Prise de la Bastille: Noble Resistance

On the morning of 14 July 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. The partisans of the Third Estate in France, now under the control of the Bourgeois Militia of Paris, had earlier stormed the Hôtel des Invalides without meeting significant opposition. Their intention had been to gather the weapons held there. The commandant at the Invalides had in the previous few days taken the precaution of transferring 250 barrels of gunpowder to the Bastille for safer storage.  Amid the tensions of July 1789 the building remained as a symbol of royal tyranny. At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty, housing only seven prisoners: four forgers, two “lunatics” and one “deviant” aristocrat, the Comte de Solages.

The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the cannon and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress and negotiations began, and another was admitted around noon with definite demands. The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grew and became impatient. Around 1:30, the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard. A small party climbed onto the roof of a building next to the gate to the inner courtyard and broke the chains on the drawbridge, crushing one vainqueur as it fell. Soldiers of the garrison called to the people to withdraw but in the noise and confusion these shouts were misinterpreted as encouragement to enter. Gunfire began, apparently spontaneously, turning the crowd into a mob. The crowd seems to have felt that they had been intentionally drawn into a trap and the fighting became more violent and intense, while attempts by deputies to organised a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers. The firing continued, and after 3 pm the attackers were reinforced by mutinous French Guard,  along with two cannons. A substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped on the Champs de Mars did not intervene. With the possibility of mutual carnage suddenly apparent, Governor de Launay ordered a cease-fire at 5 pm. A letter offering his terms was handed out to the besiegers through a gap in the inner gate. His demands were refused, but de Launay nonetheless capitulated, as he realized that with limited food stocks and no water supply his troops could not hold out much longer. He accordingly opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the vainqueurs swept in to liberate the fortress at 5:30.

The Bastille was a symbol of abuses by the monarchy. The news of the successful insurrection at Paris spread throughout France. The Prise de la Bastille – Storming of the Bastille  was the flashpoint of the French Revolution.

Besides tomorrow being the 228th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, I was thinking about this moment when reading Pinchas, this week’s Torah Portion. In preparation for entering into the new land they had a lottery to determine who would get what property. There we read:

Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.  And they stood before Mosche, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying. ‘Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.’ ( Numbers 27:1-4)

The daughters of Zelophehad nobly presented their case to Mosche. Similar to the case of the Storming of the Bastille, there were very few people impacted by this miscarriage of justice, but it represented something symbolic that needed to corrected. Their resistance could have spelled the end of Mosche’s short rule of law, but instead of being inflexible Mosche found a solution. Throughout history following these lessons Halakha- Jewish law has evolved by fomenting and responding to many revolutions. As leaders we need to be open and listen to all issues regardless of few people might be marginalized by them. Like Mosche we will not survive imprisoned in our fortress. As citizens we need to follow the noble example of the daughters of Zelophehad and persist to resist in the name of justice.

 

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