Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Watching your mouth — in the parasha and at the protests

Supreme Court pro-democracy demonstration, July 2023. Photo: Diana Lipton

This is my 39th consecutive post connecting the parasha and Israel’s pro-democracy protests. To be notified by e-mail of future posts, write via ‘contact me’ (above right). 

In Israel and some Diaspora communities, this Shabbat is Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The first of the two Simchat Torah readings is Ve’zot ha’berakha. Having blessed Israel, Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho. And there, in the land of Moab, Moses died ‘at the command of’ — al pi, literally, ‘on the mouth of’ — the Lord (Deuteronomy 34:5).

The phrase ‘At the command of, al pi, the Lord’ takes us back, I think, to Moses’ most consequential leadership crisis: the striking of the rock (Numbers 20:1-13). Instead of telling the rock to yield water for the thirsty Israelites, as God had instructed, Moses struck it twice. Because Moses and Aaron failed to trust God sufficiently to sanctify him in front of the people, they won’t lead the people into the promised land.

It’s easy to feel sorry for Moses. On a previous occasion when the Israelites complained of thirst (Exodus 17:1-7), God had told him to strike the rock with his staff. But confusion probably wasn’t the reason why Moses struck the rock this time. Listen you rebels, ha’morim, he’d just told the people, shall we get water for you from this rock! (Numbers 20:10). Moses struck the rock not in confusion, but in anger.

It soon becomes clear that when God told Moses and Aaron that they would not lead the Israelites into the promised land, he meant that they’d be dead by then. (In hindsight, that seems obvious, but they could theoretically have lived out their days alone in Moab.) Let Aaron be gathered to his kin, God says (Numbers 20:22-29, and see also Numbers 23:28). He is not to enter the land that I gave to the Israelites because you rebelled, meritem (the same Hebrew root as ha’morim, rebels, v. 10), against my command, pi, about the waters of Meribah. Aaron is buried on Mount Hor; his son Eleazar inherits his position; and the people lament.

A few chapters later, it seems to be Moses’ turn to die. The formula we saw for Aaron looks set to be repeated: a high place, a justification; the transfer of authority to a successor, and public lament. Go up to the heights of Abarim, God says, and view the land that I’ve given to the Israelite people. When you’ve seen it, you’ll be gathered to your kin, as Aaron was, because you rebelled, meritem, against my command, pi, to sanctify me through the waters (Numbers 27:12-14). Moses goes up, and transfers his authority to Joshua, as God also commanded (v.18). But a few more chapters of Numbers and the whole of Deuteronomy must elapse before Moses’ death is reported.

The reference point for ‘at the command of, al pi, the Lord’ in our parasha is, I think, clear. Deuteronomy 34:5 points back to the striking of the rock (Numbers 20), and completes the premature report of Moses’ death (Numbers 27). But still the phrase is troubling, not least because of the close association with anger that we’ve just seen. In anger Moses called the Israelites rebels; in anger he rebelled against God’s command, pi; and now he will die at the command of, al pi, God. Was God also angry?

A powerful midrashic commentary on Moses’ death at God’s command takes the form of a parable about a king, told by God himself.

Metatron [an angel] came at that time and fell on his face. He said to Him, ‘Master of the Universe, Moses’ life was in your hands and his death was in your hands.’  The Holy One Blessed Be He said, ‘Let me tell you a parable.  What is this matter like?  It is like a king who had a son. Time after time his father became angry with him and wanted to kill him, because he did not honor his father, but his mother used to save him from his [father’s] hand. One day his mother died, and the king wept.  His servants said to him, “Our Lord king, why are you weeping?” He replied, “I weep not only for my wife, but for my son. So many times I have been angry at him and wished to kill him, but she saved him from my hand”.’  ‘So too’, said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Metatron, ‘I weep not just for Moses but for Israel. How many times have they provoked me and I was angry at them, but he stood before me in the breach to turn back my anger from destroying them.’  (Midrash Tanhuma, ed. Buber, p.13, on Deuteronomy 34:5).

God is the king who is constantly angry with his son for not honoring him. Israel is the son who is at constant risk of being killed by his father. And Moses is the king’s wife, who until her death was always able to save their son from his father’s anger. The king weeps when his wife dies, in part because he’s lost her, but also because he knows that now there’s no-one to prevent him from killing his son.

I used to wonder about the source of the anger motif in this midrash, but now I think I understand. Indeed, as I’m reading it here, the midrash somewhat redeems Moses. Yes, Moses’ anger led to his death, as we’ve seen, but his death exposed Israel to an anger far more destructive than his had ever been: God’s.

If you are one of many readers for whom the theological approach represented by this midrash is challenging, I highly recommend ‘Two Concepts of God’, Moshe Halbertal’s brilliant analysis of God as personality, with human characteristics such as anger, versus God as being, with philosophical attributes such as omniscience. For me, it was revelatory.

In the meantime, I’m thinking about Israel today, where we’re dealing with another kind of destructive anger: our own. Anger burned in the faces of the demonstrators at the Yom Kippur protests in Tel Aviv. Knesset members are perpetually infuriated. Social media is ablaze. And anger is palpable on our roads. Never an experience for the faint hearted, driving in Israel these days can be terrifying.

Anger in Israel has taken on a life of its own, as it did in the UK over Brexit, and in the US over Trump. And in all three countries it’s been politicized and instrumentalized. We desperately need ways to deal with anger in its own right, detached from its causes and regardless of sides. I had the idea (OK, fantasy) that convicted dangerous drivers should be asked to sign up for meditation or yoga workshops in place of the not so effective driver’s re-education classes now offered. Urgent action is required.

Until then, leaders of the protest movement are arranging myriad opportunities for engagement between Israelis on opposite sides of the judicial reform debate. This week, Shomrim al ha’bayit meshutaf, Guarding the Shared Home, teamed up with the contemporary online biblical commentary project 929 to facilitate encounters in sukkot, tabernacles, around the country. Not every meeting will end harmoniously, of course. But for all its ups and downs, what stays with us about the relationship between God and Moses is that they met ‘face to face’ (Deuteronomy 34:10). It’s a good place to start.

A guided tour of Democrisis, Museum on the Seam, Jerusalem, until 20 October. Photo: Diana Lipton

P.s. You have two more weeks to see Democrisis, a wonderful exhibition of the history of Israeli protest, right and left, religious and secular, Jews and Muslims, in photographs at the Museum on the Seam, Jerusalem. Sign up for a fantastic guided tour, Fridays at 11.00.

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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