Redeeming Torah  

Rabbi Adam Scheier   October 20, 2011 (Shemini Atzeret)  

Sometimes, there is just no good option. There is a medieval folktale, in which a rabbi’s wisdom saved the entire community of Seville, Spain, from death. Along with other leading Jews, he had been arrested after being accused by a powerful priest of murdering a Christian child and using the dead boy’s blood in a religious ritual (an accusation known as the “blood libel.”) The priest piously declared that the Jews would be tried by God, not him. He would simply fold two pieces of paper and put them in a hat; one would read “Innocent,” the other “Guilty.” The rabbi was to choose one of the pieces of paper. If the one he extracted read “Innocent,” he and the other Jews would be released. If it read “Guilty,” all of Seville’s Jews would be burned. The hat was placed in front of the rabbi. “At least there’s a fifty percent chance you will choose ‘Innocent,’” one man whispered to the rabbi. The rabbi knew, however, that there really was no chance at all. The priest would not run the risk that either chance or God would save the Jews; both pieces of paper undoubtedly had the same word on them: “Guilty.” “Choose already,” the priest commanded. The rabbi quickly pulled out a piece of paper, put it in his mouth, and swallowed it. “What have you done?” the priest cried out. “How will we know which paper you swallowed?” “Look at the one which is still in the hat,” the rabbi said. “Whatever it reads, I swallowed the opposite.”1 Sometimes, there is no good option. But it takes a bit of wisdom, a bit of courage, a bit of ingenuity, to find the best way out of a situation. In the unfortunately long history of Jewish captives, there is often no good option. To leave a person in captivity denies the notion of family and of compassion that are cornerstones of our identity. To pay a ransom that might encourage future captives or to release hostages that might lead to future attacks negates our obligation to avoid danger. Yet halacha does provide guidance in how to deal with such a situation. The
                                                                                                                1  From  Jewish  Humor:  What  the  Best  Jewish  Jokes  Say  About  the  Jews, by Joseph Telushkin (William Morrow, 1992), p. 150.   1  

mitzvah of redeeming captives is considered to be one of the great commandments - it is so important a mitzvah that one may even use money that has been donated to build a synagogue in order to pay the ransom to free a Jew in captivity. (Maimonides, Hilchot Matanot Ani’im 8:11) At certain times in Jewish history, this – tragically – has been a practical law. But when R’ Meir of Rothenberg was taken captive in the Middle Ages, he refused to let the community pay the ransom. He was afraid that this would lead to more kidnappings, to more attempts to secure ransoms for the Jewish people. At one point, the community offered to pay 23,000 pounds of silver to redeem their leader. He refused to allow the deal go through. In the end, he died in captivity, and a wealthy Jew named Alexander Wimpfen paid the ransom for his body in exchange for the honour of ultimately being buried next to the great sage. One can still see the adjacent graves in the Worms Jewish cemetery. In the past weeks, many have pointed to the example of R’ Meir of Rothenberg as proof that Gilad Shalit should not be ransomed. It will just encourage more kidnappings, they claim. But the troubling truth is that Hamas does not need an incentive to carry out more kidnappings. Terrorists who, in the last decade, have fired more than 8,600 rocket attacks at Southern Israel don’t need incentive to kidnap. They hate Israel because it’s a Jewish state, and they kidnapped Gilad Shalit because he was a Jewish soldier. And this, rightfully, scares us. Who wants to be singled out in this way? Who finds joy in being targeted, in being perceived as so…different from the rest of the world? And yet, on this holiday of celebration, it seems that the fact that we are different – unique, I should say – is highlighted, and even celebrated. We find this message in the rituals of Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret. On Sukkot, the sacrifice consists of 70 oxen; on Shemini Atzeret, only one is offered as a sacrifice. The Talmud (Sukah 55b) says that the seventy sacrifices of Sukkot correspond to the seventy nations of the world. The one sacrifice that is offered on Shemini Atzeret corresponds to one nation. The Talmud suggests the parable of a king who orders his servants to prepare a large feast for him [that would last for several days]. On the final day of feasting and celebrating, he says, make a small meal that I will enjoy. Ata bechartanu mikol ha’amim, you have chosen us from among the nations. We

