Yonatan Cohen

Like Dreamers

Wheat being sowed at Kibbutz Beeri during the weeklong ceasefire.

As the first set of images of hostages released from Hamas’ captivity came across my screen, I felt like a dreamer, and this verse came to mind:  “A song of ascents. When the Lord returns the returnees to Zion, we shall be like dreamers” – שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת בְּשׁוּב יְקֹוָק אֶת שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן הָיִינוּ כְּחֹלְמִים (Psalm 126:1). Each time, I wouldn’t believe my eyes until the images showed the captives on the Israeli side of the border, in Israeli hands, on the way to the hospital, taking the first steps on their way home.

My dear friend, Mor Moravia, a mother who survived the attack on Kfar Aza along with her husband and two children, sent me photos of her young daughters watching TV together with other members of the kibbutz, as photos were shown of Kfar Aza hostages, mostly children, getting released from captivity.   Mor also sent me a video of her fellow kibbutz members joyfully removing photos of those freed hostages from the makeshift social hall used by Kfar Aza evacuees at Kibbutz Shaefayim, their temporary place of residence.   The photos were previously hung by a string from the ceiling.  As they removed the photos of the returnees,  for a moment, the kibbutz members appeared like farmers, picking fruit from a tree.  They sang boisterously, “Od avinu chai, am Yisrael chai” – “Our father is yet alive, the people of Israel lives.”  Indeed, “Those who sow with tears will reap with song” – הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ (Psalm 126:5).

According to Midrash Tehilim (126:8), a rabbinic commentary on the Book of Psalms, Yaakov Avinu, Jacob, our forefather, sang this very psalm as he made his way back home from the house of Lavan.  In the midrash, the rabbis match different parts of the psalm with Jacob’s exile and eventual return to the land of his forefathers.

“Those who sow with tears” (Psalm 126:5) – This part of the verse refers to Jacob (זה יעקב) who sowed the blessings from his father with tears.

“Will reap with song” (ibid.) – This refers to the blessing Jacob received, mainly, that the Lord will give him “of the dew of the heavens and of the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine” (Genesis 27:28).

“He will go along weeping” – This could refer to the manifold times Jacob wept on his journey.  More specifically, Jacob wept upon meeting Rachel for the first time, as it is written, “And [Jacob] lifted his voice and wept” – וישא את קולו ויבך (Genesis 29:11).

“He will come back with song, carrying his sheaves” – בֹּא יָבוֹא בְרִנָּה נֹשֵׂא אֲלֻמֹּתָיו (Psalm 126:6) – The rabbis take creative license in interpreting this part of the Psalm.  The word for sheaves in Hebrew is “alumot,” which in Hebrew is also a similar sounding word for young men “alamim” (though spelled with the letter ayin and not alef) and young women “alamot” (also with an ayin and not an alef).  According to this reading, Jacob returned home with his children, who were now young men and women. In the words of the midrash – [אתא] טעין עולמין ועולמיתא – he came bearing his sons and daughters.

I thought of this midrash as I celebrated the release of children, mothers, and elderly women: our contemporary “alumot,” sheaves returning to their native land.

I also thought of this midrash, as I grieved over the “alamot” and “alamim,” the young women and young men who are still being held in captivity.  As a father, I also cried for Ofer Kalderon, David Konio, Yair Yaakov, and Ohad Yahalomi, fathers who remain in Hamas captivity, whose children were thankfully released.  In my prayers, I turned to our Father in Heaven, pleading their cause, asking desperately for their release.

During the brief one-week ceasefire, another aspect of the Psalm was given concrete expression.  Farmers from kibbutzim near the Israel-Gaza border, were given permission to return to their fields to sow and reap, including a group of ten members of Kibbutz Beeri.

Tragically, 90 members of Kibbutz Beeri were viciously murdered by Hamas on Oct. 7 and ten members of the kibbutz are still in captivity.  And yet, despite these major hardships and challenges, during the ceasefire, 2000 pounds of avocados were picked from the kibbutz’s trees and 3000 acres were sown with wheat. It’s still worth noting that this figure is significantly lower than the usual 5000 acres typically used for this purpose.

Moti Barak, the agricultural director of Beeri, shared these words, to mark this significant occasion: “We are embarking on this journey, which is truly exciting, and certainly not to be taken for granted. […] We decided to […] take advantage of the days of respite before the fighting resumed. We will not give up and we will continue to work as much as possible. We will take advantage of every quiet day for the purpose of working the soil.”

Aviyada Bacher, Beeri’s manager of field crops, is in rehabilitation in Tel Hashomer hospital after his leg was amputated and his arm was shot.  Aviyada’s wife Dana and his 15-year-old son Carmel were murdered during the Oct. 7 attack.  And yet, Aviyada too, expressed his commitment to return to the kibbutz’s fields.  In an interview, he spoke these words adamantly: “Tomorrow the sun will rise again. One leg is amputated and one arm is shot. I hope in 4 months to run out [of this rehabilitation center]. Ultimately, you don’t deal with the dead because you can’t influence them anymore. You deal with life right now and you move forward. We will place two photos [of our loved ones who are gone] on the dresser and move forward.  We won’t delay too much. We have other children, we can’t indulge. It’s true that I lost my wife and my 15-year-old son, but they’re gone, we won’t change that. The popular song says that the wheat will grow again, and it will be green, and the rain will fall, and I promise that the flowers will blossom in February and the sun will rise tomorrow too.”

During the momentary ceasefire, Moti Barak and nine other famers in Beeri, sowed with tears.  They sowed with the tears of Aviyada Becher and the tears of all other grieving families of Kibbutz Beeri.  They also sowed with the tears of the sheaves, “the alumot,” the children and women who returned to their native land.  And they sowed with tears for the sheaves who were left behind, the grandfathers and fathers, the young women and men, and all of our captured soldiers.

And they sowed with our prayers.  Our prayers that just as Jacob our father sowed with tears but reaped with song, so too, we will merit to see the day when all our captives will return home.  But until that day comes, we will be “like dreamers.”

About the Author
Yonatan Cohen serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a thriving Orthodox community in Berkeley, CA. He is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and North America as well as a lecturer for the Wexner Foundation.
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