Israel is a small country. Everyone I know knows somebody who was killed or affected by the excruciating events of the past week. In my case, it is a family friend from our synagogue, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a dual American-Israeli citizen, who was at the outdoor music festival that was ambushed by Hamas. Hundreds of people were murdered at the festival; some were taken hostage. Hersh was most likely one of them.
During the attacks of last weekend, an estimated 150 Israelis were kidnapped and are still being held hostage in Gaza as Israel may be preparing to launch a ground invasion of the enclave. Men, women, young and old, children and adults. Many are injured. We don’t know if they are being treated medically. Every hour that passes endangers them further.
Historically in Israel, the effort to seek the release of captives is a central ethos. Israel has gone out of its way both militarily and diplomatically to obtain the release of its citizens in the past. In 2011, it released more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, a soldier who was kidnapped in 2006 by Hamas. In 2004, Israel released nearly 450 prisoners to secure the release of an Israeli citizen, Elhanan Tennenbaum, and the bodies of three soldiers who were presumed to have been killed in action, all held by Hezbollah. There are many other examples, because the idea of sacrificing everything to return the captured is far older than the state of Israel. It can be found in the texts of our Jewish tradition.
Our sages saw securing the freedom of Jewish prisoners as a great commandment. The Amidah, the central prayer that observant Jews recite three times a day, speaks of God’s compassion as one who “heals the sick and frees the captives.” Our sages teach that we should follow in God’s footsteps and according to his attributes.
The importance of releasing prisoners is based on a very concrete understanding of what being a prisoner entails: The third-century sage Rabbi Yochanan said that the sword is worse than death, hunger is worse than the sword, and being a prisoner is worse than all, as it holds all of these within it, a teaching repeated in the Babylonian Talmud. Based on this, the great 12th-century legal scholar Maimonides wrote in his codex that ransoming prisoners is of an even higher moral and ethical value than feeding the poor, as the prisoner is both poor and shackled. And a revered 16th-century scholar, Rabbi Joseph Karo, known as the codifier of Jewish law, wrote that he who delays ransoming the prisoner is