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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat VaYishlach - For the Hostages

This week, like many of you I am sure, I have been glued to the screen and to social media during the hours and minutes leading up to release and return of the hostages to Israeli territory. I have held my breath, unable to sit still until I know they are in Israeli hands. It is hard to describe the joy I have felt seeing the photos and videos of children returned to their families, of loved ones returned to their communities. On Hebrew social media this week a new genre of posts have become popular all with similar messages: “I never thought I would be moved to tears by the arrival of beloved people whom I have never met.”

I truly believe that the Torah always arrives on time. So it is no surprise that there is deep wisdom in the Parasha this week regarding the hostages and this terrible saga Israel has faced over the last seven weeks and, seemingly, will face for the near future.

In this week’s portion, Parashat VaYishlach, Jacob comes full circle, returning home to be reunited with his twin brother, Esau. Jacob returns a much different person that he departed. He is a man, experienced in the world, has proven his willingness to work for what is important to him rather than simply take it. Even so, he remembers well that the last time he met his brother, Esau threatened to kill him. While he is determined to return home, Jacob does so with great trepidation.

Jacob sends a messenger ahead to Esau with a message with his intentions to return in the hopes that he will receive some indication that he will be greeted in peace. But in return his messengers bring him an ominous report, that Esau will come to greet him together with 400 men. Jacob is understandably shaken. He first separates his camp into two, making sure that at least half of his family will be safe. He then offers a prayer to God for protection.

One line from that blessing is beautiful, but presents a conundrum in Hebrew:

Hatzileni na miyad achi miyad esav ki yareh anochi oto pen-yavo v’hikani em al banot.

Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, v’hikani em al banot.

The last four words v’hikani em al banot, perplexed the rabbis. Most rabbis understood it to mean that “he may come and strike me down and strike down the mothers and the children.” But Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, who lived and worked in Italy of the 16th century, read the verse differently. He wrote that the meaning is “literally, ‘he will strike me, mother with sons’ — i.e. he would deal Jacob a devastating blow by killing his family, even if he himself escaped.” Jacob being harmed is not the only threat. The other real threat is that his family would be harmed, which would be a devastating blow.

As I read Sforno, I could not help but think about the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, all the family members who miraculously avoided physical harm to themselves, only to receive another catastrophic blow, learning of one of their loved ones who was murdered or fell into Hamas captivity. It made me think of all the mothers whose babies were torn away from them for nearly two months. Some of their statements will stay with me for a long time: one mother pleading “take me to Gaza” since she had nothing left, another saying that she is “ashes and dust” without her children.

While I am not related to any of those held in captivity, the captivity of Jewish children hits home in a particularly personal way for Jews all over the world. To illustrate this point, as my family and I sat around waiting to hear news of the released hostages, particularly for the name Avigail Idan to be announced, my sister shared her thoughts in that moment, thoughts I will not soon forget. She said, “if I had a daughter, she would look like Avigail.”

There is something particularly callous and cruel in the abduction of women and children. It escapes my understanding how someone could carry out this act. I recognize that this comes from my own naivete, from a very safe, comfortable upbringing in the American suburbs. Yet, even though I grew up far from war, and I am far from a warrior, there are parts of this struggle that are imaginable: I understand the need to fight and, sometimes, to kill; I understand the necessity of taking human life even if it goes against my own personal moral code. But I cannot, simply cannot, understand the capture, kidnap, and holding of children as a weapon of war.

What is even more unfathomable to me is the dizzying number of people ignoring or excusing the brutality and immorality of this action. So many of the same people who claim to be arbiters of morality and humanity, from the halls of universities, to elected office, to Hollywood and popular culture are stunningly, if not unsurprisingly, silent when it comes to the matter of hostages, including the children. I find myself so puzzled by the marches demanding a ceasefire, seemingly to protect the lives of innocents, that include no mention at all of the hostages, also innocents in this ongoing conflict. What kind of skewed morality is this? Without condemnations of these acts, I have to ask myself: are these people ok with murder? Rape? Kidnap and torture of women and children?

What sort of moral lesson does this sort of apologetics teach? Or, as Rabbi Adir Yolkut wrote this week, “when a bully violently and abhorrently bullies, we apologize for its egregious actions because it was mistreated?”

For so many in this conflict the answer is, sadly, yes. So many have lost their ability to hold more than one truth in their minds at once. This is not a new trend, yet it has been pushed into overdrive since October 7th. And, horrifyingly to me and my Jewish sisters and brothers, one way in which it has become manifest is that anything done in the name of “liberating Palestine” is legitimate, no matter the nature of those acts.

But, it can be done. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews (myself included) and countless others have shown over the past two months that you can stand and advocate for Palestinian statehood and the actualization of justice for two peoples with legitimate claims and demands for a homeland in the same, small piece of land while also condemning the horrific Hamas acts of violence, torture and


While I am convinced there are more people who belong to the second category, who see complexity and can carry the weight of seeing the world not in a binary, I simultaneously fear that the first category is growing. There are so many contributing factors to this that I do not have the space to expand on them here, but I do know that in order to make sure our world and our societies remain open to complexity, those who currently know how to do so need to speak up. Voices of moderation are so often drowned out by the trumpet cries of modern outlets of expression, to the detriment of all of us.

We must be like Jacob. We must see the world as it is, simultaneously full of hope and threat. For Jacob it was a brother who may come to harm or to embrace him. For us it is knowing that the big tent includes the majority of this conflict with moral clarity to denounce heinous acts and also the wisdom to see its complexities, or an extremism that has created a moral binary that is ready to forgive horrific actions against, in this case, Jews.

So, friends, I want to bless you on this Shabbat to be like Jacob - surrounded by family, abundance, influence, and wisdom. And may the remaining hostages be brought swiftly back to the loving embrace of their families.

Shabbat Shalom!

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