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Drash on Behar 2024

Rabbi Nicole Roberts

North Shore Temple Emanuel

This year, we read the words of parashat Behar on the Shabbat just before the 33rdday of the Omer period between Pesach and Shavuot.  Except for the 33rd day, which falls this Sunday, the Omer is known as a mournful stretch in the Jewish calendar when celebrations are muted, as a deadly plague is said to have spread among the disciples of the great Rabbi Akiva.  We are commanded to count these days of the Omer, so each night, after reciting a b’racha, we announce: “Today is the Nth day of the Omer,” then tally up how many weeks and days that constitutes.  This year, I have added another count and tally: how many days since the attacks of October 7th, and how many shabbatot our hostages have spent apart from their families.

This Lag BaOmer will mark not only 33 days of the Omer period, but 33 shabbatot that the hostages have spent in Gaza.  These days of the Omer are mournful as ever.
With this sobering count in mind, the words of Parashat Behar resonate differently this year.  About the Jubilee year, in which all who are held as slaves are to be released, Behar teaches: “You shall count seven shabbatot of years.”  Shabbatot of years?  Tradition has established that the word “shabbat” can also mean “week.”  So, in other words: “You shall count seven weeks of years” (7×7).  That is, after every 49 years comes the “Jubilee” 50thyear, in which every person enslaved returns to their family and to their own land.  Usually, it’s the math that does my head in, when reading this passage.  This year, it’s the thought of how interminable each day must feel to our hostages and their families.

For a person held captive, awaiting freedom, every Shabbat must feel like a week, every week like a year, and every seven years like almost fifty.  For their families awaiting their return, tortured by thoughts of what their missing loved ones are enduring, every hour must feel like an eternity.  We glean this from the testimony of hostages who were returned after 50 or more days in the Gaza tunnels (one child hostage released after 50 days thought she had been held for a year)[i], and of the family members who describe what it’s like to await those who have yet to return.

Among those families are Rachel Goldberg and John Polin, parents of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was taken hostage from the Nova music festival on October 7th.  Every day, Rachel and John change the number on a small piece of tape they each affix to their shirts, counting the days that Hersh has been in captivity.  I imagine them waking up, if they’ve slept at all, forcing themselves out of bed, taking a pen to the roll of tape, inscribing the new number in disbelief, then tearing the strip off the roll—a “k’riah” for the living—before affixing it to their shirts.  Another day.  Or was it a week, or a year, or a week of years?

Parashat Behar says that when the Jubilee year finally arrives, the shofar will be sounded, but it will be a broken blast—“t’ruah”.  Will our hostages return whole?  Can the day of celebration erase the trauma that they and their families have lived through?  And what about those who are only returned in body, whose soul has returned to God after dying at the hands of the captors?  A broken t’ruah, indeed.
The prophet Jeremiah is the author of Behar’s haftarah.  He tells of the redemption of land, which also occurs in the Jubilee year.  But just one chapter earlier, the same prophet speaks of human beings who need redemption.  He voices the pain of the captive’s mother:

“A cry is heard on high,
wailing, bitter weeping—
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refuses to be comforted
for her children, who are gone” (Jer. 31:15).

But the prophecy of Jeremiah does not end with Rachel’s weeping, nor does the promise of Parashat Behar.  To the enslaved, Behar proclaims that each person shall return to their own land and each to their family.  To their families and the rest of us, Jeremiah offers this assurance: “They shall return from the enemy’s land, and there is hope for your future, declares God.  Your children shall return to their country” (Jer. 31:16-17).

And what of that broken blast of the shofar?  Jeremiah paints a different picture: “I will…gather them from the ends of the earth—the blind and the lame among them, those with child, and those in labor…they shall return here.  They shall come with weeping, and with compassion will I guide them.  I will lead them to streams of water, by a level road where they will not stumble… For God will ransom Jacob… They shall never languish again.  Then shall maidens dance in joy, young men and old alike.  I will turn their mourning to joy, comfort them and cheer them in their grief” (Jer. 31:8-13).  In Jeremiah’s vision, brokenness will heal upon return, with God’s care.

May these visions come to fruition, bim’heirah v’yameinu—speedily and in our day, for time is going by, as days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into years.  Meanwhile, we continue our mournful count—that they may know they do not count alone.


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