As we were on our way to shul last Friday evening we heard the breaking news that in Israel three teenage boys had been kidnapped on their way home from school. Quickly jotting down their Hebrew names we went into Shabbat praying that when we made havdalah 24 hours later we would hear of their safe return home.
But 7 days later Naftali, Gilad and Eyal have not yet been found. 7 days of anguish, fear, army operations….and 7 days of worldwide prayer, hope and national unity.
The social media campaign of #bring back our boys is testimony to the coming together of people across continents and cultures to show solidarity and help raise awareness. Yet for me the most powerful show of national Jewish unity has been the recital of the prayer ‘acheynu’ to the same tune all around the world. It has being sung in the Knesset with politicians from the left and right joining together. It has been sung at official prayer services here in London, and other big cities, and it has been sung at unofficial small gatherings in small outlying towns. It has been sung in the boys’ yeshiva, and it has been sung at our children’s schools in the diaspora.
The prayer ‘acheynu’ translates as:
Our brothers and sisters,
the whole house of Israel,
those who are in distress and captivity,
Those who are out at sea,
Those who are on dry land,
May God have mercy on them
And take them out from distress to salvation,
From darkness to light,
From oppression to redemption,
Now and speedily, and in the very near future.
The name of God chosen here in this prayer is ‘HaMakom’ : The Omnipresent, referring to our belief at God is everywhere and unlimited in space or time. We pray that the Omnipresent God protect the boys, reveal to us where they are now and bring them home unharmed.
In this week’s parsha, korach, we see a nation in turmoil. Last week, following the sending of spies, their imminent journey into Israel came crashing down. They now face a changed destiny, a life that would be lived out as nomads in the desert instead of an autonomous nation state.
How will they respond? Will they be remorseful, appear as penitents and readjust well? Or will disappointment ferment into anger and rebellion?
Unfortunately it is the latter that comes to pass. Ramban says: ” The spirit of the nation was therefore bitter, and they said to themselves that following Moshe’s words would only lead them into trouble. Hence Korach found room to take issue with [Moshe's] actions, and thought that the nation would heed him.” Thus he is suggesting a causal psychological relationship between the sin of the spies and Korach’s rebellion.
We have witnessed the antithesis of this in the past few days: grief channeled into prayer, faith and kindness. May God see the way Am Yisrael have linked together as true brethren – ‘acheynu’ – and send the boys home safe.