The Redemption of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl

this the text of a Shabbat sermon from 6/7/14

     Some of you may remember the name Gilad Shalit.  He is the Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas in 2006, and held in captivity for more than 5 years.  If you visited Israel during that span and walked by the Prime Minister’s residence, just off of King George St, you would have seen Galit’s family maintaining a 24/7 vigil on the sidewalk, with a large sign counting the number of days their son was held.  I remember at one point walking by the sign when it read 1,700 and something days.  Shalit was a young man when he was captured, all of 19, and he became a cause celebre for Israelis everywhere – there were free Gilad Shalit bumper stickers, his face was on the cover of magazines and the front page of newspapers, his case was the topic of countless op ed columns.

     In the fall of 2011, on the 18th of October, Shalit was finally freed.  The Netanyahu government cut a deal with Hamas, a prisoner exchange, releasing Palestinian prisoners so that Shalit could come home.  He returned to Israel a hero, was interviewed on every TV show imaginable, asked to speak at national events, and now does his best to live quietly, working as a sports writer for a local Israeli paper.  

     On the surface it might seem like the Shalit story is the exact opposite of the story we’ve been following this week about the release of Bowe Bergdahl from Afghanistan, but in fact there are many similarities between the two.  Both were held prisoner for five years time.  Both were promoted to sergeant while in captivity.  And perhaps most interestingly, both were brought home in disproportionate prisoner exchanges.  In Bergdahl’s case, he was exchanged for 5 Taliban fighters.  In Shalit’s case, the number was far greater – the Netanyahu government handed over more than 1,000 Palestinians so that Shalit could return home safely.  

     Maybe that number catches you off guard – over 1000 prisoners handed over for one soldier.  But it actually shouldn’t, at least not if you follow prisoner exchange stories from Israel.  Here are the facts – over the past half century, the Israeli government has freed 16 Israeli soldiers in prisoner exchange deals – for a total of over 13,500 Palestinians.  Don’t worry about the math – I’ve done it for you already – it is a ratio of roughly 800 Palestinians for every 1 Israeli soldier. 

     I imagine that number may surprise you a bit.  But the truth is the idea, or probably better to say the value, of redeeming a captive is a central value not only for the State of Israel, but for Judaism in general.  In fact it is considered in the tradition to be a mitzvah, a commandment, one of the 613, called simply פדיון שבויים the redemption of captives.  Judaism’s investment in this idea goes back to its very earliest history and the biblical story of Abraham and his nephew Lot in Genesis 14.  When Lot is taken captive by a band of raiders in Abraham pursues him with an armed force, overtaking the raiders and freeing him.  And over time the value expressed in that story was actually codified first in the Talmud where the commandment of redeeming captives is called a mitzvah rabbah, a great commandment.  Then by the time we get to the 16th century and the seminal code of Jewish Law the Shulhan Aruch, we find the following statement:    “Redeeming captives takes precedence over sustaining the poor and clothing them, and there is no commandment more important than redeeming captives.”

     The two primary underlying values of the mitzvah of redeeming captives are both central values in modern Israel.  One is the idea national solidarity – כל ישראל עריבים זה בזה – that all Jews are responsible for one another.  This is the same principle that is at work when we buy an Israel bond, or donate to JNF – we feel we are connected as part of the Jewish people, and we are responsible for our fellow Jews, all around the world.  And the second principle at work is arguably Judaism’s greatest value of all, that every human life is infinitely valuable.  And when you combine those two ideas – the powerful sense of national unity that Jews feel, and the enormously high value placed on human life – you have laid the groundwork for a culture that will trade over 1000 prisoners for a single individual.  

     It is also important to note that originally the mitzvah of redeeming captives had nothing to do with someone being a soldier.  In fact, if anything it was more about civilians who had been taken captive while traveling in talmudic times, when traveling could be a very dangerous business – traders, average Jews who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  So it wouldn’t matter if the person who was captured was a soldier or not a soldier, or in fact was a soldier in good standing, or a decorated war hero, or a deserter from his post.  It would just matter if the person was a Jew.  And if so, then the community – and in modern times the State of Israel – had a responsibility to try to bring that person home, even at a very high cost.

     Now I would like to think that the United States also believes in the values of national unity and the infinite worth of every human life.  Our particular challenge is that we do not all come from the same place, or from the same family tree – but even so there are moments when we feel strongly that whatever differences we have, we are all Americans, part of one great nation.  Commemorating the 70th anniversary of D Day yesterday might have reminded us of that.  And if we do believe in those values, it would seem to me that bringing home Bowe Bergdahl was exactly the right thing to do.  It didn’t matter whether he was a good soldier or a disgraced one.  Only two things mattered – first, that he was an American in captivity, and secondly, that he was a human being whose life was in danger.  And that should be all we need to know.

     Not that mistakes weren’t made, they certainly were.  The Obama administration made a mistake by trying to turn this whole business into an opportunity for a photo op that would make them look good.  It has certainly back fired on them, and I am sure now they wish they had just quietly arranged this deal and brought the young man home with no fanfare.  And critics of the deal have also made a mistake, suggesting in so many words that it would have been better to leave a young American in captivity, that his life wasn’t worth the 5 Taliban prisoners.  We are better as a nation than both of those perspectives.  At least I hope we are.

     So lets be grateful.  Not only for the sacrifices of the greatest generation that we commemorated yesterday, but also for the fact that a young American, after 5 years in captivity, was able to come home.  Lets leave him alone to try to rebuild his life, and wish him success in that endeavor.  In doing so we will be leaving the politics behind, and reflecting the true values that make our country great  – compassion and caring, humanity and equality, and freedom for all.

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