Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gilad Shalit: Love Life!

Today in Israel, we were as one people. 

The Jewish people felt united. 

On Sukkot, the "four species" represent 4 different types of Jew which we take and bind together. Today, we were bound together by one person: Gilad Shalit. The hardened news reporters and anchormen were choking up the tears. It seemed as if the entire country were glued to some media format for hourly updates. I certainly followed the day's events with baited breath, just waiting for a first glimpse of Gilad, and feeling a sense of relief and closure as made his way back to Mitzpe Hila - back home.

It has been a highly emotional day, and it is virtually impossible to add something original after so much has been written. Instead of posting my original thoughts, I will share some quotes that resonated with me today:

In agreeing to this prisoner swap, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli public chose to return to their roots, to revive a central tenet of old-time Israeli ideology: we do not leave our sons in the field.

The tenet is as old as the country itself. It stems from the fact that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is a citizens’ army, in which conscription is universal and every family knows that it could face the same tragedy as the Shalits. And in the army itself, the “stretcher march,” in which soldiers in training are ordered to carry one of their heaviest comrades on a stretcher up hills and down valleys for miles, is a formative ritual meant to instill one message: there is never a case in which soldiers cannot bring their wounded home.

This ethic is taught in other armies, too, but it resonates differently in Israel. From the moment of his capture, Gilad Shalit has been a household name. Compare this to the silence in the United States regarding Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier held hostage by the Taliban since June 2009. Ever since Shalit’s kidnapping, Israeli society has been wracked by a sense that it failed in its obligation to him. 

Miki Goldwasser mother of IDF reserve soldier Ehud Goldwasser, abducted and killed by Hezbollah in 2006

On Tuesday we shall see decorated stages, flags and joyous masses in Gaza. We shall see many arms raised and many fingers making the victory sign. Gaza shall rejoice, and to my great regret Israel will be affected by these sights. 
Dear citizens, think about it: The families of terrorists are happy like we are as we see Gilad Shalit's return. However, they did not win, and they know it. They were humiliated precisely because so many terrorists were released for only one soldier.

Make no mistake about it. They realize and feel this humiliation. They realize that they are not worth much if they are willing to exchange 1,000 of their own for one Israeli soldier. Do you really think that Gaza residents are not jealous of us, Israelis, for being so united around one soldier? It’s impossible not to envy us. Look at the global reactions – everyone is stunned.
In Israel, like the swaying palm branches of the Lulav, the mood of the people tends to fluctuate from one extreme to another. This time around, listen to the voice of reason and do not be deceived by the images from Gaza. The joy there is artificial. 

 Adrian Blomfield in the Daily Telegraph

For every Israeli who has served in the armed forces there is a feeling they could easily have been Gilad Shalit. For every Israeli parent, the young conscript could quite conceivably have been their own son.

In return for a sacrifice everyone has to make, Israelis believe that it is incumbent on the government to do everything in its power to save a living soldier when something goes wrong – whatever the cost.

But it also runs deeper than that. The notion of doing everything in one's power to free someone unjustly taken prisoner is deep rooted in the fabric of Israeli society.

This is partly due to the country's Jewish heritage. In Judaism, winning the release of any Jew held captive by gentiles – something known in Hebrew as pidyon shvuyim – is a commandment ordained by God. Heeding it brings you blessings; failing to fulfil it is a sin.

Captivity is worse than starvation or death, Jewish teaching says. "The redeeming of captives take precedence over supporting the poor or clothing them," wrote the Jewish scholar Maimonides in the Middle Ages.

For modern Israel, with its almost universal belief of being a country under siege, the Jewish notion of pidgin shvuyim is a hallowed creed, an affirmation that a militarised state can only be strong if it protects all its citizens, particularly its soldiers – no matter how lowly.

"Israel's main asset in human and security terms is the sense of mutual responsibility that its citizens and soldiers feel towards one another," wrote Avi Shavit, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

"Without this feeling, there is no meaning to our lives here. Without this feeling, we have neither army, security, nor the ability to protect ourselves.

"Rightly or not, Shalit has become a symbol of mutual responsibility. And therefore his forthcoming release will not only be the redemption of a captive and the saving of a life and the return home of a son. Shalit's release will be the realisation of Israeli solidarity."
 And Daniel Taub (Israel ambassador to the UK)

As much as all Israelis know and identify with the young men and women who serve in defence of their country, so do they also know a victim of a terrorist atrocity. And many of those involved in perpetrating such atrocities are among those who will be released as part of the Shalit deal. Israelis cannot help but wonder whether we are saving one life, the face we know, at the cost of other unknown faces in future terrorist attacks.

