Rabbi Yair Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Gilad Shalit is home.
After five grueling, terrible years, and two wars, Gilad Shalit, a 25 year-old sergeant in Israel’s defense forces, was returned by the terrorist organization Hamas, who kidnapped him in 2005. In exchange, Israel has freed over a thousand individuals, militants and terrorists who planned and executed attacks on civilians.
It’s hard for us as Americans to fully appreciate why this is so important for Israel, why one soldier’s life might be worth the lives of so many others, why Israel would be willing to negotiate with terrorists to secure the freedom of a single sergeant. Those of us who grew up living through the 1980s and the kidnappings and hostage-takings in Lebanon, and remembering the tough language used by the government of the time, refusing to negotiate the release of even one individual with Hezbollah and other militant organizations, may especially feel that somehow Israel behaved inappropriately, or at least indiscreetly, letting murderers go free.
The first thing we need to remember is the role the military plays in the lives of Israelis, and the role Israeli life plays in the military. Nearly every individual, when he or she turns 18, enters the military to serve a minimum 3-year term, and all serve some form of reserve duty well into their 40s. This means that every parent, every girlfriend or boyfriend, every sibling, has had the experience of seeing someone they love dress in uniform and go off, always knowing that they may never be seen alive again. Israel is a small country—barely 7 and a half million, five and a half are Jewish—so any loss has a tremendous ripple-effect. In the same way that the loss of an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan has a profound effect on a single town or county here in the US, the loss of a single young man or woman in Israel is felt by all. That soldier could be anyone’s child, and so Gilad Shalit became EVERYONE’s child. And to have so few moments of contact—the Red Cross was denied access to him throughout his captivity—meant that everyone in Israel was living through their worst nightmares alongside Gilad’s parents.
Jewish tradition is informative as well. Throughout the middle-ages, prominent Jews and sometimes whole communities were taken captive by local royalty, who would ransom them as hostages to raise money, not unlike what we hear about in South America. One would expect that this would create a culture hardened against the plight of such captives, inured to the experience. This is not the case. Maimonides, the 11th century Physician and Scholar, writes in his Mishneh Torah, his great legal code:
Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 8:12
The ransoming of captives takes precedence over the feeding and clothing of the poor. Indeed there is no religious duty more meritorious than the ransoming of captives, for not only is the captive included in the generality of the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked, but his very life is in jeopardy. He who turns his eyes away from ransoming him, transgresses the commandments: You shalt not harden your heart, nor shut your hand (Deut. 15:7), Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Lev. 19:16), and He shall not rule with rigor over him in your sight (Lev. 25:53). Moreover, he nullifies the commandments: You shall surely open your hand unto him (Deut. 15:8), That your brother may live with you (Lev. 25:36), You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18), Deliver them that are drawn unto death (Prov. 24:11), and many similar admonitions. To sum up, there is no religious duty greater (Mitzvah Rabba) than the ransoming of captives.
And Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch of the 17th century adds:
The Shulchan Aruch (YD 252:3)
...And even if money was collected to build a synagogue, and they have already purchased the wood and stones needed, and set them aside for the building, (so that it is forbidden to use these building materials for any other purposes), it is still permissible to sell them in order to free captives. And he concludes by stating: Every moment that one delays in freeing captives, in cases where it is possible to expedite their freedom, is considered to be tantamount to murder.
So we see that we as Jews have taken captivity very seriously, and see any effort to ransom captives, to redeem those hidden away from the view of the world unjustly, as entirely meritorious, and to not do so makes one complicit in the death of the hostage.
Of course, there are issues of realpolitik involved: does this strengthen the hands of Hamas, weaken the peace process, or somehow show Israel to be soft when it lives in a tough neighborhood? To respond to that, I return to the words of Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel at the time of the Yom Kippur War: Golda Meir said, "The only way to eliminate war is to love our children more than we hate our enemies." The redemption of Gilad Shalit proves that we—and Israel—love our children more than we hate. And to do so takes great strength indeed, strength that may lead to peace, or not, but at least for now leads to wholeness.
Baruch Matir Asurim: blessed is the one who redeems captives. Amen.