I am so deeply disturbed by the faces of the people in Lebanon cheering the return of the terrorist Samir Kuntar. I cannot fathom celebrating a person who murdered innocent children. I wonder if this decision of the Israeli government was the right thing to do. Are there Jewish laws that govern this issue or Jewish ethical precedence for this kind of a decision?
I too was deeply troubled by those celebrating the return of Samir Kuntar. The entire situation that we found ourselves in last week was especially dark and difficult. It is hard for us who live outside Israel to sense the horror of the gravity of the circumstances. Those in Israel experienced Wed., July 16 as a day of national mourning. With the appearance of the two coffins of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, all remote hope of their still being alive was dashed. The radio played only somber music and those walking in the streets had countenances of grief and sorrow. We in the U.S. could only read and watch what the Internet provided. Still, it is hard to process events as they unfold — the cushion of history provides us with a dose of understanding denied to us in our proximity.
Of course, Jewish law deals with prisoner exchanges — I am hard-pressed to think of any area in which the Torah is silent. Our halachic literature presents us with precedents and a palette of situations upon which we may conduct our conversation. No doubt Israeli authorities engaged these very same texts in their efforts to wrestle with the critical issues and to arrive at an appropriate decision for the State of Israel.
I sometimes feel so powerfully that the days in which we live are of Biblical proportion. Growing up on Torah narratives, one views the world with — what else can I call it? — Biblical lenses. This really hit home on my last trip to Israel, from which I recently returned. I was watching the morning TV news, which is very similar to our own morning news programs: friendly banter, personality-driven humor, with some news sprinkled in as well.
On this particular morning, one of the three co-anchors sitting around the table, debating the gripping topic of the end of free plastic bags at supermarkets, casually threw out the often-heard remark that went something like this: “Hundreds of years from now, when archeologists are investigating our time period they will….” He went on to say something I could not pay much attention to, because he had used an expression that took me by shocking surprise: When archaeologists will examine “Bayit Shlishi” —a conversation stopper for me.
“Bayit Shlishi” is the expression used in classic Jewish literature that literally means “the third house,” i.e., the third temple. Now, all would agree that we have yet to build the third temple, yet here was a kippah-ed fellow, mind you, a curly hair down to his waist kippah-ed fellow, espousing this notion, that we are currently in “Bayit Shlishi!” That to me was a wake-up call.
Obviously, he was using the expression not so much to indicate the status of a re-built Temple of Jerusalem as much as he was of an indication of a third commonwealth and as such indeed, Bayit Shlishi. That resonates intensely.
We live in Biblical times. The miracle of statehood, the marvel of the resurrection of the Hebrew language, the massive return to Zion of Jews of every flavor should never be taken for granted. As such, this return of two coffins draped with the flag of Israel, holding the bodies of those who served heroically in the Israel Defense Forces and who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our nation, surely conjures up for us deep, Biblically rooted memories.
The primary memory for me is of the first of our forefathers, Abraham. In the very first Torah portion, which tells of the beginning of our story, is a puzzling and even annoying episode. I usually refer to it as “The Story of the Four and the Five Kings.”
Just as we begin to tell the lofty tale of Abraham leaving his homeland at the bidding of God, of his descent into to Egypt on account of famine, his separation from his nephew Lot, his eventual settling and spiritual grounding in Mamre, we are forced to abruptly devote a long chapter of a Torah reading to a battle between folks we do not know about, nor care to know about.
And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel, king of Shinar, Arioch, king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, and Tidal, king of Goiim, that they made war with Bera, king of Sodom, and with Birsha, king of Gomorrah, Shinab, king of Admah, and Shemeber, king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela — the same is Zoar.
Long convoluted names, complicated places; frankly, who cares? We care.Because in that battle, between folks with whom we have no connection, our nephew Lot is taken hostage. Abraham gets word of Lot’s kidnapping and he, the new guy in town, assembles 300 troops, risks his own life, and successfully recaptures Lot.
At that moment, Abraham does not hesitate to do everything he can to retrieve his nephew. It is right there, smack in the middle of our introduction to Abraham in parshat Lech Lecha, that we are asked to divert our attention from the spiritual initiation of Abraham to the not-so-pleasant business of the ugly reality of war. Not much has changed.
There will be those who will argue that hostage exchanges only breed dangerous precedent. Some will offer up the incredibly noble historical incident of the great Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who in 1286 was kidnapped by Rudolph I. He was imprisoned by the emperor until his death because he refused to allow the Jewish community to ransom him for fear of the pattern it might set for the future.
These issues are never simple. We are operating on a different level, as an empowered government and not as a weak community under the sphere of influence of other powers. Until the very last moments of the exchange, there were those, including family members, who still harbored deep hopes for the possibility that Goldwasser or Regev might be alive. Given that the Israeli military has always upheld the principle of bringing back its soldiers as a moral imperative, the army said, according to a statement, “such a move demonstrates a compelling moral strength which stems from Judaism, Israeli social values and from the spirit of the Israel Defense Forces.”
Who can argue with that?