Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rejoicing with the Torah, and Gilad Shalit

The following were my remarks during Simchat Torah services last night. They are a refinement and expansion on my blog from yesterday, and I am indebted to the many who shared their thoughts on all sides of this complicated and painful issue who helped me to define my own.

Comments for Simchat Torah (for the start of Yizkor)
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD October 19, 2011

On Sukkot, we talked about Gilad Shalit. I promised that, if events played out the way they were supposed to, tonight would be a special night. And now, they have.

Maybe it was a good thing that I forgot to pick up the lulav and etrog, so that we could not wave them last week. Maybe we needed to wait to have our z’man simchateinu – our season of rejoicing – fully celebrated, until Gilad Shalit was free to celebrate with us. Certainly, as we begin to read Torah anew this year on this Simchat Torah, Gilad and his family begin to live their lives again anew. And so, as Sukkot ends with our celebration of Simchat Torah tonight, we wave the lulav and etrog now. [recite blessing, wave lulav and etrog]

After more than 5 years of being held hostage by terrorist kidnappers, Gilad Shalit is now free and at home. He was taken captive on the very first day of our last congregational Israel trip. Because of that, his kidnapping became personal. When our Israel committee offered the chance to purchase dog tags for us to wear, so that he would not be forgotten, I, like many of you, bought one. For almost 5 years, I have dutifully worn mine, anxiously awaiting the day that I could take it off, after his, hopefully, safe return.

And so, tonight, with great joy, I bring the celebration of Gilad Shalit’s freedom home to us, as I remove his dog tag from my neck. [remove tag]

But tonight is not only about rejoicing with the Torah, and at Gilad’s return home. For on that dog tag, there were the names of THREE Israelis, all hostages, the other 2 taken by Hisbullah from the north of the country. Sadly, both Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev have already returned home. Sadly, because they were not as fortunate as Gilad – they did not return alive. Even as we rejoice for Gilad and his family, we must remember that pain of these losses that is still felt by the Goldwasser and Regev families.

And, we must also remember the pain being felt by many other Israeli families on this otherwise joyous day. For Gilad’s release did not come easily, and it did not come cheap. Almost 500 Palestinians, each convicted in Israeli courts of crimes as serious as involvement in terrorist acts and murder, were released yesterday as well, to allow Gilad to come home. Another 500+ will be released in the coming days. The victims of their crimes, and those victims’ families, now are forced to relive their pain and loss, because those responsible for inflicting unimaginable pain upon them have now been set free.

Some say the price of Gilad’s freedom was too high. And there is some truth in that. 13,509 Palestinians have been released in 9 exchanges over the last 54 years in return for only 16 Israelis. That is roughly 800 to 1! On the other hand, what price is too high to pay in order to see a son return home alive to his country, his home, his parents?

I choose tonight to look at the responses to Gilad’s release. In Israel, these families of the victims were free to file appeals to the Supreme Court, free to ask to have the release of some of the detainees stopped, and in the process, free to risk Gilad’s safe return. Some appeals were filed, but many chose not to file, putting aside their personal pain to allow a neighbor, a brother, to come home alive. The country debated and agonized over a difficult decision. The courts ruled. The prisoners were pardoned and released. The democracy worked.

In Egypt, before he could be turned over to the Israelis, before he was allowed the joyous reunion with his family, Gilad was forced to endure an ugly television interview, with an armed Hamas guard noticeably standing right behind him; forced to say that he hoped ALL Palestinian prisoners held in Israelis jails would soon be freed. The man, held not by a sovereign state, but by terrorists, denied due process or even visitors throughout his captivity, humbly did what his captors demanded of him. His interviewer claimed she was doing a fair interview, and said she was unaware of any coercion. No Egyptian official apologized for this last indignity. Even in Gilad’s release, the differences were stark and clear.

In Israel, an excited nation rejoiced at the return of one innocent man, and then, after he hugged the Prime Minister and his father, and humbly made a few public comments, allowed him to walk away quietly, to try to return to a normal life. Because to Israelis, the value of life goes beyond simply continuing to breathe. In the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, the allegedly “moderate” head of a wannabe nation, led crowds in a raucous celebration of the return of their “heroic freedom fighters.” This is the man with whom Israel is expected to negotiate for peace, who seeks independence for his country not through negotiated compromise and agreement, but rather by fiat at the UN. And in Gaza, a female suicide bomber, alive only by the grace of Allah that her bomb failed to detonate when she pushed the trigger, who, to the way of thinking of those who celebrated her release, failed in her mission, was not only welcomed home a hero, but she encouraged the children who gathered to praise her to follow her example! Again, the contrast spoke volumes. Israel mourned the cost of a single life – Palestinians celebrated the taking of lives, and sought to up the ante.

Golda Meir once famously stated that “Until they start to love their own children more than they want to kill mine, there will never be peace in the Middle East.” Rarely, if ever, has the enduring truth of that assessment been more obvious. A democratic state, seeking peace with her neighbors still, welcomed home a single kidnapped son, whose ransom they willingly overpaid, all while grieving anew their previous losses, and thereby demonstrated the importance they place on a life. A totalitarian regime built on violence and hate celebrated the wholesale return of her failed terrorists, lawbreakers and murders, and vowed to take more Israeli prisoners until all the Palestinians were freed, and in the process, celebrated death, and showed how much their own people are merely pawns to be sacrificed to achieve some narrowly defined “victory,” achievable only through the annihilation of another.

Let me make clear – despite these comparisons and criticisms, I want peace for the Palestinian people as much as anyone, and not merely because it is essential if Israel is ever to enjoy peace herself. The Palestinian people have the right to self-determination every bit as much as every other person on this planet. And therefore I mourn for ALL the victims of the terror – not just those who died or lost loved ones, but those who are kept from achieving their self-determination by their leaders’ callous use of violence and terror against innocent targets. Only a true and lasting peace that allows all people to live free from fear and with the dignity that comes with independence will achieve the end that I, and so many others, dream of. Only such a peace will allow the families of 1402 Israeli terror victims in the last 11 years [flip the poster over to be visible] to ever have any sense of order in the chaos and doubt that came, uninvited, with their losses. Only such a peace can allow Palestinians and Israelis to live freely.

Our liturgy on this night changes from the joy of summer, in praying for the dew of the dry season, to the gloom of the rainy season, while acknowledging that in that gloom come life-giving rains. Our celebration of Simchat Torah moves from our joy of dancing with the Torah to the painful memories evoked by Yizkor. So must our focus on this night change from the joy of celebrating the safe return of Gilad Shalit, back to the hard work of comforting the victims of those released and their families, redoubling our efforts to bring about that peace which will make the suffering end.

On this night we remember, and begin the work to allow both the shark and the fish that Gilad wrote about at age 11 to live in peace and safety together, not just in a child’s story, but in real life. Amen.

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