My social media feeds are filled with missing people. Gone are the posts about people's weekend plans, friends sharing their kids' accomplishments or showing off new haircuts. Instead, I see a constant stream of missing posters, empty tables, rows and rows of snapshots of babies and children. I'm trying to take it in small doses in order to protect myself from the overwhelm, but at the same time, when I am spending time on social media, I scroll right on by the mundane stuff and find myself riveted to the stories of the hostages and pleas for their safe return to their families.
Focusing my attention on freeing the hostages is also less fraught than thinking about the possibility of a ground incursion into Gaza, than confronting the fear that no action on Israel's part can be both internationally supported and effectively deal with Hamas. It's concrete - I can see their faces, read their names, offer up my prayers and my hashtags (#bring_hersh_home) for their safety.
It's also a Jewish value - פדיון שבויים - pidyon sh'vuyim, freeing captives.
With a few notable exceptions, this value has not occupied my thoughts regularly, but it's all I think about right now. So when I was considering what to share with us this week related to Parashat Lekh L'kha, I was immediately drawn to the story of Lot being taken as a prisoner of war and being rescued by his uncle, Avraham. (For a fuller version, read Genesis Chapter 14.) Lot and Avraham had separated in order to give each of them enough land to live on peacefully and comfortably, but this inadvertently put Lot in harm's way. He got caught up in a war between local kings and was taken captive. Avraham mustered all of his wealth and the people in his sphere of influence, launched a surprise nighttime attack, and rescued Lot, along with the other people who were held with him.
There are a few things we can learn about pidyon sh'vuyim from this story. First, freeing captives is not cheap, but it's worth it. Avraham took 318 people with him on his rescue mission and (according to a number of midrashic texts) paid them handsomely for their service. Rescuing those held in captivity will take actual and political capital. Hundreds of people protested outside the UN this week to call for diplomatic action to free the hostages. Family members and politicians are meeting with government officials from across the world, sharing the stories of the captives and doing whatever they can to raise awareness and motivation to secure their release.
Next, everyone's story is our story. Avraham went to find and rescue his nephew, his family, but he came back with all of the other people who had been taken prisoner. He didn't ignore the plight of the others with whom Lot was in captivity. If you've been following this part of the news from Israel, then you've probably seen stories or read articles about Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin, whose son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, is gravely injured and among the more than 200 hostages held in Gaza. They are speaking out and meeting with people in power to bring their son home. And they are talking about all of the hostages, and trying to bring them home as well. In addition to the public acts - collages of posters emblazoned with the word "KIDNAPPED," the rows of empty chairs, or the protests - which are focusing attention on all of the hostages, it's remarkable to note that the families of those who are being held are not just focusing on their own children, parents, partners, siblings. They are speaking up for all of those captured by Hamas.
And finally, we don't hesitate to take action. When Avraham learns of Lot's abduction, he springs into action, gathering his troops and pursuing Lot's captors. Immediately after it became clear that so many had been taken, Jewish communities around the world started clamoring to do what we could to help get them home. We've been praying - saying Psalms and reciting the prayer אחינו (Aḥeinu), which was written for this purpose. We have been giving money, time, and our voices to help spread their stories as widely as possible and encourage diplomatic leaders to take action.
If only there was more we could do. But we've shown no signs of stopping, and we won't until they all come home.
Sitting on top of my dresser is a stack of papers - drawings that my son brought home to me during his years in preschool. Each of them was a gift from him to me, and each has a rainbow on it. Like with many young children, drawing rainbows was kind of his "thing" during his younger years. He doesn't draw them much anymore.
Last week, the lower school students at Krieger Schechter drew prayers for Israel, which are now hanging under a large banner with the words "Oseh shalom bimromav...." painted on it. When my son was telling me about how they made their prayers for Israel, he wanted me to know how to find his. "It's the one with the rainbows on it," he proudly told me.
One of the most evocative symbols from this week's parashah, Parashat Noaḥ, is the rainbow. After the flood, after Noah and his family descend from the ark and receive a blessing from God, God explains that the rainbow will serve as a sign of God's covenant with all life and the promise never to destroy the world again. Numerous commentaries explain that the rainbow is God's personal reminder - not for humanity, but for God - not to destroy the world. It's a sign that God is angry with the world, but is staying the Divine hand.
For this reason, many see rainbows as a sign of God's fury, a hint that we've done something gravely wrong which, but for God's ancient promise, would put us in danger of being wiped out.
This has never been how I've seen rainbows, but right now, with the current situation in Israel and Gaza, it feels closer to the experience of so many of us over the past 2 weeks. It can feel like the world is falling apart, like destruction is imminent, all around us. So much that is deeply troubling.
But like I said, this is not how I've ever seen rainbows. It's possible to look at the traditional commentaries with different eyes and see not darkness, but hope. Yes, the rainbow may be a sign that God has taken note of our failings. But instead of punishment and destruction, we have beauty and color and light. We have a promise.
And while I remain devastated and intensely concerned about the ongoing losses and pain of the war, its impact on the psyche of the Jewish people, the implications for the future of peace, I also see glimmers of light. I see people coming together, putting their imagination and tenacity to work to bring support to people in Israel and boost morale both there and here in the diaspora. I see countries around the world showing their support for Israel. I see people holding each other and communities working to put aside differences and take united action.
