Welcome Home, Gilad
The summer of 2008, after my freshman year of college, I spent 10 days on a Birthright trip- a free trip to Israel for North American Jewish young adults. Before I arrived in Israel, I knew little about the country's politics or culture, and I had only vaguely heard of the captured soldier named Gilad Shalit. While I remember so many moments from that trip, what sticks out most in my mind is a session about Gilad's captivity led by a journalist from The Jerusalem Post and six Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers who were accompanying us on our travels.
By that point, Gilad had been a prisoner in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for two years and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had attempted to orchestrate a few prisoner swaps in exchange for his safe homecoming. All of these proposals would have required Israel to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners (some of whom had committed serious war crimes against Israelis) in exchange for one man.
At the time, I could not understand how Israel, a country for whom security is of singular concern, could sacrifice so much for one person. One soldier who had spent the past two years of his life as a paratrooper for the Israeli Army explained that the IDF represents something unique in Israel. It is not just for those who are the most patriotic, or those who are looking for a way to fund their future education, like some of those who serve in the US Army. Instead, it is a program in which almost every citizen participates. Because of this, every soldier's life is precious and everything that can be done to rescue a POW must be done.
Pidyon Shvuyim, or "redemption of prisoners," is a mitzvah rabbah (a great mitzvah) that dictates the IDF's commitment to rescuing Gilad Shalit. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Gifts for the Poor, 8:10) states that, "Pidyon Shvuyim takes precedence over supporting the poor or clothing them. There is no greater mitzvah than Pidyon Shvuyim, for the problems of the captive include the problems of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and he who is in mortal danger."
There are, as always, potential concerns that might arise in reaction to the prisoner swap that brought Gilad home this morning: This prisoner exchange may not bring Israel closer to peace; Hamas's victory in negotiating the release of so many prisoners may raise its popularity and lead to a political challenge for President Mahmoud Abbas; the concessions that Prime Minister Netanyahu was willing to make to free Gilad might set a dangerous precedent for future hostage situations; or a variety of other scenarios could take place.
But today, I feel nothing but relief as Gilad comes home to a country that has consistently fought for his safety for five years and to a global community that has made his life, well-being and eventual release a top diplomatic priority, thereby fulfilling a mitzvah rabbah.