Akiva Gersh

Naftali, Eyal, Gilad and the Baal Shem Tov

It’s been almost a week since Naftali, Eyal and Gilad were kidnapped by Hamas terrorists.  Numerous times since I first heard the heartbreaking news, I have felt that there is little to nothing that I can do to help bring them back home.  One can argue that that’s okay, since there are thousands of soldiers working tirelessly towards their return, but, as a human beings, I have a natural desire to try to affect the world around me, especially when I see pain and suffering.  As a deep believer in the power of prayer, I know that there are extra prayers that I can say (and I do) as well as public prayer gatherings that I can attend.  I can also support the soldiers by sending food and supplies to them on the front lines of this mission, showing them that we appreciate all of their self-sacrifice.  All of these things are noble and worthwhile, but nonetheless I’m left feeling helpless and wanting to do something more.

In my greatest fantasy I see myself putting on an IDF uniform, tossing a gun around my back and joining a group of soldiers scouring the backstreets and alleyways of Hevron looking for the place, or places, where our boys are being held captive.  In my most outrageous fantasy, I would be the one to find that place where they have been held captive since last Thursday.  But then I’m brought back to reality and reminded that not only have I never been in the army, I’ve never even held a gun.

So what can I and others like me do to really make a difference?  What can we do to take a meaningful part in the bringing back of these three teenagers who were just trying to get home to their families for Shabbat?

I found my answer in a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov.

The Baal Shem Tov instructs us that each time we do a mitzva we have an opportunity to elevate the significance and impact of that mitzva by doing it on the level of all of Am Yisrael.  What does that look like?  It means that when I perform a mitzva I am thinking about all of Am Yisrael and bringing the entire nation into the performance of this positive action.  I am thinking beyond my own individual self and realizing that I am part of a greater klal, an entire nation whose strength is dependent on this awesome awareness, and that when I act I am affecting not only myself but the entire klal as well.  For this reason there is a custom of saying a short prayer of intention before doing certain mitzvot which ends with the words, “b’shem kal Yisrael,” for the sake of all of Israel.

When I first learned this incredible teaching from the Baal Shem Tov some years ago, it didn’t really find its way into my day-to-day life.  It was an inspiring idea, but it was difficult for me to bring it down to Earth.  Upon remembering it and reflecting on it during these very difficult past few days, it has had a tangible effect on me.  Like many others, I’m sure, I have been trying to imagine what the daily reality of Naftali, Eyal and Gilad in captivity looks like.  I think about all of the normal everyday things we all are accustomed to doing that they, right now, cannot do, like brushing their teeth, eating what they want when they want, reading a book and simply going outside.  In addition to these, it struck me that these boys, who all come from religious homes, have an another long list of things that frame and inform their everyday existence that they have suddenly been prevented from doing: the numerous mitzvot and Jewish rituals that they have learned about and engaged in their entire lives.  Whether it be eating kosher food, learning Torah or keeping Shabbat, for the first time in their lives, these three boys are now estranged from the daily actions that have shaped their lives until now.

(Disclaimer: I do not believe that this makes their captivity harder than that of someone who is not religious, just different in nature.  My intention here is not to compare the captivity of one person to that of another.)

And this is where the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov comes in.  Over the past few days I have thought about Naftali, Eyal and Gilad so many times as I take part in various Jewish ritual such as blessing my children on Friday night and saying Kiddush, putting on tefillin, learning Torah with my son, saying blessings out loud over my food, and many, many more.  I stop and think about the fact that what I am doing right now, they can’t do because their captors have taken that right and that ability away from them.  In thinking about this, I have tried to somehow undo this wrong and this evil by bringing them into the mitzvah with me, as if through me they are able to put on tefillin, let’s say, while still in captivity.  As a result, the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov has started to come to life. Thinking every day about these three boys whom I’ve never met and probably would have never heard of if this tragedy didn’t befall them has brought to the surface what I believe the Baal Shem Tov is really trying to teach us here: that not only are we all connected to Naftali, Eyal and Gilad, but that all of Am Yisrael is inseparable and forever united at the deepest level.  That the Jewish nation is really one unified entity.  And that’s why when even one of us is in danger, in pain, in trouble, our hearts are broken as if it’s happening to us directly.  Because, in reality, it is.

So how does this all relate back to what I can do for Naftali, Eyal and Gilad?  Through the darkness of their being captured a light is shining throughout the Jewish world that is demonstrating the strength and unity of Am Yisrael.  The prayer gatherings not only in Israel but around the world.  The articles and blogs being written expressing sadness, frustration and longing.  The food and supplies being sent to the soldiers searching for our boys every single day.  This newest difficult episode of the Jewish people is serving as yet another reminder that the most fundamental and crucial thing for our nation to understand is that we are all so intimately wrapped up in each other’s lives.  Whether religious, secular, right-wing, left-wing, settler or not, we are one nation with a common past striving towards a more positive and peaceful future.  And the way to arrive at that positive and peaceful future is less dependent on how we act viz a viz our neighbors or other countries of the world and more dependent on how we act towards each other. If we can be moved by what we are witnessing in the Jewish world right now, and let it positively influence the way we think about and act towards our fellow Jews, then I believe that all of us can have as direct an impact on the situation of Naftali, Eyal and Gilad as the soldiers who are searching the area of Hevron day and night.

With that in mind, I want to say to Naftali, Eyal and Gilad that we, the Jewish people of all kinds and all types, will do everything we possibly can to bring you home as soon as possible, whether we are holding a gun, holding a siddur or holding out our hand to help a fellow Jew.  And I pray that, after you are brought home safely, that we, all of Am Yisrael, will not forget these vital teachings that your captivity is teaching us.

About the Author
Akiva Gersh has been working in the field of Jewish and Israel Education for over 20 years. In 2020 he founded @Israel to share his love and passion for Israel with students, schools and communities around the world through his online classes, courses and virtual tours of Israel. Akiva is also the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (, a compilation of essays that gives an inside look at the unique experience of making aliyah and the journey of acclimating to life in Israel. Akiva himself made aliyah in 2004 with his wife Tamar and they live in Pardes Hanna with their four kids. You can learn more about his work at as well as about his work teaching about Judaism and veganism at
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