Protest is a love language.

As children grow, one of the markers of development is how long they can be on their own. As they mature, we marvel at how they’re able to entertain themselves for longer stretches at a time. We listen in at playdates as they busy themselves with friends without us. We dip our toes into the water of independence when they reach middle school — run an errand without arranging for a babysitter, schedule a first tentative grownups’ night out. At some point they become the ones making plans and leaving us at home. And then suddenly (and it sure does feel like suddenly) our children are off and independent. We spend time with them, to be sure; check in on them, make sure they’re alright — but they no longer need us to ensure their safety. They’re just fine on their own.

Apparently, however, the ancient Israelites never made it to that stage, for after Moses had left them alone for only about a month or so, all hell broke loose. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we read:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us out of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” Aaron said to them: “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten [golden] calf. And they exclaimed: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

Exodus 32:1-4

On a scale of 1-10 in terms of all the sins the Israelites could have committed while Moses was away, this is a 100. If the Israelites haven’t learned anything else, they should know that there’s one God — one God who brought 10 plagues upon the Egyptians, one God who split the Sea, one God who has provided manna for their sustenance throughout their wandering in the wilderness. 

And yet.

So Moses hurries down the mountain, two tablets in hand, and what he hears and sees in the camp is so deeply disappointing, so antithetical to everything the Israelites are supposed to do and be, that he smashes the tablets to the ground and begins, angrily, to hold Aaron, as leader, and all of the Israelites accountable for their abhorrent behavior.

Now Moses had been up on the mountain, removed from everything that had happened. However, neither the Torah nor the commentaries are troubled by Moses passing judgement when he wasn’t present to understand first hand what had transpired. In fact, they underscore the appropriateness of his response, perhaps anticipating the Talmud’s instruction:

All who can protest against something wrong that one of their family is doing and does not is accountable together with their family. All who can protest against something wrong that a citizen of their city is doing and does not protest is accountable together with all citizens in the city. All who can protest against something wrong that is being done in the whole world is accountable together with all citizens of the world.

Shabbat 54a

When people go astray — especially when they go so far astray, like Golden Calf far astray — we have an obligation to hold them accountable anywhere in the world, all the more so in our city, all the more so among our family. 

As a Jewish community, Israel is the part of the world to which our hearts have always turned. Jerusalem is the city that symbolizes hope and promise in both our historical memory and our collective future aspirations. And the people of Israel are our mishpacha, our brothers and sisters — our family. Love obligates us to support one another, yes, but not blindly or unquestioningly. We have a holy obligation to hold one another accountable. 

Israel, right now, under the leadership of its government, is going astray, far astray. And in the spirit of Moses, in the spirit of the Talmud, Israelis are holding their government accountable and protesting.

Every Saturday night for the past several weeks, thousands and thousands of Israelis have been taking to the streets. An estimated 250,000 took part in protests this past Saturday night (which, as Thomas Friedman says, is “roughly the equivalent in population to 8.6 million Americans” [1] — more than 1.5 times the population of the entire state of South Carolina). Their goal is an urgent one: To stop the government from passing “judicial reform” that will all but eliminate the power and independence of the Israeli Supreme Court. The most controversial proposal on the table would give the Knesset the ability to override any Supreme Court decision by a simple majority. Why is that so dangerous? Because, if adopted, Israel will no longer be a democracy. It really is that simple. In the absence of any other checks and balances — Israel has no constitution, no second legislative chamber, no president with veto powers — a simple majority in the Knesset will be able to pass any law. ANY law. Create government positions for life. Eliminate elections. Deny rights to any segment of the population. ANY law.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, Executive Director of ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists of America), has been among those actively protesting. He summarizes the message of the protests as “a simple yet fundamental principle: Democracy is not just majority rule; it is about tolerance, acceptance, and mutual respect.” [2]

And the Israelis who are protesting are desperately asking for our support. Matti Friedman, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, and Yossi Klein Halevi — strong moderate Israeli voices who often don’t agree with one another — published “An Open Letter to Israel’s Friends in North America,” imploring us: “We need your voice to help us preserve Israel as a state both Jewish and democratic.” [3] Elite military personnel are refusing to engage in training exercises. The tech companies of the “Start Up Nation” area are beginning to participate. Opposition leader Yair Lapid is pushing American Jewish leaders to do as much as we can, concerned that we haven’t yet truly internalized just how dangerous the situation is and will be.

