Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Succession — in the parasha and at the protests (29)

'Under the supervision of the Supreme Court of the Democratic Congregation, Jerusalem', 23 July 2023. Photo: Diana Lipton

This is my 29th consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests. If you’re tired of reading, scroll down for photos. 

This week’s parasha, Va’ethannan, opens with a humiliating entreaty. God had made it abundantly clear to Moses and Aaron that, because of what happened at Meribah, where they failed to demonstrate God’s holiness to the people, they will not enter the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12). Aaron died soon after (Numbers 20:28). But still, we learn in Ve-ethannan, Moses begs God: Let me cross over and see Israel (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).

We can empathize. Moses had achieved, and endured, so much since that day long ago when he witnessed firsthand an example of the oppression of his people, an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, and decided to intervene (Exodus 2:11-12). Was seeing the land that had been his destination for the past 40 years too much to ask?

Yes, it was. God was furious with Moses, telling him never again to raise the matter. Yet God had responded positively to Moses’ entreaties on other occasions, for example, after the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:11-14). Why did he respond so harshly this time? What he says next may help to explain.

Go up to the top of Pisgah and look around you to the west, to the north, to the south, and to the east. Look well, for you shall not cross over this Jordan. 28 But charge Joshua and encourage and strengthen him, because it is he who shall cross over at the head of this people and who shall secure their possession of the land that you will see.’ (Deuteronomy 3:27) 

At first glance, God’s reference to Joshua seems insensitive. You’ll see the land only from a distance, he tells Moses, but Joshua, your successor will enter it, as the head of this people. Why did God rub salt in the wound, not merely mentioning Joshua, but underlining that he not Moses would lead the people into Israel?

Perhaps God knew that Moses wasn’t being completely honest – even with himself – when he said that he just wanted to see the land from within. Like countless other leaders, Moses was struggling to give up the reins. His attempt to hang on was personally damaging, but more than that it was dangerous for the Israelites, who needed a leader fit for the task ahead. God’s strong response may have been intended to teach a lesson, for Moses and for future generations.

This was not the first time God told Moses that Joshua would lead the people into the land. When Moses understood that he could not enter Israel, he did the right thing. He himself asked God to appoint a new leader.

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, 16 “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation 17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Numbers 27:15) 

God chose Joshua.

So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him19 have him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation and commission him in their sight. 20 You shall give him some of your authority, so that all the congregation of the Israelites may obey. (Numbers 27:18) 

The choice of Joshua did not come out of the blue. Already at the time when the spies entered the land, God announced that, of the generation who left Egypt, only Caleb and Joshua would enter the land (Numbers 14:29-30). Moses had not yet struck the rock, but his name was not on this short list, and Joshua’s was.

Joshua had been prominent almost from the outset of the wilderness wanderings. Together, Moses and Joshua defeated the Amalekites in the battle that took place soon after the Israelites crossed the sea of reeds. Joshua did the fighting, while Moses elevated his hands, a channel of divine support, it seems (Exodus 17:8-16). This early demonstration of Joshua’s military prowess distinguished him as a someone capable of leading the conquest of the land.

And although God didn’t name Joshua when Moses asked who God would send with him to lead the people forward (Exodus 33:12), the answer had already been given in the preceding verse. While Moses would speak to God face to face outside the camp, his attendant Joshua son of Nun would stay in the camp (Exodus 33:11).

The lesson is clear. Leaders have a sell-by date (not necessarily age — I favor limited terms) that they can by no means be permitted to extend. And like Joshua, their successor must be waiting in the wings.

Israel is in its present catastrophic position because its leader clung to power when he should have helped usher in his replacement.

Facing imprisonment for corruption, Benjamin Netanyahu did not step aside, as he urged former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to do when he was in the same position (and he did).

Throughout his too-long period of office, Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to foster and encourage new talent. On the contrary, he cut down politicians with ability, seeing them as potential rivals instead of potential successors.

And during his hospitalization for heart problems last week, it emerged that there was no temporary substitute in case of emergency (the Deputy-Prime Minister does not automatically fill this role). The Prime Minister attacks his opponents for wanting ‘anyone but Bibi’, but they’re only reversing his terrifying self-image: No-one but Bibi.

Where’s the hope for change?

Perhaps with the coalition members who knew, and reportedly even privately discussed, why this week’s vote to limit checks and balances on the Government was so destructive, dangerous, and divisive. So far, they’ve been too weak to stand up to Bibi, and too willing to put their own careers above the interests of the country, but that could change.

Perhaps with the Haredi coalition members, who are supporting Bibi because of what they’ve been promised in return – the absolute end, for all members of their community, of compulsory military service. When that’s not delivered, which — as their numbers grow, and the rest of the population loses its willingness to carry them — it can’t be, they could withdraw their support.

Perhaps with the faithful Likud voters, who will soon see – as Brexit supporters now see in the UK – what their vote is costing them personally. If the economy continues to tank, they too could withdraw their support.

In the meantime, the protests must continue. And thanks to the superhuman efforts of the protest organizers, and the awe-inspiring willingness of many ordinary Israelis to keep showing up no matter what, they are. The day after the march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in which 70,000 participated, a cab driver tried to convince me that they were all paid. For me, and I know for many others, the protests give some slight hope.

And on that note, here are a few photos, taken at the Gan Sacher protest camp and near the Knesset and the Supreme Court just before and after Monday’s devastating vote. More than at other demonstrations I’ve been to, that afternoon I saw protesters and counter-protesters engaging, if not constructively, at least at length. Was that a sign of hope? I also saw someone selling ‘democratic water and a beigele’. Was even that a sign of hope…?

Food distribution at the protest camp at Gan Sacher, near the Knesset and the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, 24 July. Photo: Diana Lipton
Entertaining the protesters at Gan Sacher, near the Knesset and the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, 24 July. Photo: Diana Lipton
Protest camp at Gan Sacher, near the Knesset and the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, 24 July. Photo: Diana Lipton
Protest camp at Gan Sacher, near the Knesset and the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, 24 July. Photo: Diana Lipton
Protesters heading through Gan Sacher to the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, 24 July. Photo: Diana Lipton
‘I have no other democracy’, heading to the Supreme Court, 24 July 2023. Photo: Diana Lipton
Protester (right) and counter-protesters in Gan Sacher, Jerusalem, 24 July. Photo: Diana Lipton
Protester (right) and counter-protesters near the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, 24 July. Photo: Diana Lipton
Protester (right) and counter-protesters near the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, 24 July. Photo: Diana Lipton
Selling noisemakers and ‘democratic water and a beigele’ near the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, 24 July. Photo: Diana Lipton
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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