Our Duty to Gilad Shalit

Sermon delivered August 20, 2010, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


Let me tell you about a conversation I had, one night this summer at Greene Family Camp. I was speaking with the head of the mishlahat, the delegation of Israeli staff members who work at the Camp each summer. Having come to Texas and our Camp for several summers now, Maya is familiar with our young people and their ways. Nevertheless, she was distressed.

You see, I was speaking with Maya on the night of June 24, an ordinary Thursday evening for you and me, and for the children and American staff at Camp. For the Israelis, though, the date was more meaningful. The next day, June 25, would be the fourth anniversary of the captivity of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas, the radical Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip.

Maya was trying to communicate a message about Gilad Shalit to an American Jewish Camp community. Yes, everybody would sit respectfully and listen the next night, at Shabbat services, as Israeli staff members offered prayers for Shalit’s well-being. Some might even recognize the name, having observed this anniversary at Camp in the past. When we hear the story, we feel sympathetic, as we would for any human being held captive by hostile terrorists. Our minds may link Shalit’s story to that of Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam. We struggle, though, to experience a personal connection; and that difficulty was what troubled Maya so terribly.

Gilad Shalit, his plight, and the yearnings of his family are never far from the Israeli mind. Tonight, I would suggest that we, here in San Antonio, though we are thousands of miles away, nevertheless share a duty to be mindful of the terror that is Gilad Shalit’s life every day. We have a religious obligation to get to know this young man, to recognize his name, and to do our part, however symbolic, to secure his freedom.

For centuries, our Rabbis have taught that freeing captives, which is called pidyon shavuyim in Hebrew, is one of the highest mitzvot, one of the most important requirements of a Jew. Sadly, our people, living under hostile rule, had to perform this mitzvah with some regularity. Neighboring peoples would kidnap a Jew and hold him or her hostage, demanding ransom. The local authorities were deaf to our peoples’ pleas, so they could not turn to law enforcement to free a captured Jew. Instead, the Jewish community would gather and pay the ransom, to prevent the captured Jew from being tortured, raped, or killed. The bonds between Jews were so tight that everybody contributed to the ransom. Failure to do so was to cut one’s self off from the community.

Viewing our ancestors’ actions through our modern lens, some may think them foolish. If the criminals knew that ransom would be paid, why not continue to kidnap? Since our people paid the ransom, we might say that they negotiated with terrorists; and worse, that they gave in to the evildoers. But our ancestors were not blessed with our circumstances. They could not call the police. The only protection they had was one another. And so, the Jewish people drew together as communities, and they took care of one another. Part of the “deal” was that hostages really were returned when the ransom was paid. The community was made whole again when the captive was redeemed.

The State of Israel will never admit that it negotiates with terrorists. Officially, the Israeli government has not made countless offers, including the release of terrorists in Israeli prisons, in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit. Israel does have means at its disposal, not the least being its legendary military intelligence and the considerable strength of its Armed Forces. Nevertheless, even after a war in Gaza, Corporal Shalit remains in captivity. Understandably, Israelis are frustrated, frequently protesting that the government do more to secure Shalit’s liberty. After all, his release was among the goals of that war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead.

We might ask why ordinary Israelis, citizens from all parts of the country and all walks of life, people who have never met Gilad Shalit, nevertheless constantly have his name on their lips. We may well wonder whether the American public would react the same way if one of our soldiers were captured in Iraq or Afghanistan and held prisoner for a number of years.

Perhaps the difference is that many Americans do not personally know anybody who serves in the Armed Forces. Of course, in San Antonio, we do know men and women in service, and our own congregants have been deployed. However, in this country, in this generation, a relatively small percentage of the citizenry serves in the military. Most American fathers and mothers do not anticipate that their own children will serve in the Armed Forces one day.

In Israel, on the other hand, virtually every young person enters the military after high school graduation. Ordinary Israeli parents, like my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, raise their children, such as my three nieces, with the expectation that they will serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Thank God, all three of our nieces served with distinction, and have safely completed their service, though the eldest, Ruth, continues in the reserves because of her specific training. Every Israeli parent knows the worry that their son or their daughter may not come home next Shabbat. Every Israeli has been to funerals for young men and women lost in battle or in a terrorist attack. For the last four years, every Israeli has said to himself or herself: “I could have been Gilad Shalit;” or, “My child could have been kidnapped like Gilad.”

Let us be clear: Gilad Shalit is not a prisoner of war. He was not captured in the midst of hostilities. Instead, Hamas terrorists seized him on Israeli soil, in a well-planned attack that killed and wounded several of Shalit’s comrades.

Let us be clear: Gilad Shalit is a kidnapped hostage, but Hamas considers him to be an enemy combatant. International Law governs the treatment of such prisoners; for example, they must be permitted visits from the International Red Cross. For more than four years, though, Hamas has allowed no such visit.

Let us reflect: Twice during these four years, Hamas has released videos proving that Gilad is still alive. Twice, in four years, on tapes from terrorists, Gilad’s parents have seen his face and heard his voice. Wherever he is, in a prison cell or in an underground hole, we know that Gilad’s life is torture. And what can life be for Aviva and Noam Shalit, his parents?

Let us reflect: Elie Wiesel has written: “To the hostage, time itself is torture. It becomes an enemy. Filled with uncertainty, his time is different from ours. His waiting is not like ours. His minutes are longer than ours.” From his own experience in the Holocaust, Wiesel knows of what he speaks.

Let us reflect on our own lives over the last four years. We have lived and we have loved. We have learned and we have worked. We have laughed and we have cried. Can any of us imagine being robbed of these last four years, held by hateful terrorists, never knowing if we will see our loved ones ever again?

Back at Camp in the summer, my friend Maya was distressed, but she wasn’t angry. She understands why American Jews do not feel for Gilad as she does, but she doesn’t like it. We are all one Jewish family, wherever we live in this world. In so many ways, the men and women of the Israel Defense Forces are fighting for all of us, for our freedom to live as Jews with dignity, not only in Israel but around the world.

Let us, then, act as one Jewish family.

This year, as we approach the High Holy Days, let us take one action for Gilad Shalit, at least one, each us. In your Orders of Service tonight, you will find information about a national effort to collect greetings to be sent to Gilad Shalit, to mark his 24th birthday and to bring in the New Year on Rosh Hashanah. But we can do more. We can ask our members of Congress to support Resolutions, introduced in both the House and Senate and calling for the release of Gilad Shalit. We can make sure that our friends and neighbors, Jews and others, hear the name Gilad Shalit. We can tell his story. Unlike so much about Israel and its neighbors, the facts about Gilad Shalit are not complicated. His story is as simple as it is horrible: Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by terrorists. He is a hostage. We demand his release.

And please note how I have repeated his name: Gilad Shalit. Let us say his name, over and over, until it is on our lips like it rolls off the tongues of our brothers and sisters in Israel. Gilad Shalit!

As we come to know Gilad, so may we draw nearer to all the people and the Land of Israel.

And let us pray, for we are a religious people. Our tradition commands that we work for redemption of the captives, and it also offers us the words to pray. Please hear these ancient words, not my words, but the words of our Jewish tradition: Mi sh’beirach avoteinu, Avraham, Yitzhak v’Yaakov, V’imoteinu, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel v’Leah, Hu yivarech et Gilad ben Noam v’Aviva;May God who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless, preserve and protect Gilad ben Noam v’Aviva (Shalit). May God rescue him from captivity and speedily restore him in peace, to his land and family. May the Holy One show him mercy, increase his strength, remove his pain and send him a recovery of body and spirit, and return him to the bosom of his family. May our prayers for him be answered swiftly and let us say:

Amen.