Erica Brown

Hersh’s letter

To bring the hostages home, we are storming the heavens by writing a new Torah scroll together - a community of words that bring redemption
Rachel Goldberg-Polin and Jon Polin, parents of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, then 201 days since October 7 (now Day 279), from a video statement pleading for a hostage deal and urging Hersh to stay strong and survive, April 24, 2024. (Courtesy, via The Times of Israel)
Rachel Goldberg-Polin and Jon Polin, parents of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, then 201 days since October 7 (now Day 279), from a video statement pleading for a hostage deal and urging Hersh to stay strong and survive, April 24, 2024. (Courtesy, via The Times of Israel)

“We are in such a dark chapter,” Rachel Goldberg-Polin wrote to me recently. “There are no words in any languages to articulate what we feel and endure each day.”

Rachel and Jon, we will never understand what you are experiencing. Every hostage family endures pain that is punishing and distinctive. There are limits of language. You don’t have to be Wittgenstein to know that. If you’ve ever been in love, it’s hard to find the language. Words are always inadequate to the feeling mystics describe of their ineffable peak spiritual experiences. And then there’s grief and suffering. It has a lexicon all its own. Its main feature is profound silence.

But sometimes pain becomes a cry, and a cry turns into a word, and the word turns into a pathway to redemption. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote in “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” that language liberates us: “When a people leaves a mute world and enters a world of sound, speech and song, it becomes a redeemed world, a free people…a mute world is identical with bondage; a speech-endowed life is a free life.”

In the midst of this darkness is a point of light, a letter. Recently, Jon said, “Let’s write a Torah!” Rachel wrote that this is one of a number of new initiatives “to storm the gates of heaven,” in the merit that Hersh and all the hostages be returned immediately. She hopes to engage those, “both far and wide, to help fulfill this rare mitzvah.”

The idea precipitated a ripple of excitement: “We are hopeful that by doing everything in all realms we can think of, we will merit the blessing of joyous news…in the blink of an eye.” Jon and Rachel want Jews from all over the world to have their own letters in this Torah so that Hersh and every other hostage is carried by this global, spiritual love.

Because the Torah is the map of Jewish meaning, the writing of a new Torah can be a source of great consolation. This past January, I participated in a Torah dedication in Ofakim to honor brothers Roi Chaim and Ariel Rafael Guri, who were killed on October 7th, defending their hometown from terrorists. Unable to bring them back, Shai Graucher, a one-man legend of kindness, asked Roi and Ariel’s parents if he could do anything in the world to bring a drop of solace. Mrs. Guri asked for one thing only: a Torah dedicated to their memory to be housed and read in their yeshiva. It seemed as if the entire town came out that night. The Torah was danced to the exact spot where each young man was killed and then marched to their yeshiva, fulfilling the psalmist’s words, “we rally and gather strength” (Ps. 20:9).

That night, I learned that our relationship to the Torah is not only about its contents but also about its casing. We love the words and live by them. We also revere the scroll that holds all those words. We dress the Torah. We remove the scroll from the ark with tender love and song and return it the same way. Those who read it cannot touch the parchment directly. Those who bless it take the tallit’s fringes to kiss its letters. Before my children knew anything that was in the Torah, they were taken to the ark to welcome the Torah and bid it farewell when the public reading of it was finished. They kissed the crushed velvet of its covers and understood, without yet knowing why, its centrality in our family’s life.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion, explains that we can see our lives through two prisms: coins or letters. Once a coin is spent it is gone forever. But letters, to have meaning, join each other in the creation of words that ultimately become the stories of our lives and continue to live on because they are shared. With that sharing, the letters ascend to the heights and are also handed down to our descendants. “Every Jew,” he writes, “is a letter. Each Jewish family is a word, every community a sentence, and the Jewish people at any one time are a paragraph.”

The Torah is our sacred text of eternity and redemption. “Still,” Rachel writes, “even during the most arduous and challenging times, the blueprint of our life is Torah. It anchors us to the world.” We have less than a week left to contribute our letter in this scroll and join with Hersh’s letter and the letters for every living hostage and in memory of those who are no longer with us to form a community of words that bring redemption. Please join me.

May each of those letters form words, and the words form sentences that become the ongoing story of our people, redeemed, safe, and free.

For the Jgive campaign for the dedication of a new Torah scroll in the merit of bringing home all of our beloved hostages, please see here.

For the details of the complete Week of Goodness campaign, beginning July 14, 2024, please see here.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).
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