Mulling the price of freedom at Passover

When we say that ‘we will do anything to bring our boys back’, what do we mean by anything?Unless something dramatic happens in the coming hours, there are three Israeli soldiers will not sit at the Seder tables on Monday …

When we say that ‘we will do anything to bring our boys back’, what do we mean by anything?Unless something dramatic happens in the coming hours, there are three Israeli soldiers will not sit at the Seder tables on Monday night with their families or their comrades. Gilad Shalit is held prisoner of war somewhere in the Gaza Strip and Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser are in the hands of Hizbullah in Lebanon. So while millions of Jews in Israel and all over the world celebrate the historic liberation of the ‘people of Israel’ from Egypt, their joy – like every Jewish joy – will be a bit bitter, because of the absence of the three sons.

Bringing the boys home is not only a matter of interest. Israeli soldiers are willing to do everything for their country, even risking their lives, because they know that if they become prisoners of war, Israel will go out of its way to bring them back home. I flew with the Israeli Air Force for 37 years and I always felt confident about that. Many times I was assigned to secondary missions that had only one purpose: to rescue fellow pilots who flew the primary mission, if and when they get in trouble.

Sometimes the price paid for freeing our boys is extremely high: In 1985, Israel released 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers who have been abducted by the Jibril organization. Last summer, Israel went to war against Hizbullah as a result of the kidnapping of Regev and Goldwasser and the killing of other Israeli soldiers. Most Israelis felt it was justifiable.

And of course, there is the open case of Ron Arad, the airman who was taken POW in 1986 in Lebanon by the Shi’ite organization Amal, transferred to a pro-Iranian group and never heard of again. Despite huge sums of money being offered for any piece of information, and other operations including the 1995 abduction of Amal’s Mustafa Dirani, the case of Arad is still open.

Redeeming the captive (‘Pidyon Shvuyim) is also a Jewish mitzva: ‘you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother’ (Lev. 19:16). No lesser mitzva is to bury a dead Jew. Last year, in the Second Lebanon War, an Israeli helicopter crashed behind enemy lines and all five crew members perished. All bodies were evacuated except that of Sgt. Maj. Keren Tendler, the female flight mechanic.

It’s IDF mandatory policy that the copter wreck be bombed from the air, so that Hizbullah wasn’t able to lay its hands on it. Yet it was decided to send an infantry unit to look again for Tendler’s body, which they found. With the cover of darkness, they marched back to Israel, carrying it on a stretcher. Israelis later watched this gloomy march, which was filmed by an infra-red camera and aired on television, with sorrow, but with pride as well: We will never leave our men and women behind, even when they are dead.

However, when we say that ‘we will do anything to bring our boys back’, what do we mean by anything? Our enemies, who have long discovered this soft spot of ours, have been exploiting it mercilessly. In other words, vowing to do anything in such cases, makes Israel an eternal candidate for extortion.

One of our old sages has already cautioned us against it. Rabbi Meir Ben Baruch, The Maharam of Rotenburg, was one of the leading rabbis of Germany in the 13th century, when King Rudolph started persecuting the Jews. He arrested the Maharam, hoping to get a huge ransom for him, and indeed, the Jews started to collect money for that purpose. Yet the Maharam, from his cell, issued a directive strictly prohibiting such move, by citing the Halacha: “It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth” ( Gittin 45). He pointed out that setting a precedent in his case would endanger all Torah sages, who would become instruments of kidnapping and extortion.

So when we Israelis sit at the Seder table Monday night and tell the story of how the people of Israel gained their freedom, we should also be thinking about the price of freedom.

I know that if I looked around the table and one of my children was missing, because he or she were in enemy hands, I would want my country to do anything to bring them back. As a collective, however, wishing to persevere and maintain our resilience, we also have other considerations.