By Rabbi Alexandra Wright
There are times when I read the narratives of the Torah as literary masterpieces – the unfolding stories of a migrating family, their journeys, their domestic disputes and troubles, and the extraordinary transformation that comes through a relationship with an unseen and unknowable Deity.
There are times when reading Torah from week to week in synagogue, I enter the lives of these ordinary men and women, whose nomadic life was uncertain, whose longing for material and domestic security, for children to whom they could pass on their faith, their blessings and wealth, whose losses and the need for a piece of land to bury their dead, were no different from our own yearnings to commemorate significant times in our lives, and live undisturbed and in peace.
And there are times, when these chronicles suddenly become exquisitely painful and immediate in our own lives.
‘Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1). Avram, seventy-five years old, is commanded by God to leave all that is familiar to him and to journey to a new place – the land that will be his and his descendants.
Yet this place is no Eden. Something of the curse pronounced by God against the earth on account of the first man and woman, remains: ‘Only through anguish shall you eat of [the earth], as long as you live. It shall sprout thorns and thistles for you…’ (Genesis 3:17-18).
Famine ravages the land of Canaan with such severity that Avram and Sarai move south into Egypt. And the fear that Sarai will be abducted and raped by the Egyptians forces a contrivance by Avram: ‘Please say then that you are my sister, so that on your account it may go well for me, and that my life may be spared because of you’ (Genesis 12:13).
Sarah is released, and both return to the Negev. When a quarrel breaks out between Avram and Lot’s cattle herders, because the land cannot support the flocks and herds of both men, Avram allows his nephew to move towards the well-watered Jordan plain and to settle in the east, while Avram remains in the land of Canaan. Here he can pitch his tent and worship the God who called him to settle in this land.
In what is the only chapter in these narratives that highlights Avram’s role in wartime, we see him mustering retainers born into his household and deploying his forces against an army that has taken Lot and all his household captive. The release of these captives is precise and swift: Lot, his wives, children and servants are restored and set free.
This first story of pidyon sh’vuyim – redemption of captives – indirectly becomes enshrined in Jewish law which teaches that ‘every moment that one delays in freeing captives, in cases where it is possible to expedite their freedom, is considered to be tantamount to murder (Shulchan Aruch YD 252:3). In other words, when we do not do our utmost to free those
who have been taken captive, we neglect the mitzvah of pikkuach nefesh – the saving of human life.
Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, lists those mitzvot against which we transgress when we neglect the urgent task of releasing captives:
‘The ransoming of captives takes precedence over the feeding and clothing of the poor. Indeed, there is no religious duty more meritorious than the ransoming of captives, for not only is the captive included in the generality of the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked, but their very life is in jeopardy. One who turns their eyes away from ransoming them, transgresses no less than seven of the commandments, and even more, And they include: ‘You shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand’ (Deuteronomy 15:7), ‘Neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbour’ (Leviticus 19:16), ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Levitcus 19:18), ‘Deliver them that are drawn unto death’ (Proverbs 24:11), and many similar admonitions. To sum up, there is no religious duty greater [mitzvah rabbah] than the ransoming of captives.’
From afar during these past three weeks, we have witnessed Israeli and Palestinian families undertaking the sad and grievous task of burying their dead in the aftermath of a brutal and merciless pogrom. And we grieve with them.
Avram’s rescue of Lot and his family illustrates the humanitarian and halakhic obligation to work for the release of over 220 people – innocent civilians, vulnerable children and the elderly, being held, we know not where.
What is the price the Israeli government is willing to pay for the release of over 220 blameless and vulnerable hostages held in Gaza? Perhaps not in financial terms, but in a deal that releases innocent civilians from a different kind of imprisonment, isolation, bombardment and starvation in Gaza, 2,200,000 in number, whose lives are held in the balance and who have nowhere to flee.
Let me be clear, this question is no way lessens our condemnation of the terrorist atrocities in Israel, the worst that Israel has seen in her short history, and Hamas’s heinous war crimes of murder, torture and rape and the abduction of innocent civilians. But is there a tiny possibility that someone, whether in Israel or among her allies, can help with this humanitarian work of freeing our people? There is a short window of time and opportunity to release those being held before anything happens on the ground.
We do not have the autonomy and power of Avram who, as warrior hero was able to muster his retainers to rescue Lot and his family. Seeing the suffering and trauma in Israel of the bereaved, of families waiting with hope for the return of parents, children and extended family; witnessing the suffering and trauma of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, victims of bombardment and of Hamas’s indifference to their own people, we can only pray for an end to hostilities, for the leadership of an Avram who refuses to accept the spoils of war. His battle is not for land or material gain, but for the righteous cause of releasing those who had been taken captive.
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