I read an article recently about the Bar Kohba revolt which took place 2,000 years ago. Maybe you know about it. If not, let me tell you the story. Centuries ago, way back in the year 132 in Israel, with the great Temple just recently destroyed, the Roman ruler of the time, Hadrian, aimed to completely remove Jews and Judaism from Jerusalem. He wanted to root out every last hint of Jewish life and put an end to Israel at last. He wasn’t the first to feel this way and he wouldn’t be the last.
In the midst of the war Hadrian waged, a small group of rebel fighters, led by a brave soul named Bar Kohba, hid in local caves and fought back however they could. They wanted to push back against the hate and the antisemitism and the tyranny playing out all around them. They wanted to do what they could, with what they had. Bar Kohba, which translated means, ‘shining star,’ goes down in history for his courage and his conviction and his commitment to the Jewish people.
The article noted that archeologists in Israel recently found four swords from the time period of Bar Kohba, swords likely used by him and his soldiers all those years ago. The swords were totally intact, though maybe a bit rusty. The finding shows once more the breadth and depth of the land of Israel itself, this place of history, history in the ground, in the land, in our books, all those generations of life and love and yes war and heartache and tension but also peace and community and faith and abounding joy. It’s a place of conflicting ideas and conflicting people and conflicting storylines. It always has been.
Look at what became of Cain and Abel, two brothers who could not see or support or understand each other. Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The list is endless.
There is so much here to connect to our lives and the life of Israel at this very moment. We feel like Bar Kohba, totally outnumbered: Here is Israel surrounded by too many enemies to count, defending itself against those who would seek Her demise while also defending its right to defend itself and warding off the noise of public opinion which judges the tiny state relentlessly, even as it fights a war on extremism.
Maybe we feel outnumbered in our own lives too. We feel it online. We feel it at work or school. Social media bombards us with those who urge caution and restraint, call for ceasefires and pause, somehow not understanding the difference between Hamas, which seeks the end of Israel, and Palestine, a would-be state handcuffed by their own fanatical leadership. We read statements put out by schools and universities that leave us sometimes baffled, sometimes even fearful. We don’t know what to say. We don’t know where to turn. Our heart feels so, so heavy.
The ancient swords that were found also remind us that Israel has always been in a battle for its own survival. Two thousand years ago and a thousand years ago and seventy-five years ago when the modern state was officially started, fifty years ago in the Yom Kippur War and again and again across time. We long for the day, as so many of our great grandparents did and grandparents did, as our parents did, when nation will not lift sword against nation nor learn of war anymore.
We understand Bar Kohba not because we are fighters or because we celebrate fighters in Judaism, which we don’t. The reason King David was told he couldn’t build the first Temple in Jerusalem is because he himself was a fighter. We Jews are meant to be compassionate and gentle, forgiving and peaceful. Fighting is the very last resort.
Rather, we understand Bar Kohba because we know what it feels like to be alone or to feel like we’re alone and up against so much.
It’s a painful moment right now. We cry ’Never Again.’ We cry, ‘what about us?’ We cry, ‘are we not also human beings?’ All the while it feels like so much of the world is looking the other way. We cry for decency and for the best of humanity.
If we do feel alone, we’re also quite a bit like Noah, from last week’s portion. He feels alone in a world that feels turbulent and unsettled and flooding.
He wants to do his part to safeguard what he can, his family, the natural world, the very future of humanity. He controls what he can with what he has, like Bar Kohba. He feels what we feel: emotion, conflict, not having all the answers, full of questions, muttering prayers that come from deep within. He’s looking for shelter and safety. We get it.
But soon he’ll send out a raven and after that a dove and when the dove returns with an olive branch in its beak Noah knows that the waters are receding at last. The dove and the branch become a symbol of peace and new possibility. And Noah and his family will set out, even slowly, to rebuild. They’ll start over now. Taking those first steps as a new day dawns.
Noah and his family will set a tone now for what will be. Just like we have it in us to set a tone: for our children, for our friends, for our co-workers and community.
Can we set a tone in how we lend a hand, support each other, check in on each other? Can we set a tone in how we listen? Can we remember that Israel needs us as much as we need Israel? Can we remember that the sun will shine again, there will indeed be rainbows once more, even if the world feels so cloudy these days? Can we remember to keep going, step by step, every day?