousands, come out to make the demonstration.
Demonstrations affect their original audience, the demonstrators themselves, but also people who are not there in person and only read and hear about them. That second group includes supporters of the demonstration, who can’t be there in person, and its opposition. Again, large numbers, and also strong visuals, command attention.
And demonstrations are effective while they are taking place, but also later, when people read about them and see pictures in newspapers, on TV, and via social media. Later might be that same night, but also years later, for example when we tell our children and grandchildren what we did in 2023 to demonstrate our commitment to a democratic state of Israel.
Want to help make a demonstration? There are demonstrations around the country, including after Shabbat, 28th January, at 19.00 in Tel Aviv (meet at Kikar Ha’Bimah or Eliezer Kaplan Street), and at 19.30 in Jerusalem outside Beit Ha’Nasi, the President’s House.