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11/02/2023 09:13:17 AM


Rabbi Deana Sussman Berezin


It’s been nearly 3 weeks since we woke up on Shabbat morning to news of the unconscionable atrocities and brutalities that Hamas terrorists perpetrated upon our people on Shabbat Simchat Torah. Three weeks of anger and sadness and tears and loneliness as so many of us lay awake night after night waiting for news, and not knowing what to do or where to turn. 

Over these past three weeks, I have found myself struggling with what to say, what to do, and how to react and respond in ways that honor where I find myself emotionally and spiritually in this moment.  And I imagine that might be true for you, too. 

I am someone who has spoken out strongly against the increasing religious extremism in the Israeli government that I believe undermines what Israel can and should be, and I have been unequivocal in my support of a two-state solution to allow for what I believe both Jews and Palestinians – and really all human beings, want  -- which is to live a life free from terror and to raise their children and families without fearing for their lives. 

And that is a reality that I still pray for and despite this moment, believe we can still achieve. And yet, we cannot do it while there is a terrorist regime at the realm whose stated mission it is that Israel and the Jewish people must be wiped from the earth. 

And I’m afraid. I’m afraid for the future of the State of Israel. I’m afraid for what this means for the Jewish people. I’m afraid the death toll will continue to rise on both sides – that hundreds more Israeli and Palestinian lives will be lost. I’m afraid for what this means for us here, in America, as both antisemitism and Islamophobia continue to rise. 

I’m afraid for the 224 hostages that remain Hamas’ captives. I’m afraid for them and for their families, who will continue to live this nightmare of uncertainty, not knowing what will become of their loved ones, and uncertain if they will get to see them again. And I’m afraid that the longer this goes on, the more that our attention will turn elsewhere, and we will forget about these innocent captives – that we’ll forget about the babies taken from their mothers’ arms, the sweet toddlers who remind me too much of my own children, the disabled veterans and the Holocaust survivors, the teenagers and young adults who were at the music festival, the entire families driven from their homes, who now find themselves at the mercy of terrorists. 

So tonight, on this Shabbat, I want to take a few minutes to teach about the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, the mitzvah of redeeming the captives. 

This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, contains within it some of the most well known and widely taught pieces of Torah. God tells Abraham, Lech L'cha, go forth to the land that I will show you – go forth into the unknown with your courage and your faith to guide you. And Abraham does. 

We know this Abraham – the one who sets forth on this journey. We know Abraham the first monotheist. We know Abraham who receives a promise and a blessing from God. We know the Abraham whose faith is tested as he is commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac. And we know the Abraham who argues with God and fights for the lives of the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah. 

But we aren’t as familiar with Abraham the warrior; Abraham the hero. But that too is in this week’s Torah portion. Here, we read as Abraham learns that his nephew, Lot, has been taken prisoner by soldiers who attacked Sodom. As soon as Abraham hears this, he doesn’t hesitate; he musters all of his household, some 318 people, and went in pursuit of his nephew. That night, Abraham and his troops defeated Lot’s captors in battle and rescued Lot along with the women and the others being held captive. 

The Talmud teaches that the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, redeeming the captives, is known as a mitzvah rabbah, a great commandment. And it’s a mitzvah that is so great and so important that God actually self-describes as a redeemer of captives in the first lines of the 10 Commandments. “I am Adonai your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” 

Rabbeinu Bahya, a medieval commentator, teaches that “God did not describe [Godself] as the One ‘who created heaven and earth’ because God wanted to mention the commandment to redeem the captives – 600,000 of them in this case – which is greater than the mighty wonder of Creation.”  

Rambam, or Maimonides, teaches that “the ransoming of captives has precedence over the feeding and clothing of the poor. Indeed there is no greater commandment than the ransoming of captives, for not only is the captive included in the category of the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked, but his (or her) very life is in danger.”  

Another of our sacred texts, the Shulchan Aruch, impresses upon us not only the need to do this mitzvah rabbah, this great mitzvah, but that it needs to be done with all possible haste, for “Every moment one puts off redeeming captives, where it is possible to do so sooner, is like shedding blood.” 

This week marks 3 weeks since 224 captives; 224 of our brothers and sisters and members of K’lal Yisrael, members of the Jewish people, were taken hostage. 3 weeks of uncertainty and terror and fear. 3 weeks of living a nightmare, uncertain of when or if they will wake up from it and return home. We are all members of the Jewish community, all one inter-connected family. These are our parents, our children, our loved ones. We are all called upon to redeem them.

So, I beg of you – don’t look away. Look at the faces on the posters, listen to their stories. Don’t look away from 3rd grade Ella and 10th grade Dafna Elyakim, sisters who love TikTok and love to laugh. Don’t look away from 84 year old Ditza Heiman, who was abducted from her home. Don’t look away from Amit, who celebrated his 16th birthday in captivity instead of with his family. Don’t look away from these beautiful faces, who have family and friends and dear ones worried for them, whose fate is uncertain, at the mercy of Hamas terrorists. 

I’m not naive, and I know this is far from simple. Each and every one of the 224 hostages in Gaza has a story and a family and people who care about them. Each and every life is precious and is, to their loved ones, an entire world. And each and every one of them is in mortal danger. I do not know how the Israeli government will make these impossible decisions. I don’t know how or even if they will have the ability to redeem these hostages. We are in dark and unprecedented times, without easy answers or clear paths forward. 

But just as our ancestor Abraham practiced the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, freeing the captive, we are called upon to do the same. We cannot go into Gaza and redeem them from the hands of terrorists ourselves, but can make the promise to them, to their families, and to each other, that we will not turn away; we will not forget. 

So on this Shabbat, I invite you to join me in  praying for the welfare and return of the captives:

May the One who blessed our ancestors, Avraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rivkah, Ya’akov, Leah and Rachel bless the captured and the many kidnapped citizens - men, women and young children, held in painful captivity in Gaza, along with all who are in captivity and distress. 

May it be Your will Adonai Tzeva’ot, God of Hosts, to rescue and redeem these souls and return them swiftly to their families on the land of Yisrael.

As it is written “Thus said GOD: A cry is heard in Ramah —Wailing, bitter weeping—Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone. Thus said GOD: Restrain your voice from weeping, Your eyes from shedding tears; For there is a reward for your labor—declares GOD: They shall return from the enemy’s land.” (Jeremiah 31:15-16) 

And together we say, Amen. 


Watch the entirety of Friday’s service here.

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon.

Mon, June 17 2024 11 Sivan 5784