Gilad Shalit, “What Would You Do?”
One of Israel’s most popular songs, written by its most popular songwriter, Naomi Shemer, is “Al kol eleh, “For all these things.” It begins with the words: Al had’vash v’al ha-oketz al hamar v’hamatok al biteynu hatinoket shmor eli hatov, “For all these things, over the honey and the stinger, over the bitter and the sweet, over our daughter, our baby, my Gd watch over what is good.” The song most poignantly describes the reality of life. There is honey and a stinger, there is bitter and there is sweet…and all we can ask of Gd is that He watches over what is good. These words go to the heart of our feelings as Jews this week when Gilad Shalit has finally come home. There’s a feeling of, “the honey and the stinger…the bitter and the sweet.”
My colleague, Rabbi Jack Riemer, expressed the feeling so well when he wrote: On the one hand, we are ecstatic at the news that Gilad Shalit has come home at last. For more than 5½ long years, this brave young man has rotted somewhere in Gaza. His parents moved heaven and earth in an effort to bring him home. They set up a tent at the entrance to the Prime Minister’s home in Jerusalem so that anyone and everyone who entered that home would be reminded at his coming in and at his going out that their child was a prisoner in Gaza.
They went to Europe and knocked on the doors of every head of state there, begging them to intercede on behalf of their child. They went to America, they went to the United Nations, they went anywhere and everywhere they could in the hope of arousing world public opinion on behalf of their son. And all of us who watched them work so passionately and so patiently had to be moved by their determination and their devotion. How could you not feel for these parents?
And yet, happy as we are to see him come home at last, part of us worries that the price that Israel has had to pay for rescuing him may be too high. 1,000 terrorists, killers who have the blood of innocent people on their hands, were released by Israel in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Among them are perpetrators of some of Israel’s most painful and bloodthirsty terrorist attacks: the German Colony café in Jerusalem, the Park Hotel Seder massacre, the Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem, the lynching of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, bus bombings and suicide attacks…each and every one of these terrorists deserves to go to hell. And believe me when I tell you: they will!
But until then, Israelis worry, and understandably so, about what these 1,000 murderers will do now that they’re free. They’re given a hero’s welcome and are praised for the bloodshed and violence they’ve done. And now what? Will they go back to killing innocent Jews once again as they’ve promised? And if they do, then will the price that Israel paid for getting Gilad Shalit back end up being too high?
I ask you: What would you have done if you were the prime minister of Israel? I don’t envy Bibi Netanyahu who had to make this decision, and I’m glad that I’m not him, for you can pick a side and I can give you the arguments for the other side. I can tell you, for example, about the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuim, “rescuing hostages.” It’s so important a mitzvah that Jewish law tells us that if you need money to rescue a hostage, you are required to sell even a Sefer Torah if needed.
And judging by this law, you could say that Judaism teaches that no matter what, the government of Israel did the right thing by rescuing Gilad Shalit. They carried out the crucial mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuim. Understand that Israel has a citizen army that can be mobilized in a day. Almost every family has at least one in the army or reserves. What Israel did by rescuing Gilad Shalit is to send a powerful message to every soldier and to every family that, if a soldier is ever captured, he will not be forgotten or abandoned, but that Israel will do whatever it takes to bring him back. In the equation of what is right and wrong you can’t underestimate how important the symbolism of rescuing Gilad Shalit is.
But there’s another side in Jewish law. Let me tell you about Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg. Rabbi Meir was one of the great scholars and Jewish leaders in the Middle Ages. The duke of the area in which he lived needed money and arrested him thinking that the Jewish people would pay any price in order to rescue their beloved rabbi. And they would have, had Rabbi Meir not sent them a message from prison forbidding the rescue. He told them that if they paid an exorbitant price to save him, then no rabbi or Jewish leader would ever be safe. Sadly, it had been going on for some time that whenever a cruel monarch needed funds, he would simply kidnap a Jewish leader and the Jews would pay any price to get him back.
I ask you, who was right: the sages of the Talmud who taught us the importance of the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuim, “redeeming captives,” or Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg who insisted that you do not do business with monsters and greedy thugs because you only encourage them to continue kidnapping and holding innocent people for hostage? Who was right: the Sages of the Talmud or Rabbi Meir? My answer? I really don’t know!
And who is right today…those who fought to rescue Gilad Shalit at any cost, or those who held to the belief that you dare not encourage murderers by giving in to their demands, and that, if you do, you encourage them to continue doing horrible things?
