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Rachel Sharansky Danziger

‘Bye, from Inbal. ❤️’

It was eulogies for a fallen soldier that made me appreciate how the slow and steady strength that is love joins the louder, patriotic strength to keep us going (Emor)
Family and friends of Captain Roy Beit Yaakov attend his funeral at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on May 16, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“Bye, from Inbal,” the young man in uniform reads from the paper, before turning it around for all to see. “And it was important for her to add a heart.”

The 7-year-old girl who wrote the words and drew the heart is ensconced in the young man’s embrace. She has lost her older brother, Roy Beit Yaakov, the night before. The young man holding her is her eldest brother. Roy was his next in age, the playmate of his childhood. Their other siblings stand with them, each eulogizing Roy in turn.

I didn’t know Roy, nor do I know these grieving children. But his grandparents are dear to me. His uncle, aunt, and cousins are cherished friends from our community. I look at them, at the pain on their faces, and it’s too big to grasp, too big to contain, too big to put into words. It hurts to think that following one fatal and tragic case of “friendly” fire there are now five such grieving families, all either burying their sons at the same time (on Thursday) or, in the case of lone soldier Sgt. Ilan Cohen, preparing to bury him when his family arrives from Argentina (on Friday).

But I listen to the children through the pain, through the numbness. I listen as they each speak of their brother’s exactitude and drive, of his talents and his quiet strength. I listen as they speak of the need to stand strong, of their faith in the future of the people of Israel.

“We can’t let our enemies see us sad. We must stand strong now” one of the brothers says, and they are strong: a strong family, united in their conviction that Israel is fighting a just and necessary war, united in their dedication to the values that their brother fought and died for less than 24 hours earlier.

But it’s not their strength that strikes me — it’s their gentleness with one another. Mired as they are in grief, the siblings are all helping one another, touching one another, holding hands. The eldest son in particular embraces and guides each of his younger brothers and sisters in turn, laying a soft hand on a brother’s shoulder here, lifting a young sister up there. His voice, when he asks Inbal if she wants to read any of her eulogy for herself, is soft and loving. When their parents hug them afterwards, their arms are spread around their children with the same protective love.

This, too, is strength, I think as I listen to him.

Yes, this too is strength.

* * *

Strength is something we desperately need right now.

Like our forebears before us, and following a law first stated in this week’s weekly Torah portion (Emor), I count the Omer in this period of the Jewish year, noting where we stand in the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. But on this year, on this long, difficult year, other counts lurk in the shadows.

“Today is the four-and-20th day of the Omer, which are three weeks and three days in the Omer,” I said last night, after coming home from Roy’s funeral. But I thought of the fact that it was the 223d day of the war, and that this was the funeral of one of five fallen soldiers who died in one incident, and that the count of the people we lost since Simchat Torah is climbing up and up and up.

The more time passes since Simchat Torah, the more people we lose, the harder it is to keep on going. Sure, certain routines reasserted themselves with time; we are no longer as shell shocked as we were in the early months of the war, nor as unprepared to handle its grim practicalities. The meal trains for grieving families are a well-oiled machine by now. The flags we carry to the streets for funerals are all bought and accounted for.

But without an end in sight, it is easy to give in to despair.

I stood as I counted the Omer last night, and felt shattered and empty. All the strong words I heard and shared earlier this week, as we marked Yom HaZikaron and mourned our fallen soldiers, felt small and hopelessly brittle on my tongue. What are they, what can they offer, when faced with the reality of the open grave?

* * *

When we count the Omer, we note each day once. But in truth, each day marks a stop in two separate, yet parallel, journeys.

We count the days from the exodus to Sinai, from the Egyptian slavery all the way to freedom and the covenant. This is a majestic, trumpet-worthy count, one that notes how a nation can swell victoriously out of oppression and reach for self-determination and identity.

But we also count the days from the holiday of spring to the holiday of harvest, the days when the grain in the field ripens from soft greenery into golden plenty. This is a softer count, a gentler one; it does not invite us to fight for our freedom, nor does it inspire us to cast fear aside and strive for our own redemption. It teaches us, instead, to wait, to observe, to watch over the fields as nature goes about its patterns, unguided by our hands.

If the first count rings like a marching tune, the second is a quiet melody. When I say, “Today is the four-and-20th day of the Omer, which makes three weeks and three days in the Omer,” both tunes vie for a place within the words.

And on painful days like yesterday, on days of loss and sorrow, I reach to both tunes and ask them for the gift of strength.

* * *

Roy’s family eulogized him with language that rang with the music of the first count — the count that notes the progress of redemption. As one of his brothers said, our story and our fight to be a free nation of “ovdei Hashem” (worshipers of God) started with the Exodus and never ended. The war we are fighting right now is merely a step in this long and winding journey. And it is this scope, this breathtaking awareness of history, that ran like a thread of steel through all the eulogies.

Time and again, Roy’s loved ones stated that we aren’t fighting for the present moment but for our future as a people. Time and again, they stated their conviction that this war is just and necessary, that we must fight — and win.

And somehow, this conviction pushed away some of my despair, my fear, my deep exhaustion. In remembering what this is all about, I found the strength to raise my eyes above the pain of the present moment, and focus on everything we’re fighting for — all that’s ahead.

But when Roy’s older brother hugged his youngest sister, it was the second journey we mark as we count the Omer, the gentle, patient journey of the farmer, that I saw in every gesture. It was the patient attentiveness of a farmer or a parent being there for their charges without imposing their will upon them. It was the quiet presence that asks, “Would you like to read out the ending yourself” without demanding anything. It was the loving care that nurtures without controlling. And it was beautiful, and a strength no less real, no less important, than this grieving family’s steely resolve.

Every day is hard now. Every day we wake up into uncertainty, go about our day in uncertainty, and go to sleep unknowing what will happen in the morning. With so much of the future out of our control, it is easy to slip into despondency, even despair.

But as the agricultural aspects of Sefirat HaOmer and the loving embraces of Roy Beit Yaakov’s family remind me, we already know how to keep on going, keep on hoping, even when all we can do is watch reality unfold outside of our control and knowledge. Just as every farmer knows how to watch and hope from the sidelines, so do all of us who know what it is to love. For what is love, especially a parent’s love, but wanting our loved ones to exist and grow in all their unique and individual glory? What is it but hoping and praying for their happiness and success even as we must step back and allow them to strive for them all on their own?

Tonight, we will count the 25th day of the Omer, and tomorrow night, the 26th day, and time will go on and the fields will go on ripening. And with every day, I will go on loving my people. In this love, I will find the strength to go on praying and hoping for them — for us — even when the future isn’t clear to me, nor in my hands to shape.

* * *

“I want to add something,” Roy’s father, Avidan, said at the end of his eulogy. “Something the social worker told the kids right before the funeral, something that might seem like a technical comment, but really is a very meaningful observation. He said, ‘The casket — we bury. But we don’t bury the flag.’ And there it is,” he said, pointing to the flag beside him. “Still flapping in the wind.”

I looked at the flag, waving proud above the grave — above history — above the long and winding road our people has been striving on for millennia, forever fighting for a future still ahead. And I looked as Roy’s family, at the loving way they held each other up.

May Roy Beit Yaakov’s memory be a blessing for the world he left behind him.

And may we find the strength to keep on going, whether in the goals we strive for, or in the quieter reserves that are our deepest loves.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and educator who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, history, and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and other online venues, and explores storytelling in the Hebrew bible as a teacher in Maayan, Torah in Motion, and Matan.
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