Is it possible to overvalue life? Have our tradition and national psyche clouded our judgment and created an Achilles heel?

Disturbingly, the terrorist groups we confront seem to think so. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah once declared “We shall win because the Jews are weak and love life.” Fathi Hammad, a leading Hamas figure echoed this credo as he defended the strategy of sending women and children to shield terrorist bases: “We desire death as you desire life!”

But at its root, the decision to make the deal was not won by pragmatic arguments or realpolitik. We are bringing Gilad home, and paying the painful price, not because we know that this is the correct strategic decision, but because of our profound conviction that it ought to be. The bittersweet joy of the moment presents a challenge to us all. If this indeed is not a world in which placing supreme value on a single human life is the best course of action, then let us work to make it one.
Taub's point is quite significant. Yesterday was a celebration of saving a life. Some are saying that with 1000 terrorists on the loose, this is foolish and shortsighted. Some will say that today was shallow sentimentalism and easy emotion. There is truth in both these statements. And yet, today, Gilad is our brother and son who has come home. We are all his family. And we have shown that we are who we are because we value life and our solidarity.

Monday, October 10, 2011

From Yom Kippur to Sukkot

At this moment in time, we have emerged from the seriousness of Elul and the עשרת ימי תשובה (Ten days of Penitence) to the joy of Sukkot - "zman simchateinu." In shul, the heaviness and looming tension has palpably lifted as our prayers are suddenly lighter, streamlined - the selichot, avinu malkeinu and various other additions to our prayers have been exchanged for a "no tachanun" week. For the regular shul-goer, there is no sweeter relief than that!

We may well ask ourselves what remains then, of the Yamim Nora'im? To answer this question, I will share an idea that I heard from Rav Yaakov Medan some years back. He related to the biblical Yonah, who entered the city of Nineveh and issued the famous proclamation:  "In forty days Nineveh will be overturned - עוד ארבעים יום ונינבה נהפכת" and astonishingly, the population, from king to child, all swiftly respond in a contrite mood of repentance, each returning stolen items and recanting their evil acts.

The text tells us that God retracts his condemnation of the city (echoing the famous line in Shemot 32:14 in which God waves his pronouncement of destruction after the Golden calf):

(י) וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כִּי שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה וַיִּנָּחֶם הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם וְלֹא עָשָׂה 
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it
Yonah (mysteriously) finds this repentance exceptionally distasteful. He sits outside the city and builds a Sukka: "to see what will transpire in the city." What is Yonah waiting for? And why is he so miserable? Does he think the city might be destroyed after 40 days? The Radak and the Metzudat David suggest that Yonah is waiting to see whether their penitence is genuine, in other words, whether their resolutions will hold, or will their behavior will merely revert back to its sinful ways - "עד אשר יראה אולי לא יעמדו בתשובתם" Yonah is rather cynical and suspicious regarding this "quick fix" teshuva, and he suspects that the changes are cosmetic in nature, and that very soon, the people will resume their sinful acts.

Rav Medan suggested that Yonah's skepticism should resound in our ears, in that our situation mirrors that of Nineveh. 

The model of Nineveh is built upon a pattern of a 40 day period of repentance, followed by a test period. We too have 40 days: the month of Elul and the 10 days of repentance. But what follows these 40 days of repentance? We now encounter a test period. The question that we face is whether OUR New Year's Resolutions will hold, or whether the commitments that we made sincerely and genuinely in the fervor of Yom Kippur will simply dissipate and evaporate. With the close of the tension of the days of penitence, we are challenged to ask ourselves whether our teshuva is only cosmetic, or whether it constitutes an enduring, fundamental reorientation of our behavior and lifestyle

Here we should pay attention to the small detail in the text. Yonah sits in a SUKKA (!) to see what will transpire in the city. The test is simple: Will our decisions last even the 5 short days until Sukkkot? Will we succeed in retaining that religious tension and passion even in these lighter, less intense, normal days? Will we be susceptible to Yonah's biting critique or will our change be more substantial?
Good luck! - Behatzlacha!