are chosen to attend that small, private, intimate meal. This is a day of pride in our particularity, when we celebrate God’s establishing a separate relationship with the Children of Israel. Tragically, it is often not our religion or tradition or values that have made us aware of our uniqueness. Others – other nations, other religions, other people – have reminded us that we are different. And this past week was no exception to this sad and unfortunate fact: 1,027 to 1. Israel, you are not the same. You will be held to a different standard, you will be forced to make decisions that no nation and no people should ever be forced to make. And don’t expect the world to see your situation in a balanced way. This was the week when we read about the concept of a prisoner swap, with the implied moral equivalency – my prisoner for yours. This was the week when the Secretary General of the United Nations said "The United Nations has been calling for (an end to) the unacceptable detention of Gilad Shalit and also the release of all Palestinians whose human rights have been abused all the time." This was the week when CNN ran features on families of terrorists who have missed their father, brother, son, while he serves multiple well-earned life sentences in jail, and gave equal airtime to the Shalit family. This was the week in which the IDF went to great lengths to ensure that no photographs were publicly released of Gilad Shalit until has family had a chance to see him, and Egypt thought nothing of prolonging (and becoming a partner in) Gilad’s captivity by forcing him to sit through an interview before he received medical care, and before he was reunited with his family. This was the week that the Bureau of Committee on Exercise of Inalienable Rights of Palestinian People issued the statement that it is “appalled that Palestinian prisoners and their families have been used as hostages by the Israeli government!”2 Did I get that right? Israel is the hostage taker? Israel releases over one thousand poor, captive, hostages – vulnerable people, like one who was an accomplice in the Sbarro bombing that killed 15 Israelis, and like the one who planned the 2002 bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya on Passover…and Israel takes the blame? Indeed, this was the week in which we felt so alone in the world, wondering if anyone else is seeing just how absurd this is! Do we really need a holiday to remind us that we are different?!? I believe it is for this reason that the rabbis were not simply satisfied with our
                                                                                                                2     3  

being different. There has to be a value that justifies the uniqueness. The Tzitz Eliezer, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, wrote3 that there are two holidays on the Jewish calendar for which our tradition has created a new name that is not mentioned in the bible. The first is Passover, which is called chag hamatzot, the Festival of Matzot, in the Torah. Yet we call it Pesach, in reference to God’s passing over the houses on the eve of the redemption. And perhaps this change reflect a shift in focus for the holiday: the unleavened matzot was a feature of the Children of Israel’s actions, while Passover is more about God’s actions on that day. And the other holiday that receives a new name is the one we celebrate today and tomorrow. We take the symbol of chosenness – shmini atzeret – and we change its name. We call it Simchat Torah, the celebration of the Torah. Because it’s one thing for others to think that we are different. It’s another to take proactive pride in what makes the Jewish people unique. It is a celebration of difference, not an difference imposed by racism and fear. It is an embracing of the Torah, and of all the value and tradition that comes with it. We can embrace this in two ways: through language and study. Firstly, we must own the language. We are not ‘swapping,’ we are not ‘trading’ – both of those terms imply an attempt at equity, at a fare value given for both! Stamp collector ‘swap’ and ‘trade’; Israel takes great risks because it values the lives of its soldiers. Those that Israel released aren’t simply “jailed Palestinians,” awaiting a blissful reunion with their families. They are walking moral and existential challenges to every Israeli, who will continue to wonder if this risk was too great to take. And they are not simply “prisoners.” One who has Jewish blood on his hands is a terrorist. We need to own the language, to call it as it is! It is not only a day of being different; it’s a day of celebrating the Torah that God has given to our people. And the way we celebrate is to study. Make a commitment to study. Join us for a class or a discussion at the Shaar. The coming months will bring so many opportunities so many ways to increase our understanding of the Torah.
                                                                                                                3  Tzitz  Eliezer  22:35     4  

We embrace our Torah because the more one learns, the more one understands how the Torah has shaped the values of our people. And while some might verbally or militarily attack Israel simply because it’s a Jewish state, and some might have kidnapped Gilad five years ago simply because he is a Jewish soldier, we should never be impeded by these tragic aspects of our world. We should not only focus on why they do what they do; why must also know, with conviction, why we do what we do. The reason that Gilad is back home now is because he is a Jewish soldier serving in the army of the Jewish state; the reason he is now home is because has a Jewish mother and a Jewish father who love him; the reason he has been reunited with his loved ones is because there was a Jewish community inspired by Jewish values that raised its voice to advocate for him. Our celebration on this holiday must not focus on why he was in captivity; it should focus on why it was so important that he be freed. In gratitude for this gift of the value of life, of the wisdom of the Torah, and of the moral fabric of a people committed to learning and growing, we will embrace our living Torah. Ki Etz Chayim Hi Lamachazikim Bah, for it is the tree of a life for those who hold fast to it. Welcome home, Gilad!



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