Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Who’s listening? In the parasha and at the protests (37)

Volume control at a Supreme Court pro-democracy demonstration. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

This is my 37th consecutive post connecting the parasha and Israel’s pro-democracy protests. To receive e-mail notifications for future posts, write via ‘contact me’ on my banner (above right). 

We’re near the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Moses knows he’s going to die, and he presents the Israelites with two gifts to remember him by. As they are described at the end of last week’s parasha and in this week’s, Ha’azinu, it’s hard to keep them apart. But here goes.

The first gift is a manuscript, hand-written by Moses ‘to the very end’ (Deuteronomy 31:24). It might be the entire Torah, or the book of Deuteronomy (or parts of it). Naturally, the Israelites know its contents, but what’s significant in this context is that it’s a physical artefact.

Moses tells the Israelites to keep the book next to, not inside, the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant, where it will serve as a witness if – actually, when – they stray after other gods (Deuteronomy 31:26). In the next breath, he invokes two other witnesses who will testify in the event of Israelite infidelity: the heavens and the earth (Deuteronomy 31:28). Moses had summoned the world’s first duo (Genesis 1:1) once before, in a near identical warning to the Israelites about worshipping other gods when he is no longer with them (Deuteronomy 4:26).

Moses’ second gift to the Israelites is also a text, and it too will function as a witness when Israel strays after he’s gone (Deuteronomy 31:19). But in this case, its materiality is not important. Moses wrote down the song we call Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 31:19), but it will not be stored in a designated physical spot (though Josephus reports that a copy was kept in the Temple). Unlike the book, that, by being visible next to the Ark, served a purpose even when it was not being read or studied, the song is not easily separable from its contents. It will be preserved ‘in the mouths’ of all Israelites – a kind of oral text, written to be read aloud.

The orality of Ha’azinu is underlined by its form. It’s an example of parallelism, a poetic device, common in the Bible, in which the second line of each couplet mirrors, complements, or expands the first. Parallelism helps make poems and songs memorable by propelling readers forward in a series of half-steps. There are other indications that it was meant to be heard. Moses ‘taught’ the song to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 31:22), a term that here is more suggestive of rote learning than detailed study. He recited it ‘to the very end’ – as he also wrote the book ‘to the very end’ (Deuteronomy 31:24) – in ‘the ears’ of all Israel. And of course the song’s opening words are about hearing: Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter (Deuteronomy 32:1). The word ha’azinu shares a root with ‘ear’.

We know that God dictated the words of Ha’azinu and Moses wrote them down, but who is speaking? At one level, the ‘I’ of verse one must be Moses, who first recited it to Israel (Deuteronomy 31:30). Then again, it could be one of the generic future Israelites for whom it was written to recite (Deuteronomy 31:19-21). Or perhaps the speaker is God, talking about himself in the first and third person, as he sometimes does.

And who is the song’s intended audience? At one level, it must be the heavens and the earth (v.1), permanent fixtures in the universe, the backdrop of all human dramas. Then again, it could be future Israelites, who will understand when they sing, and hear themselves singing, the song, that they must abandon false gods. Or perhaps the audience was God, who, recalling what happened when Moses was absent from the Israelites on a previous occasion — they made the Golden Calf — gave them a song to sing to him about a relationship that was scarred by infidelity but endured. Perhaps.

Thinking about Ha’azinu raised questions for me about the demonstrations. We know who’s speaking. A small number of protesters regularly or occasionally address the crowd from the stage in their own words. The majority of protesters, including me, chant slogans composed by other protesters. At the end, most of us sing Israel’s national anthem, written in 1878 by Naftali Herz Imber, a Jew from what was then Poland and is now Ukraine. We also know who the protesters are speaking for: Israelis, at this point a majority, who do not support the Coalition Government or judicial reform as currently planned.

But who’s listening to the demonstrators? Who’s the audience?

The names of politicians who might classify as an audience are often chanted at demonstrations. Yariv Levin (this is not Poland). Amir Ohana (this is not Hungary). But I can’t believe that most protesters imagine that these particular politicians or their clan are actually listening.

A more plausible audience is the small number of coalition members remotely capable of doing the right thing and rejecting the planned judicial reform. I’m sure they’re listening, but will they hear?

At the Jerusalem protests, at least, Bibi has a small presence. He’s probably listening too, but who thinks he has the power to respond?

Demonstrators may be justified in hoping that Haredi leaders will listen and internalize what the protest movement portends for their communities (and act accordingly). There are signs that this is happening.

Demonstrators might hope that politicians abroad will hear their pain, if not the subtleties of their Hebrew slogans, and apply pressure on the government to halt the judicial reform.

They might also hope that sympathetic Israelis will hear and join the protests. Taking to the streets isn’t easy for everyone.

Sometimes, though, it’s enough for protesters to be their own audience. In the midst of the chaos and uncertainty that’s Israel today, it can be comforting to hear each other, even when the volume is a bit overwhelming (see my photo above) .

And sometimes – as when multiple shofarot, rams’ horns, were blown at the end of the Jerusalem demonstrations ahead of the Yamim Noraim – some of us might even be hoping that the heavens and the earth are listening.

Jerusalem pro-democracy demonstration, 2 September. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

Gmar hatima tova!

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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