Last week, we began re-reading the Torah from the beginning. Chapter one of Beresheet speaks to us of God as the source of creation of the physical universe. Chapter two reminds us that God is a force in the world of human society only when we allow God into our lives, both personally and communally.
The question for us now is whether the release of Sgt. Gilad Shalit also markd a new beginning in 21st-century Jewish life. Shalit is the first Israeli soldier who has been returned alive from Arab captivity in over 35 years since the prisoner exchanges after the Yom Kippur War.
As I reflected during the week of Sukkot, anticipating Gilad’s release, I found my emotions going from joy to fear, from pride in Israel’s decision to questioning the sanity of the deal. I also found myself engulfed in how to respond communally to such an epic event with mixed emotions. Our communal gathering last Sunday evening, therefore, was both a celebration of a life saved and the recognition of the dangerous price paid by Israel.
When I first began to write my opening remarks Sunday evening’s event, I found in my e-mail inbox the reflections of my friend, colleague, and mentor in Jewish activism, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale. Permit me to quote from his powerful essay:
“Gilad Shalit has come home. Is this a time for euphoria or upset? The head tells us that this is a terrible deal. But, the heart – the heart feels differently.
“Today, Gilad Shalit is not just a soldier. He is Israel’s unknown soldier; precisely because he is so well known, he is so identifiable. Gilad’s picture released soon after his capture, with his boyish look, his thick black glasses, his soldier’s uniform which seemed a bit large for his body, will forever remain in our hearts. He was the picture of innocence, forced to grow up too quickly in the hands of brutal men and women. His image is on billboards around the world. His name is on the lips of prime ministers and presidents. Today, Gilad is not only the son of Aviva and Noam, he is everyone’s son. He is everyone’s brother. The exchange is not only an exchange of over a thousand terrorists for one soldier; it is an exchange of a thousand for Gilad – the symbol of every soldier.
“So which is it? Is the release of Gilad a time of sadness, or joy? Is it a time of upset, or elation? Is it the time to mourn with the mind or celebrate with the heart?”
During Sukkot, we read from Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. Here we find one answer to Rabbi Weiss’s question. Ecclesiastes writes: “Everything has its season…; a time to weep and a time to laugh…; a time to wail and a time to dance…; a time to rent garments and a time to mend.”
Ecclesiastes seems to be saying that there are distinct times for each of these emotions.
Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, understands it differently. He writes: “Ecclesiastes was wrong about that…. A person needs to love and hate at the same moment. To laugh and cry with the same eyes….To make love in war and war in love.”
Like Rabbi Avi Weiss, all of us who gathered together Sunday night spent time and energy advocating for Gilad’s release. We offered prayers for his health and safety for five years and four months. Our northern New Jersey Jewish community through our JCRC and our synagogues, our three Jewish community centers, our schools, and our other organizations have kept the name of Gilad Shalit in the public eye through activities too numerous to mention.
A decade ago, I stood together with Avi Weiss and Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Ahavath Torah in Engelwood at a series of rallies we led at the United Nations to protest the world’s non-response to the acts of homicide bombers who brought death and devastation to the civilian population of Israel. My joy at Gilad’s reunion with his family is tempered by the knowledge that among the people released from Israeli prisons in exchange for him are men and women who sent those homicide bombers on their path to murder. I am grateful for Gilad’s release, but am angry that among those released are the people who took responsibility for the bombings of a cafÃ© in Jerusalem on a March night in 2002, when I sat just blocks away in another cafÃ© with my daughter Abby and a group of her fellow Solomon Schechter classmates who were spending their senior year in Israel.
I am filled with joy and with fear. What will Hamas do next?
Let us all take pride in the fact that the State of Israel affirmed yet again that every human life is of absolute and immeasurable value; that we Jews take seriously the command at the end of Deuteronomy to “choose life.”
Let us reaffirm our solidarity with Israel as it faces the threat of terrorism and let us commend the Israel Defense Forces for their moral sense as well as their military strength.
Let us express to our own government officials the gratitude of the Jewish people for the bipartisan support not only for Shalit’s release, but for the security of a democratic and Jewish state of Israel.