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May 22, 2000

The Jerusalem Report

Redeeming Men, Redeeming God

Danny Eisen

"THE SWORD IS WORSE THAN DEATH,/ FAMINE is worse than the sword,/ captivity is the worst of all" (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 8a)

Throughout history, Jews have gone to remarkable lengths to retrieve their breatheren from hostile hands. This ethic, reffered to in rabbinic literature as pidyon shvuyim ("redemption of captives"), is the only precept designated by the Talmudic rabbis as a mitzvah rabba ("great mitzvah"). Its special status, explicated in the major works of Jewish law, goes to the heart of defining the moral and material dimensions of the "value" of human life.

Oddly, however, given its unique standing in Jewish law, no specific directive to redeem captives is found anywhere in the Bible. Maimonidies and other authorities do list a series of Biblical precepts that are violated if one is remiss in fulfilling this duty. One - the obligation not to "rule over him [your fellow man] ruthlessly" (Leviticus 25:43) - is found in the Torah portion Behar. Yet this verse actually refers to the proper treatment of Jewish slaves owned by other Jews, not to the rescue of Jews from non-Jewish hands. In fact, none of the verses cited by Maimonidies in his major halakhic work "Yad Hazakah" refers directly to the rescue of captives. This duty, he explains, falls under the general rubric of mandated assistance for the hungry, the naked, and the imperiled.

The absence of a distinct legal imperative to rescue captives is offset by the high profile afforded this subject in the biblical narrative. Abraham, the first redeemer of captives, risks everything by going to war against the great regional powers to rescue his captured kinsman Lot (Genesis 14). In Numbers 21, the nation of Israel angrily initiates war to retrieve (according to rabbinic tradition) a single captive of non-Jewish origin whom the Canaanites had taken in battle. And King David responds similarly when Jewish captives are taken by the Amalekites(I Samuel 30). In all of these cases, the mode of response is uncompromising, even in the absence of an explicit divine commandment.

How are we to understand this absence of an explicit order to fullfil the "great mitzvah"? The answer may lie in the 14th-century Rabbi Bahya ben Asher's "Kad Hakemah," which refers us to the Decalogue. In the first commandmen, which many halakhic authorities understood as the precepts to believe in God, the Almighty presents himself as the great redeemer: "I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt." Rabbi Bahya, like other commentators, is perplexed by the verse's reference to the Exodus. If any feat were to be highlighted in this indentifying statement, surely the creation of the universe is the most obvious choice. Why settle for a more "local" and less extraordinary miracle? Rabbi Bahya ultimately concludes that the verse describes God as the redeemer of captives as an exhortation to become like Him.

Thus it would appear that the rescue of captives is so cardinal a principle that it merits implicit mention in the fundamental Jewish tennet: to believe in God. How can we explain this? Jewish sources posit that there is more than one type of captive. The Talmud (Berakhot 8a) describes God Himself as a "captive" who can be redeemed only through man's observance of mitzvot and study of Torah. Jewish mystical tradition elaborates the redemption of captives as a paradigm of the dynamics of the entire system of commandments. While God, in himself, is infinite, His hidden presence in the world - the Shekhinah - is perceived as being in exile and can be redeemed from its "imprisonment" through human religious endeavor. Thus the fulfillment of all of the commandments is an act of redeeming captives that releases the spritual potential latent in all corporeal reality.

Finally, the very term "redemption of captives" suggests that even the liberation of flesh-and-blood prisoners involves something larger than the restoration of their freedom. In rabbinic sources the term is always given in the plural, suggesting that there's no such thing as a single captive, for the Jewish nation is understood as an organic spiritual whole that acts as a vehicle for the revelation of divinity. This wholeness is viewed as a prerequisite for the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the messianic era and the ultimate fulfillment of Jewish destiny. If any part of the whole is in captivity, the entire collective is, on some level, in captivity as well.

Danny Eisen is chairman of the International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers, based in Jerusalem.


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