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Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Making a Difference (no, not that kind)

The Nile turned to blood. The Golden Haggadah, 14th Century Spain. British Library.

After Shabbat last week, a demonstration in Tel Aviv attracted 80,000 people — in heavy rain. Around 1500 protesters took to the streets in Haifa and Jerusalem respectively. (I was in Jerusalem, and it looked like even more…)

Based on the title of this post, you might assume that I’m going to write about whether these demonstrations can make a difference. I don’t know. Demonstrations have certainly made an impact on Israeli politics in the past. But in any case, my interest here is another kind of difference.

Not everyone who is unhappy with what’s going on in Israel feels comfortable about attending demonstrations. And not everyone who attends demonstrations feels entirely comfortable being there. Behind the scenes, demonstration organizers are struggling to accommodate the needs of different protestors. What’s the problem?

A major challenge to bringing people onto the streets in response to our current crisis is that, despite the common ground we share, we have different perspectives on where precisely the emphasis should lie.

Following from that, we are unhappy when issues that don’t seem to us to be priorities right now are raised at demonstrations by people who think they are.

We are unhappy when issues are raised by speakers or other demonstrators that we find alienating, or that we think will alienate other potential demonstrators.

We are unhappy when the issues we see as crucial are not given the airspace at demonstrations that we think they deserve.

We are unhappy with the choice of some of the speakers.

And we are concerned that the views of demonstration organizers might not coincide exactly with our own.

In short, we are allowing our differences to divide us. That’s a mistake. Those of us who believe that our government has crossed a red line – whether we voted for one of the coalition parties or not – need to find a way to set our differences to one side. We don’t have the luxury of being willing to stand only with people just like ourselves. And this, as it happens, is a message of this week’s parasha.

A central motif of Va’era (Exod 6:2-9:35) is differentiation, making distinctions. Here are a few examples.

Initially, there’s little to distinguish Moses and Aaron from the Egyptian magicians. Aaron’s rod turns into a snake, and the Egyptian magicians turn their rods into snakes (Exod 7:8-12). Aaron strikes the Nile and turns it to blood, and the Egyptian magicians too turn the Nile into blood (Exod 7:19-22). Moses and Aaron cause frogs to cover the land of Egypt, and the Egyptian magicians do the same (Exod 8:1-3).

But then comes the distinction. Moses and Aaron bring forth lice, but the Egyptian magicians are out of magic (Exod 8:12-14). The difference between Moses and Aaron and the Egyptian magicians has finally been made starkly visible for all to see.

The first three plagues strike everywhere in Egypt, presumably affecting everyone equally. And then comes the differentiation. Egypt is invaded by swarms of insects. Even Pharaoh’s court and the homes of his courtiers are afflicted. But the land of Goshen, where the Hebrews live, is spared. God set Goshen apart, he says, to make a distinction between the Egyptians and the Israelites (Exod 8:16-20).

Then God strikes all the livestock – horses, asses, camels, cattle, and sheep – in the land of Egypt with a pestilence. Every Egyptian-owned animal dies, but among the Israelites, not a beast dies. God makes a distinction between Israelite and Egyptian livestock (Exod 9:1-6).

Next God tells Moses to issue a warning to all the people of Egypt that he’s sending hail to strike dead everything that’s out in the open, man and beast, grass and trees (Exod 9:17).

Aha, you might be thinking, this is all about differentiating the Israelites from the Egyptians in preparation for the exodus. But it’s more complicated than that.

While it’s true that no hail falls on Goshen, where the Israelites lived (Exod 9:25-26), the more significant differentiation concerning the plague of hail is between Egyptians who heed the warning and those who ignore it.

Exodus 9:18 Tomorrow at this time I will cause the heaviest hail to fall that has ever fallen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. 19 Send, therefore, and have your livestock and everything that you have in the open field brought to a secure place; every human or animal that is in the open field and is not brought under shelter will die when the hail comes down upon them.’ ” 20 Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried their slaves and livestock off to a secure place, 21 but those who did not regard the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the open field.

So, this is not just a matter of separating Israel from Egypt in preparation for the exodus. But what is the function of all these differentiations and distinctions?

Although the book of Exodus does not dwell on the differences and distinctions between Hebrews in Egypt, they existed.

A theme of the wilderness wandering is the litany of complaints by those who who were unhappy with Moses and Aaron as their leaders (Exod 17:2-3). This opposition began in Egypt. Moses’ very first act on behalf of a fellow Hebrew (Exod 2:11-12) is challenged by another fellow Hebrew (Exod 2:13-14).

Not all slaves are equal. There are Hebrew foremen, who oversee other slaves, and are beaten when lower ranking Israelites failed to meet the harsh new quotas (Exod 5:14). They blame Moses and Aaron for making the Israelites loathsome to Pharaoh (Exod 5:19-21).

And of course there was Moses himself, not a slave at all, but a Hebrew prince, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter as her son (Exod 2:10).

At one level, the differences between Hebrews and other Hebrews are smoothed over by the big distinction between Hebrews and Egyptians. That’s the common enemy strategy. But it’s not enough. There isn’t always a common enemy, as now, when the challenges we face are coming from within.

Perhaps that’s why our parasha introduces the distinction between the Egyptians who feared God when warned about the hail, and those who did not (Exod 9:18-21). It’s the beginning of a lesson that culminates with the blood on the doorposts.

God didn’t simply bring the Israelites out of Egypt and leave the Egyptians behind, which he surely could have done. He brought out the people who chose to come by marking their doorposts with blood. We can guess that some Israelites did not mark their doorposts and stayed behind with the Egyptians. We can also guess that some Egyptians marked their doorposts and left with the Israelites; they were the ‘mixed multitude’ (Exod 12:38).

Differences and distinctions did not determine who left Egypt. Had that been the case, the blood on the doorposts would have been redundant. The people who left Egypt were those who chose to stand together despite their differences, large and small. Let’s learn from them.

For those inclined to stand together now, there are demonstrations this Motzei Shabbat at 19.00 in Tel Aviv at Kikar Ha’Bimah (transport details here); and at 19.30 in Jerusalem — for Right and Left — outside the Beit Ha’Nasi, the President’s House.

 

 

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. 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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