Gilad Shalit: How Do You Measure The Life Of A Man?

The title of this piece is, of course, taken from the painful but magnificent song from Jonathan Larson’s RENT titled “Seasons of Love.” As two of the protagonists are slowly dying from AIDS, their friends struggle to assess the value of their lives, which they know will end far too early.

The situations are hardly identical, but as the story of Gilad Shalit’s imminent release began to circulate last week, and, just as quickly, the ensuing controversy over the painful price Israel is paying, I couldn’t help but think of Larson’s lyrics. If 525,600 minutes measures a year, then the measure of Gilad Shalit’s captivity is well over two and a half million minutes. But that inconceivable number hardly seems an adequate way to assess what his experience must have been like in the hands of a brutal and heartless enemy.

And yet, as we all now know, to attain his freedom, Israel has agreed to release terrorists who were personally responsible for shedding Israeli blood in the most brutal ways. There is absolutely no indication that the terrorists to be freed are in any way remorseful- quite the contrary, in fact- and the joy over Gilad Shalit’s release is challenged by the fear that these newly released terrorists will return to their murderous ways.

Not for a minute have I envied Prime Minister Netanyahu having to make this awful decision. From my very comfortable seat here in the Diaspora, it seems clear that there is no resolution to the aforementioned tension. There is no way to resolve it. No matter what decision the Prime Minister was to make, there would always be the “But…” factor. There is a strong case- no, a morally compelling and powerful case- to be made for each side.

But the Prime Minister has made a decision, and his cabinet has overwhelmingly endorsed it. Gilad Shalit is, God willing, to be freed, and the terrorists are to be freed as well. Amidst our joy and relief for Gilad, and our deep concerns about the terrorists and their future, the imperative at hand for us is to understand from this and internalize an irreducibly important lesson about Israel and the values for which is stands. The safety of its soldiers is a sacred trust that the government is charged with securing. And, just as important, the life of even a single individual is also sacred.

We are living through a period in which a concerted effort is being made to demonize and delegitimize Israel. If you are to believe everything you read in the leading papers of the Western world, virtually nothing that Israel does is good, or moral, or acceptable. From being accused of enacting a policy of apartheid towards West Bank Arabs, to being too forceful in defending itself from murderous attacks, to being its own worst enemy and the source of all of its own problems (thank you, Nicholas Kristoff for that piercing analysis), Israel has become, essentially, persona non grata among the family of nations. It can do no good.

I would strongly suggest that our job here- as opposed to pointing out the obvious and unsolvable tension about releasing terrorists to show how tough we are- is to reframe the discussion. In a part of the world where human life is so cheap, and so devalued, that women and children are recruited to become suicide bombers and maim and kill the maximum number of innocent bystanders and non-combatants, Israel values a single human life so much that it is willing to risk its own well-being to secure Gilad Shalit’s safety. That, to me, is the real story line here. In the midst of a regional culture that glorifies death, devalues life, and cares not a whit about the worth of the individual, Israel has once again shown itself to be so very different than that. It will risk its own security to secure the safe return of a single soldier- a single life- so that he might have a chance to live out his life in peace, with his family, and in his country.

Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu…how fortunate are we that this is our lot. Of course the days and months ahead will be fraught with danger for Israel. But really… when have they not been? I have never been more proud of Israel, and more convinced of the essential rightness of her core values. Welcome home, Gilad; may you know only peace going forward. And yishar koach to Prime Minister Netanyahu for so faithfully measuring the life of a man.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, and Vice-President of the Rabbinical Assembly.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.