Gilad Shalit Comes Home
Rabbi Stacy K. Offner Adath Emanu-El Shabbat Bereshit October 21, 2011
There is a Hebrew phrase that is going through my mind at this moment. The phrase is “Gam zeh v’Gam zeh”. Literally, the words mean: “also this and also this.” More figuratively, the phrase means, “this Is true and this is also true.” “Gam zeh v’Gam zeh.” It is the phrase that comes to mind as our Jewish commuity tries to wrap its collective head around the events that transpired in Israel just three days ago.
Early this past Tuesday afternoon, Gilad Shalit, the 25 year-old Israeli soldier who became a world-wide household name, walked across the border from Gaza, through Egypt, into Israel, free at last, after 5 1â„2 years in captivity.
The liberation of Gilad Shalit has caused shockwaves across the globe. It has been cause for celebration, sadness, joy, outrage, pride, concern and wonder.
Gam zeh v’Gam zeh. This is true and this is true. The joy is palpable and so is the concern. What is the pricetag on a human being? The question is absolutely impossible to answer, but Judaism has concerned itself with this vital question throughout our long history.
The Talmud teaches: “The life of a single individual is worth the life of the whole world.” The statement teaches us some very important truths. Each individual person IS a whole world. Each individual person IS priceless, each individual person IS holy, Godly, infinitely worthy and therefore of infinite worth.
“The life of a single individual is worth the life of the whole
1 world.” So, taken literally, does that mean we have to be so literal? What if you could save a life, and the only price you had to pay, was that the whole rest of the world had to be destroyed? Would you pay that price? Of course not. At least, I hope you wouldn’t.
But, as Abraham so famously argued long ago with God: would you do it if only 1â„2 the world were to be destroyed? How about one country? Or one city? Or maybe one town?
These are supposed to be hypothetical questions to get you to think about your values. Sadly, in the most gruesome and realistic of ways, these are not hypothetical questions for the State of Israel or for the Jewish people.
One of Judaism’s greatest mitzvot is the mitzvah known as pidyon shvuyim, the commandment regarding redemption of captives. Judaism places a high value on pidyon shvuyim because Judaism places a high value on life. We are willing, indeed we must be willing, to pay a heavy price to redeem the captive.
The extraordinary price that Israel has chosen to pay in order to redeem one soldier, that price being the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, is not new in Israeli history or in Jewish history. The Talmud teaches that redeeming our captives is a mitzvah and that captivity is a fate worse than starvation and worse than death.
Maimonides points out that to refrain from redeeming the captive is tantamount to transgressing many other important mitzvot such as “you shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” One who so much as delays in redeeming a captive is considered like a murderer.
However. And there is a big however. According to the Mishnah, one does NOT redeem captives for more than their value “mpnei Tikun Olam.” One does not redeem captives for more than their value ‘for the sake of Tikun Olam, the repair of the world.” What
does this mean? We’ve already decided that you can’t put a pricetag on a human being, so what could ‘more than their value’ possibly mean? And how does refraining from redeeming captives help the cause of Tikun Olam?
Fortunately, the Talmud tries to answer these difficult questions. The Talmud says that captives should not be redeemed because it will eventually cause too great of a burden upon the community at large, and redeeming captives will give incentive to kidnappers to seize more captives.
Gilad Shalit was redeemed for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. I do not believe that the Israeli government or Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu are unaware of the risks involved and the pain involved in releasing these prisoners. Among the prisoners listed to be released are the names of those with Israeli blood on their hands, terrorists involved in the blowing up of innocents at the Saborro Pizza Parlor bombing, and others for whom the victim’s families were awaiting their day in court.
And yet. The Israeli Cabinet voted 26-3 in favor of the plan. (In the Jewish world, where one Jew has three opinions, that’s tantamount to a unanimous decision!) The head of the Mossad and the head of the IDF both supported the plan. And we Jews around the world could not be more proud. And the Israeli people could not be more united.
I received an e-mail on Wednesday from a Reform Rabbi living in Israel who described it this way:
“We were witness to a great drama of Pidyon Shvu’im yesterday in Israel. The return of one Israeli soldier–Gilad Shalit–was a national experience, which captured the hearts and minds of the people of Israel. It was a moment of wide national consensus in Israel, something that does not happen very often any more.
I felt proud as a Jew and an Israeli to witness this moving
experience. It was exhilarating and inspiring and emotional, and a cause for much rejoicing in Israel, especially appropriate during this Sukkot season during which it is a mitzvah to be happy.”
Why so much rejoicing? Because we are a people that treasures life. And ultimately, the finite reality of saving ONE life outweighs the risks of possible loss of life in the future.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is a modern Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, New York. Rabbi Weiss has a grandson in Israel, whose name just happens to be Gilad. Rabbi Weiss describes a conversation he had with his Gilad, who will soon be enlisting in the Israeli Army, just minutes after Gilad Shalit’s release was announced:
…my grandson said, “Just remember Sabi (grandfather), I’m not worth a thousand.” There was silence on the line. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I found it difficult to speak. Finally, when I could, this hardened activist, who years back argued exchanges should not take place but now feels differently, lovingly responded, “Gilad, you’re right, you’re not worth a thousand. You’re worth at least a million.”
1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one young Israeli soldier who has already been robbed of 5 1â„2 years of his young life. Is it fair? No. Is it just? No. Is it risk-free? No. Is it right? Absolutely. That Israel has and will and would again put such a high premium on redeeming a soldier in captivity is a decision that rests solidly on Jewish ground. We are the people of “L’Chayim,” of life. We love life, we choose life, and we embrace Gilad’s life, now redeemed for himself, for his family, for his country, for all of us.