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Captives -- CHRONICLE Online/The WORD 05/23/24

Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah


May 23, 2024

15 Iyar 5784


Just yesterday, the families of five young women held hostage in Gaza agreed to release video footage of them as they were taken into captivity. It is very difficult to watch.  

While the intent of the families was to put additional pressure on Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to make a deal for the release of the hostages, it’s not clear that there’s a deal to be made. Hamas has given no indication that it has any interest in releasing the hostages for anything less than full capitulation by Israel. They know how important the hostages are to Israel. It was part of their strategy on October 7th. We have seen this before.  

Back in 2006, Hamas captured a young Israeli soldier named Gilad Shalit. They held him for over five years and then only released him in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners—one of whom was Yihyah Sinwar, the mastermind of the October 7th attack. The five young women in the video are also Israeli soldiers—though they had barely begun their training. It should be obvious that Hamas is holding out for something big because they know how important it is in the Jewish tradition to redeem captives.  

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, introduces to the concept of “Pidyon” or redemption. In the ancient world, when individuals went into debt, they could be taken into forced servitude in order to work off their debts. The Torah tells us that when members of our community are forced into such servitude by a non-Israelite, we have an obligation to redeem them. That obligation extends to other situations when Jews are being held against their will.

It is an obligation that has been taken very seriously throughout Jewish history. The great sage Maimonides wrote in his code of Jewish law, “And you have no greater commandment than the redemption of captives (Hilchot Matanot La’Evyonim 8:10).”

Because of our commitment to “Pidyon Shvuyim—the redemption of captives,” Jews were specifically targeted during the Middle Ages for kidnappings. The Talmud, perhaps, foresaw this happening and warned that we should not pay too much to redeem a captive because it could lead to kidnappers targeting more Jews in order to demand even higher ransoms. Nonetheless, it’s hard to resist giving hostage-takers whatever they demand. Just watching a few seconds of that video yesterday convinced me that Israel needs to restart negotiations for a hostage deal.

It’s actually a very strange calculation—when one group of people ostensibly admits that another group of people places a higher value on its members being held captive. Was Gilad Shalit worth over 1,000 Palestinians back in 2011? In the most recent framework for a deal between Hamas and Israel, Hamas reportedly demanded the release of 950 prisoners for 40 Israeli hostages—some living and some dead. Is a single Israeli hostage really the equivalent of more than 20 Palestinians?  

This phenomenon is clearly related to the disparate military strategies of the two sides. One side puts its seniors, women, and children in shelters and sends its soldiers out to war. The other side puts its soldiers in bunkers and places its seniors, women, and children in harm’s way. One side values the lives of all its citizens, and the other side clearly doesn’t.

For Jews, it comes down to the question of what the whole purpose of Judaism is. One answer comes from earlier in the Book of Leviticus when God says, “You are to keep my laws and my regulations, which when humans do them, they live by them, I am YHWH (Lev. 18:5).” The whole point of Judaism is to preserve, promote and protect life. And that is why we must all demand that the hostages are released immediately.



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