It doesn’t matter that, like Moses, we in America are removed from what’s been happening. What the Golden Calf was to monotheism, this proposal is to democracy. 250,000 Israelis in the streets and hundreds of thousands more throughout the country who hear American Jews regularly profess commitment, support, and love for Israel are pleading with us to join their protests and support them as they strive to hold their leaders accountable.

Those leaders include Israeli Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich. Smotrich has a history of racist and homophobic remarks, and is pushing for unilateral and de facto annexation of the West Bank. Recently, you may have heard, two Israeli brothers, Hallel and Yagel Yaniv (z”l), were tragically murdered by a Palestinian resident of Huwara. In response, Smotrich “called for the State of Israel to ‘wipe out’ the Palestinian village of Huwara … and a mob of angry Jewish Settlers set out on a pogrom in the village burning two hundred homes, multiple numbers of cars, murdering one Palestinian and injuring many others, and essentially taking the law into their own hands.” As Rabbi Weinberg says: “Smotrich’s call for ethnic cleansing no longer comes from some random individual on the ‘extremist fringe,’ but from a Government Minister.” [4]

And that Government Minister has been invited by the legacy organization Israel Bonds to address its leadership conference next week in Washington, D.C. Rabbi Weinberg states it very clearly: “NO ORGANIZATION OR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL SHOULD INVITE MINISTER SMOTRICH … to participate in any meeting or event whatsoever. Not the U.S. Government, not AIPAC, not any middle-left Zionist organization, and certainly not State of Israel Bonds. This we must protest in advance using all the connections and means available to us, and should such meetings actually defy the will of Diaspora Jewish organizations and go forward … there should be massive protests outside the event.”

And what else? What else can we do? What are Israelis imploring us to do?

First, we can lobby our elected officials, especially those here in South Carolina who publicly profess to be such staunch supporters of Israel as a stronghold of democracy in the Middle East. If the current proposed policies are adopted, Israel will no longer be a democracy. If racist government ministers like Smotrich are held up as exemplars of leadership, Israel will “become a pariah nation on the world stage.” [5] And then what will come of the tangible security support Israel needs to defend itself and survive? We need to let our officials know that supporting Israel means listening to Israelis and their collective voice is asking our leaders to use their influence to help preserve Israel’s democratic institutions and democratic values.

Second, we can support civil organizations and our Reform movement in Israel who are “leading the fight for religious freedom and for democracy at large.” [6] The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the Israel Religious Action Center have a joint Emergency Campaign to secure together “an Israel we are proud of.” Here is a direct link for donations to support its work to mobilize against the biggest current threats to Jewish and democratic values in Israel.

And we can stay informed by following Israeli sources we trust. I hear from too many individuals that American media is unfair and biased against Israel. In certain places that may be the case and some concerns may be very well founded. But to discount these frightening, urgent threats to Israel’s democracy as a product of biased media coverage is irresponsible. If you don’t trust American sources, then go directly to Israeli sources — for me, those are (among others) weekly updates emailed by the Israel Religious Action Center, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and ARZA (which while not based in Israel, is deeply rooted there). 

All who can protest when people go astray are accountable for doing so — even when it’s on the other side of the world, even when we’re removed from direct impact, even when it’s family. Especially when it’s family.

I want to leave you tonight with words penned by one of Israel’s most famous and beloved lyricists, Ehud Manor. Manor saw all of Israel’s sides — his eyes were open to her faults as well as her blessings, her shortcomings and her achievements. His heart was open, as well — so full of love for his country, that disappointment registered as deep, piercing pain. But always, always — eyes, heart, and soul — he remained full of tikvah, of hope. This is what he wrote:

I have no other country

even if my land is burning

Just a word of Hebrew pierces

my veins, penetrates my soul

With a body that hurts

with a heart that is hungry

Here is my home.

I will not be silent when my country has changed her face

I will not give in to her, I will remind her

and I will sing here in her ears

until she has opened her eyes.

May God spread a shelter of peace over Jerusalem and Israel — protecting, especially, the core of who Israel must always strive to be: A light unto the nations and all the world.

Shabbat Shalom.





[5] Ibid.


1 thought on “Protest is a love language.”

  1. Wow! What a powerful sermon! Thanks so much for sharing it with me My heart breaks for Israel… Shabbat shalom Pat and Ruthie

    Sent from my iPhone



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