The holiday of Sukkot is called z’man simhateinu—the time of our rejoicing—in our liturgy. This year we have special reason to rejoice. I watched the video from Israel as a gaunt Gilad Shalit returned home after five sunless, lonely, oppressive years. Then I read about the hero’s welcome given to the first group of terrorists and murderers by their Palestinian brethren. I noted in particular the chants of “The people want a new Shalit!” Let’s kidnap some more Israelis.
Rabbi Avi Weiss turned a good phrase about the long-hoped-for liberation of Gilad Shalit: “A Heavy-Hearted Celebration.” Of course we celebrate his release. But the price seems high. The long campaign to bring Gilad home has its roots both in Jewish law—the principle of pidyon shevuyim, redeeming captives—and modern Israeli values: “No soldier left behind.”
Maimonides sums up Talmudic rulings on redeeming captives: ““The redeeming of captives takes precedence over supporting the poor or clothing them. There is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives for the problems of the captive include being hungry, thirsty, unclothed, and they are in danger of their lives too.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 8:10)
But in ancient days they understood the dangers of paying a ransom: “One does not ransom captives for more than their value because of Tikkun Olam (literally: “fixing the world”; for the good order of the world; as a precaution for the general good. (Mishnah Gittin 4:6)
Rabbi David Golinkin summarizes the reasons given in the Talmud: “because of the [financial] burden on the community”; and “so that they [=the robbers] should not seize more captives”—i.e., paying a high ransom for captives will encourage kidnappers to kidnap more Jews and demand still higher ransoms.
“The Talmud does not decide which explanation is correct, so halakhic authorities throughout the ages stressed one or the other, leading to different conclusions. Rashi, for example, says that if you accept the first explanation, a relative could pay an excessive ransom, because that does not place a financial burden on the community; whereas according to the second explanation, a relative may not pay the high ransom because that will still encourage the kidnappers to kidnap more Jews.”
Israel faced exactly the same dilemma, trying to balance the value of a human life and the ingrained imperative to redeem captives, in particular captured soldiers, against fear of emboldening the enemy.
Clearly Hamas, which gladly sends teenagers to be suicide bombers, sees our concern for one soldier’s life as a weakness. Clearly the Israeli leadership agonized over this decision. But the opportunity to free this young captive trumped the (quite rational) reluctance to release so many villains.
Pidyon shevuyim is never an abstract principle. It always involves living, breathing human beings. That’s why historically Jews paid the ransom despite their better judgment, because real lives won out. Gilad Shalit’s determined parents and their many allies, Israeli solidarity, and Jewish values led to the difficult decision to trade 1000 for 1.
Beyond all the political, strategic, and legal discussions is the fact that a young man who has suffered for so long is with his family. God grand Gilad Shalit healing of body and healing of spirit from his ordeal.
I conclude with this prayer prepared by our Masorti Movement in Israel:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement of the deal: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Peace/shalitrelease.html
Rabbi Avi Weiss’ beautiful words: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-avi-weiss/gilad-shalit-release-reflection_b_1018161.html
Another excellent piece, by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/for-gods-sake/post/gilad-shalit-returns-one-israeli-for-1027-palestinians/2011/10/18/gIQAPivMuL_blog.html
Rabbi David Golinkin, one of our great legal scholars and head of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, wrote a responsum a number of years ago at the time of another prisoner exchange which is a good summary of the issues: http://www.schechter.edu/insightIsrael.aspx?ID=58