So this week, as we read about the rainbow and consider its true meaning for the Torah and for us, I'm choosing to see it as a symbol of hope - hope that things can get better and that we can be the ones to make that happen.
There's a midrash about the creation of the world (Kohelet Rabbah 3:11) that argues that the world, the world of the book of Genesis, our world, was not God's first draft, but rather, that the Holy Blessed One kept trying to get it right, creating world after world and destroying them, until God made enough tweaks and changes to be satisfied, leaving this world in place.
This week, it feels like we're caught in that cycle, only backwards. It seems as though the world is coming down around us, we see destruction at every turn, but we haven't yet figured out how to build our world again - and it's not clear when we will.
Truly, these past five days have been earth-shattering for Israel and for us as a Jewish community. Like so many of us, I have spent sleepless hours worried about my friends and loved ones living in Israel, watching in horror as people, some of them our very same friends and loved ones, mourn the unthinkable murder of a family member or neighbor, or search desperately for someone kidnapped by Hamas. We have held each other as we cried, as there is so much to cry about.
We have had our intergenerational trauma as a Jewish people reignited as many in the world spout moral equivalencies or are simply silent. We can't help but worry for our own safety as well, even as our eyes and hearts are across the world. We fear for the future of Israel, and for the future of peace, for the ability of all those who live in the land to be able to live lives of safety and calm.
Worlds destroyed. How do we rebuild?
I don't have a clear vision of how to answer that question, but I do know this: I was tremendously heartened to participate in the Baltimore community gathering Tuesday night held at Beth Tfiloh. More specifically -
There were just so many people there, people representing a broad swath of ages and affiliations. We sat together, sang together, prayed together, and listened together. That kind of united solidarity is rare in any Jewish community and it gives me hope that if we can stand together, then we can withstand this together.
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit Halachmi of Har Sinai Oheb Shalom spoke powerfully of her own experience as an Israeli citizen, of her anger, her grief, her personal losses, and her passionate wish for the children of Sarah AND the children of Hagar to find peace and security. She held multiple truths in tension and her words resonated deeply. She spoke with moral clarity about the evil of the Hamas attack and also with an emerging hope that there can be a way forward.
All of the community leaders who shared their own sentiments emphasized the need for us to be together with our communities and encouraged everyone present to come to shul this Shabbat, to connect in person with their community. Being with our community is a salve for our wounds. Seeing a number of folks from Chevrei during and after the event both lifted me up and strengthened my sense of belonging, as I hope it did for many of you.
So please, come to shul this Shabbat. Let's be together and hold each other up. Even though the world is still laying in pieces at our feet, and may continue to for some time, we can already begin to rebuild.
Yesterday, I pulled in at home to find several neighbors out on the street. "Sorry to break the bad news," one said. "We have no water." It turns out that work going on in the neighborhood nicked a water main and they had to shut off the water to the whole street.
After a quick trip to the Giant for gallons of water and an impromptu take-out order for dinner, the kids and I were pretty much set for the evening. It was less comfortable than usual - the kids were a little schmutzy from the day and I was *really* looking forward to a hot shower, but we survived just fine. Hopefully, by the time you read this, our water will be turned back on.
But it didn't escape my attention that we're in the middle of Sukkot, the holiday that reminds us of our reliance on water for sustenance and survival. We move out into our Sukkot, which are notably not waterproof, as a reminder to ourselves and to God that we rely on water coming at the right time to help provide us with what we need. We want it to stay dry in the sukkah, but even more, we want it to be wet and rainy shortly after the holiday. We will switch over to our prayers for rain, with great fanfare, on Shemini Atzeret, which coincides with this coming Shabbat.
Walking in the shoes of our ancient ancestors, as we do this week, we can perhaps relate to the vulnerability they must have felt, wondering if the coming rainy season would provide enough for the next season's crops to grow. Their concerns were intense and real - existential worries.
At the same time, Sukkot is זמן שמחתנו, z'man simḥateinu, the time of our joy. The Mishnah describes Simḥat Beit HaShoeivah, the party accompanying the water libation during Sukkot as it was observed in Temple times, as the pinnacle of all celebrations (Sukkah 5:1). As Sukkot draws to a close, we keep the celebration going with Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah (which is basically Shemini Atzeret 2.0). I'm not sure we quite rival Simḥat Beit HaShoeivah in our celebrations, but we certainly accompany the holiday with a good deal of singing and dancing. Simḥat Torah is fun!
So - joy aplenty. And joy particularly at a time of fragility and existential angst. What's the connection? Why celebrate when we might otherwise be worried? I think there are a number of possible answers here - and I'm happy to hear more from you beyond the two that I'll share.
First, this is a time of year when, if we look ahead, we see uncertainty, but if we look back, we see the bounty that we have. Part of our joy comes from the feeling of gratitude for having the means to make it through this season. Happy with what we already have, with what is sustaining us right now, we express that through joy.
Second, we focus on our joy to set a kavanah, an intention, for what we hope is to come. If we behave and feel as though we already have enough, then perhaps God will see our joy and be moved to make sure that it is truly warranted.
I'm looking forward to celebrating with us over Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah - please bring your joy and join us!
Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ!
Rabbi Marci Jacobs