We recently received the terrible news of the deaths of Master Sgt. (res.) Gal Meir Eisenkot and Master Sgt. (res.) Eyal Meir Berkovich in an operation aimed at retrieving the bodies of two Israeli hostages killed by Hamas. This was an incredibly heroic and noble effort. Tragically, the result is that we now have all four bodies.
Fighting for the bodies of the dead has a long history. It is mentioned in the book of Samuel that men of valor went out and rescued the body of King Saul after it was mutilated by the Philistines (1 Samuel 31:11-12). It is mentioned in two short sentences. It was a difficult and demanding mission. But it involved no bloodshed.
In contrast, the fight over dead bodies is a major theme in Homer’s Iliad. From the moment that Patroclos is killed, the entire battle turns into a fight to recover his body. Then, with the death of Hector, the armies battle over his body. Achilles refuses to allow the burial of Hector. He seems to think that the body is Hector himself, and he spends hours and days abusing it until the gods intervene and put an end to his madness.
Greek civilization progressed. Socrates was able to say that it matters not what people do with his body after he is dead, for his soul is what counts, and that they can never touch. For Socrates, the body, once dead, is no different from a clod of earth, just as the gods explained to Achilles.
In recent years, we have developed the habit of referring to the return of dead bodies as “bringing our sons home.” That is a sad and confused way to think about it. We can never restore to anyone their dearly lamented loved ones after they have been killed. We cannot bring them home any longer. We can only bring their bodies to a burial.
Indeed, there has been a worldwide change in the way we refer to the dead. While in previous centuries tombstones regularly referred to the “bodies” of those buried, today most tombstones refer to the people themselves as being buried there. This is a confusion. We do not bury people; we bury their bodies.
In Judaism, we accord great significance to the respectful treatment of the dead body. We wash and clothe the body, and bury it in accordance with strict purity rites. The dead body is the greatest source of tum’ah (impurity), and the living must be protected from undue contact with it. This attitude towards the body reflects a desire to limit the obsession with mourning for the dead, to protect ourselves from emotional distress, and to remain focused on life.
It is important to make an effort to recover and bury the bodies of the dead. It provides a valuable emotional closure for the families of the victims and is a cultural and religious practice. We must continue to make efforts to bring back the bodies. But there have to be limits.
We should never risk the lives of living people to recover the bodies of the dead. Although parents and relatives wish to bury the bodies of their beloved children and relatives, they do not wish to see others die for that purpose. We have heard the voices of many parents who understand this. May we never be tested ourselves.
We must be strong and remind ourselves that the real tragedy is death itself. Not even a hundred burials can make up for the death of another young person serving their country. Let us harden ourselves to accept the absence or delay of a fitting burial when that is beyond our reach.
Let us proclaim with one voice: we will never put lives at risk to recover dead bodies; we will never negotiate for dead bodies. That is the path of folly and self-destruction. Let us instead proclaim that the bodies of the dead mean nothing to us. Let our enemies waste their efforts like fools battling over bodies if they so choose. We cannot control monsters, nor do we wish to do so. The only dead bodies we want to see are those of the murderers themselves.
There is no comfort for the loss of precious children. We will punish those who commit acts of evil and we will endure deprivation to preserve everyone we can. But the real response to genocide is the birth of more children, more and more and more. Let us call down from heaven the holy souls that stood with us at Har Sinai, among them the souls of those whom we have lost. Let us restore the nation of Israel with new life dedicated to the Jewish way. That is the true and only way to preserve the essence of those who have perished. It is the only answer, the Jewish answer, to the evils perpetrated against us.