I can tell you one man’s opinion…one man who you would think would definitely be against such a deal…a man who knows quite a bit about terrorism. He wrote the following in his book Fighting Terrorism about the exchanges of terrorists for a kidnapped soldier: It’s a mistake that Israel has made over and over again. [Refusing to release terrorists from prison is,] “Among the most important policies that must be adopted in the face of terrorism…Prisoner releases only embolden terrorists by giving them the feeling that even if they are caught, their punishment will be brief. Worse, by leading terrorists to think such demands are likely to be met, they encourage precisely the terrorist’s blackmail they are supposed to defuse.
You won’t believe who wrote those words. They were written in 1995 by Bibi Netanyahu. So why did he make such a deal now? Well it is one thing when you’re writing a book…and it’s quite another when you’re the Prime Minister.
But perhaps there’s another explanation. This morning we began the again the reading of the Torah from its beginning. In the creation story, before Gd creates man he says, Naaseh adam b’tzalmeynu, “Let us make man in our image.” All the commentaries ask: “Who is Gd talking to?” The most common answer given is that Gd is conferring with the angels, his heavenly court, regarding the decision whether to create man.
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg reminded me of the Midrash that tells us that there were 4 angels conversing with Gd. The 1st, Chesed, “Kindness,” said that man should be created because he does good deeds. The 2nd, Emet, “Truth,” says that man should not be created because all he does is lie. The 3rd, Tzedek, “Justice,” says that man should be created for he does act of righteousness. And the 4th, Shalom, “Peace,” says man should not be created for all he does is fight. So the score was 2 votes for and 2 votes against. It was deadlocked. So what did Gd do? The Midrash tells us that He threw Emet, “Truth,” to the ground. Now with the score 2 to one, Gd creates man.
What’s the message for us in this fanciful legend? The truth of the matter is that we shouldn’t be trading 1,000 terrorists for one person. The mathematics just doesn’t add up—especially if you consider the lives these 1,000 will take in the future—and they have vowed to kill again. But this is one of those times that truth is in conflict with chesed, with “Kindness” and compassion. And chesed must take precedence. Gilat Shalit is a mother’s child. And for Israelis, he is every mother’s child. All of them know that “there but for the grace of Gd” goes their own child. Kindness and compassion must take precedence.
Yehudit Shahor’s teenage son Uri was killed by Palestinian terrorists in 1995. When the announcement of the Shalit deal was made public, she told Israeli television: Despite the fear I feel as an Israeli citizen and a terror victim, I am very happy for the Shalit family and feel moved as a mother that this boy will come home. I have no doubt that killers among the released Palestinians will kill again, but I will never see my son Uri again but Aviva Shalit has a chance to see her son, Gilad, and even if this is a tough deal, a living boy must be returned home at all costs.
And one thing more. In that heavenly debate between the 4 angels where the score was 2 for and 2 against…with Kindness and Justice saying that man should be created, and Truth and Peace saying that man should not…Gd chose to throw Truth to the ground so that the vote would be in favor of man. But why did he throw Truth to the ground when He could have just as well thrown Peace to the ground? The answer: because hope for peace must never be discarded. Dealing with an enemy that thinks and acts like Hamas, that could hold this young man in total captivity and isolation for more than 5 years, leaves one with the feeling that it’s impossible to ever make peace. But we can’t allow ourselves to think that way because then all hope is lost.
In our prayers we recite again and again: Oseh shalom bimromov, “May He who makes peace in the Heavens above, make peace for us and for all Israel.” Rabbi Harold Kushner asks: “What does it mean, ‘May He who makes peace in the Heavens above?’ What kind of peace does Gd have to make in Heaven?” And he explains citing the Midrash: The word for Heaven is Shamayim, which is a combination of 2 words, eysh, meaning “fire,” and mayim, meaning “water.” In the heavens, we have fire and water. And when Gd created them, they saw each other as an enemy. The fire claimed that the water was going to extinguish it, and the water feared that the fire would cause it to evaporate. And so they were in constant conflict. And then Gd showed them their affect on the earth. If there would only be the sun and fire, the world would burn. And if there would only be rain then the world would drown. Gd was able to make peace in the heavens above by showing fire and water—the 2 opposites—that ultimately they were both needed and they needed each other.
And we must believe that someday the Israelis and Palestinians will do the same. Let us not give in to despair. Let us not lose all hope. Let’s learn to accept the bitter and the sweet, with the hope that Gd will watch over the good. Hashem oz l’amo yetain Hashem yevoreich et amo bashalom, “Hashem has given strength to His people, may Hashem now bless us with peace.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis