This week, Jews the world over celebrate the Festival of Simchat Torah, with generations of Jews enveloping the Torah in a circle of love. Simply put there is no object in Judaism more revered than a Torah Scroll. Containing the Five Books of Moses, its calligraphied words encapsulating all that bind our ancient Faith Community, are painstakingly inscribed on parchment by a scribe.
Throughout the millennium, Jews have lived by and even died to preserve their holy Torah. It’s intrinsic holiness means we rise in its presence, do not touch its letters with the naked hand and, if G-d forbid, it is burned or desecrated, the Holy Torah is buried in the Jewish cemetery.
And yet Jewish law demands, that a community’s last Torah scroll must be sold off to perform one special deed: Redeeming a Jew from captivity.
The Talmud says captivity is worse than starvation or death. The great Medieval scholar Maimonides, who lived in an era when helpless Jews were too often held for hostage, collected money to redeem them and lashed out at those who refused to help as violating biblical commandments, including "you shall not harden your heart" (Deuteronomy 15:7); "you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother" (Leviticus 19:16); and "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).
One legal text admonishes that anyone who delays in ransoming a captive is akin to a murderer.
All this to explain the profound and deep Judaic roots that weighed on Israel Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s quest to free Gilad Shalit. Indeed, if all goes according to plan (and what ever does in the Middle East?) the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas five years ago, will be reunited with loved ones by Simchat Torah.
But the celebration will be muted at best, as families of thousands of innocent Israelis murdered and maimed by homicide attacks, are left to watch the Palestinian masses welcome these convicted murderers as conquering heroes.
Arnold Roth, whose daughter was cut down atSbarro’s Pizza shop in downtown Jerusalem, has launched an 11th hour worldwide campaign to have Ahlam Tamimi, a 31-year-old woman who planned the attack and drove the suicide bombers to Sbarros, kept in jail. There’s little doubt, that once release in Jordan Ms. Tamimi will resume her efforts to murder more Israelis. "I'm not sorry for what I did," she said in a 2006 interview. "I will get out of prison, and I refuse to recognize Israel's existence.” In a documentary on Palestinian prisoners, she was asked whether she knew how many children had been killed in the attack. She did not. When told the number was eight, she smiled…
Which brings us back to what separates us from such murderers: The Law.
Indeed, 2,000 years ago the Talmud explicitly cautioned that the commandment to redeem the captive ends when the deal upends “ Tikun Olam” -- the good order of the world. Meaning, only make the deal, if "… they [=the kidnappers] should not seize more captives".
Tragically, throughout 2,000 years of exile, embattled Jewish leaders, too often found themselves between a rock and a hard place, more often than not, forced to pay high ransoms, with the knowledge they were helpless to stop the nextkidnapping.
Even the modern state of Israel has not been immune from this scourge.. Over the last four decades, Jewish scholars have grappled with the phenomenon of terrorist kidnappings-- from the Entebbe skyjacking saga in 1976 to the Shalit affair.
The late former Chief Rabbi Goren, ruled that one must not pay more than the captive's value because it would encourage the kidnappers to kidnap more Jews and endanger the public.Rabbi Goren’s conclusion: the safety of one or a few Jews in captivity does not take precedence over the safety of the entire public and without doubt, the freeing hundreds or thousands of terrorists in 2011 will definitely increase terrorism and the threat of more kidnappings.
But other scholars disagree since Israel is struggling with a war based on Palestinian nationalism—not money. And so, the price paid for Gilad Shalit's freedom, however painful and lopsided, they argue, will not make any difference to Hamas or Hezbollah, who will continue to try to kidnap Jews regardless of what Israel does.
It will be a bittersweet Simchat Torah this year for us Jews: We celebrate a tradition that cherishes Life and helped repatriate a kidnappedson; while we cast a wary eye on terrorists who leverage our reverence for life to stoke the flames of their culture of death.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization with over 400,000 family members.