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Drawing Strength from History to Overcome Hamas

Since October 7, we have learned a great deal about how well-prepared Hamas was for its murderous rampage and kidnappings. What Hamas likely did not know, however, is that the Jewish people has been preparing for this moment for over 2,000 years.

The dilemmas facing Israel today are not new, and the Jewish people have hard-won experience navigating them.

Pausing its war against Hamas, and freeing convicted terrorists, to secure the release of about 20% of the hostages Hamas took last month was an excruciating decision for Israel. Opponents of the deal argued that Israel should settle for nothing less than all 240 hostages, and that trading three terrorists for each hostage will inevitably increase terrorists’ appetite for taking more Israeli hostages in the future.

It is fascinating – though perhaps not surprising – that this is an ancient debate among Jews, recorded in the Talmud almost 2,000 years ago. On one hand, there is no question that redeeming captives is a priority of the highest order, requiring genuine sacrifice. On the other hand, the sages of the Talmud ruled that the Jewish community should not pay an exorbitant amount to ransom a kidnapped Jew. The reason? “For the good of the world.” Overpaying (whatever that means in a particular context) drains the community’s resources, encourages further hostage-taking, and ultimately endangers everyone.

Based on this principle, the famous sage Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who was taken hostage about 800 years ago, forbade his students from raising funds for his release, lest paying a ransom encourage more kidnappings of rabbinic figures and others. He died in captivity seven years later.

Over the centuries, in situations when kidnappers posed an imminent threat to the lives of hostages, some rabbis ruled that overpayment is permitted. Others disagreed, continuing to fear that, although saving even a single hostage’s life is of immeasurable value, the long-term dangers of overpaying might still outweigh it.

These debates are a testament, first and foremost, to the infinite value Judaism places on every human life because, as the Book of Genesis records, all human beings are created in the image of God. As the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England, explained, the idea that every human life has infinite value is “perhaps the most transformative in the entire history of moral and political thought.” It is one of Judaism’s great contributions to the world.

Further, the very existence of these debates is also a historical record of the savagery that Jews have survived over the centuries. Other written records likewise confirm that kidnapping of Jews is far from Hamas’s invention. Two mornings a week, when reading from the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays, the Jewish community prays for fellow Jews “in captivity, whether on the sea or on land, may God have mercy on them and deliver them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from enslavement to redemption.” This beautiful prayer is found in prayerbooks dating back more than 1,000 years, confirming that kidnapping has been a consistent historical challenge for Jews. (It is unclear in what context Jews were taken captive “on the sea” – perhaps this relates to kidnapping by pirates; the text hints at historical tragedies even beyond the many about which detailed knowledge remains.)

Returning to the present, despite the tremendous pain and the obvious downsides of the deal Israel struck with Hamas, it is extremely difficult to watch the emotional reunions of released children with their surviving parents these past few days and conclude that Israel made a mistake by proceeding piecemeal.

At the same time, ultimately Israel will undoubtedly have no choice but to continue waging war to secure the return of any hostages it is unable to free through diplomatic means. The Torah provides historical guidance in this regard: Abraham went to war to free his nephew Lot and others who were taken prisoner by a powerful axis that vastly outnumbered Abraham’s forces (Genesis chapter 14), and David similarly went to war to free captives taken by the evil nation Amalek (1 Samuel chapter 30). Both Abraham and David succeeded in rescuing every single captive.

One way or another, Israel will persevere through this dark time. The Jewish people have the richest history of survival of any nation on earth. Just as the Kingdoms of Babylonia and Rome, and the Nazi regime, no longer exist – while the Jewish people continues onward, spreading kindness and affirming the infinite value of every human life – we can also say with complete confidence that Hamas will eventually be but a horrifying memory in the annals of Jewish history.

About the Author
Michael Rader is an attorney who focuses on patent and intellectual property litigation. Mike serves on the Board of Directors of American Friends of Leket Israel (which supports Israel’s National Food Rescue Organization, Leket Israel) and on the Board of Directors of Tzohar Israel Foundation (which supports Israel’s leading Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization, Tzohar). He and his family reside in the New York area.
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