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BAS Rabbi's Message

Message from Rabbi Daniel Stein

November, 2011

Reflecting on the recent prisoner exchange that lead to the release of Gilad Shalit, Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Foundation, observed: “In agreeing to this prisoner swap, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli public chose to return to their roots, to revive a central tenet of oldtime Israeli ideology: we do not leave our sons in the field.”

While Gordis is surely correct, the value he identifies--the impulse to do all that can be done to save even a single Jewish life, cost be damned--has roots that predate the Zionist idea by thousands of years. The prisoner swap and the debate it engendered in Israeli society about the relative values and costs of bringing Gilad home have left me thinking about the longer history of captives in the Jewish imagination. On the one hand, Shalit’s release can be seen as a truly remarkable event in the history of the Jewish State: for the first time in the last twenty-six years, a Jewish prisoner returned home alive. What is more, the group responsible for his protection and safe return is an avowed enemy not just of the Israel, but also of all the Jewish people. That Gilad Shalit returned to his family is more than inspiring. It is miraculous.

Even before Shalit’s release, though, his captivity quite literally captured the hearts of Jews both in Israel and abroad. Over the last five years, many of my Jewish–American friends have updated their status messages or profile pictures on Facebook to reflect their ever-growing concern about Gilad Shalit. While they were, I am sure, motivated by a genuine sense of empathy, I think that their particular concern was born from echoes of the Jewish past, both immediate and distant. Prior to the prisoner exchange Prime Minister Natanyahu remarked, “Ron Arad’s fate flashed before my eyes during the Shalit [negotiations,]” referring to the famous Israeli aviator captured in Lebanon whose fate remains unknown. And yet, if Ron Arad’s memory played a significant role in Natanyahu’s decision making, it was only because Arad is the most recent in a string of Jewish hostages dating back thousands of years.

Jewish law makes it clear that the redemption of captives is the most important act of tzedakah and the first priority of communal funds--a fact well known and frequently exploited by the haters of Israel. Jewish communal leaders were often imprisoned and held for large ransoms as a way of exploiting the Jewish belief in the sanctity of life.

These incidents were common enough that by the Middle Ages, the ransoming of rabbis served as the basis for one of the significant myths of the Jewish people. In his sefer ha-kabbalah (1161), Abraham ibn Daud explains how religious authority was transferred from Babylonia to Spain. A group of rabbis, traveling from Babylonia to Italy to raise funds for the community, is captured by a Spanish fleet. They are sold into slavery, but subsequently redeemed by the Jews of the Western Mediterranean. Although the historical record calls into question some of the facts in ibn Daud’s narrative, the story is based on the legitimate concerns of European Jewry and foreshadows real historical events. In 1286, King Rudolph I of Germany declared Jews to be serfs of the treasury, devoid of any political freedom. He imprisoned many Jewish leaders including Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, one of the great sages of the day. His student Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel raised a substantial ransom for his teacher, but Rabbi Meir refused to be redeemed. He worried that meeting his captors demands would encourage the captivity of other Jews. Fearing a similar fate, Asher ben Yechiel fled to Spain, bringing with him the Jewish traditions of Ashkenaz.

Throughout the ages, hostile governments continued to hold Jewish leaders hostage, exploiting the goodwill of the community. In fact, today, one of the most important celebrations on the calendar of Chabad hassidim is the 19th of Kislev, when Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, was released from a Czarist prison. Whenever a Jew was imprisoned, the community found itself serving conflicting ideals. They strove to maintain the sanctity of human life, embodied in the words of the Talmud: “If anyone causes a single soul to perish, the Torah views it as if she destroys a whole world; and if anyone saves a single life the Torah views it as if she saves a whole world.”

They were acutely aware, though, of Rabbi Meir’s concern; if they gave in too quickly or paid too high a price for a captive, they would bring even greater danger to the entire community.

I cried twice on the day Gilad Shalit was released from prison. The first time was early in the morning as I watched Noam Shalit embrace the son he had not seen in half a decade. The second time was later the same evening, when I received an email from the One Family Fund, an Israeli organization working to help victims of terror attacks. Dan and Yehudit Davidowicz wrote the following:

Nobody from the Israeli government has reached out to us since the list of prisoners to be released was publicized. We went onto Google to find the website of the Israel Prisons Service, and there we had to search through an online list of 477 names, which
were not even in alphabetical order, to see if the murderer of our beautiful daughter Ahuva, of blessed memory, was there. Ahuva was a 30-year-old lawyer, and a mother of two.

There we saw his name. Number 127 on the list. Nizar Delize Hader Muhammed.

Today, our murderer was freed. He has been pardoned by our President. He is now home in Gaza.

Did the Israeli government make the right choice? Was the price too high, or is no price too high for even one life? The mishna teaches that disputes that are for the sake of heaven are bound to endure until the arrival of the Messiah. Let us pray that someday soon and in our lifetimes we may witness a true and lasting peace so that, God willing, we will not need to
be concerned with such questions or be in need of a Messiah to answer them.


Rabbi Daniel Stein