Rachel Peck

Israel-Hamas War 5784: Hukat – Redeeming Our Captives

In this week’s Torah portion, Hukat, the children of Israel get a do-over.

Shelach Lecha, the Torah portion two weeks ago, described how the Israelites battled the Canaanites against Hashem’s wishes and lost badly, “struck and pounded until Hormah.” (Numbers 14:45)

Now, in Hukat, we read that they fought the Canaanites again, and emerged victorious. What made things different this time?

The Torah tells us that before the battle, the Israelites sought, and obtained, G-d’s favor for their enterprise. They promised that if Hashem delivered the Canaanite cities into their hands, they would consecrate them to G-d. And indeed, Hashem delivered the Canaanite cities. The lesson from the Torah seems clear: victory is from Hashem, not only from our own efforts, and on His timetable, not ours. But was there an additional reason for their victory?

In Numbers 21:1 we read:

“And he heard—the Canaanite king of Arad who dwelled in the south—that Israel had come by the route of the spies, and he warred against Israel and captured from them a captive.”

Did the fact that one of their own was taken motivate the Israelites to be better fighters?

In our own time, last October 7th, invaders from Gaza took 251 hostages captive. Since then, Israel has consistently declared two goals for its current war: destroy Hamas, and bring the hostages home. While the majority of those released so far were exchanged for Palestinian prisoners, the Israeli military has freed seven captives in daring raids. These raids took extraordinary timing, coordination, speed, and courage to succeed. And this commitment extends beyond the living; the IDF has also recovered and brought home for burial the bodies of 17 hostages.

There is no doubt that knowing their people are being held is supremely motivating for Israel’s military forces. And while most countries will go to great lengths to free citizens held hostage, there is an additional motivator for Israelis: the Jewish religious duty to free captives. Throughout history, Jews have gone to extraordinary lengths to redeem captured fellow Jews. Starting with Abraham retrieving his kidnapped nephew Lot (Genesis 14:12-16), through the 1976 rescue of Jewish hostages in Entebbe, up till today’s conflict, Jews have both paid ransoms and gone to war to free their brethren. On multiple occasions, Israel has exchanged Palestinian prisoners for hostages, which is a form of ransom-paying.

The former commander of US Army Europe, Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling (Ret.), witnessed Israeli officers vowing “Masada shall not fall again” during their induction ceremony at the ancient fortress. Moved, he says he realized that they were taking an oath not only to their government, but to their people. And that includes those who are held captive.

While the Torah does not tell us of the fate of that ancient captive, it does record that we won the ensuing battle and went on to win others. (Numbers 21:24, 35) Our ancestors, victorious, purposely chose to memorialize that first victory with the name of the place of their former defeat in Shelach Lecha. “They called the name of the place Hormah” (Numbers 21:3), symbolizing the replacement of defeat with victory.

Now Israel is transforming the setback on October 7th into victories. They are freeing hostages and defeating Hamas. Many more victories need to happen. Hezbollah in Lebanon, various terrorist groups in the West Bank, and the head of the snake, Iran, will need to be dealt with for the land and its people to know peace.

May G-d assist Israel in its battles and make it victorious, allowing it to both redeem the captives and defeat the enemy.

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can also be found at
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