The Pollard Affair – To Free a Captive is to Free G-d

by Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students, Diaspora Yeshiva, Jerusalem

“The sword is worse than death, / famine is worse than the sword, / captivity is worst of all” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 8a).

Throughout history, Jews have gone to remarkable lengths to retrieve their brethren from hostile hands. This mitzvah referred to in rabbinic literature as pidyon shvuyim (“redemption of captives”), is the only precept designated by the Talmud as a mitzvah rabbah (great mitzvah). Its special status in Jewish law goes to the heart of defining the moral and material dimensions of the “value” of human life.

Oddly, however, given its unique standing in Jewish law, no specific directive to redeem captives is found anywhere in the Bible. Maimonides and other authorities do list a series of Biblical precepts that are violated if one is remiss in fulfilling this duty. One – the obligation not to “rule over him (your fellow man) ruthlessly” (Leviticus 25:43) – is found in the Torah portion Behar. Yet this verse actually refers to the proper treatment of Jewish slaves owned by other Jews, not to the rescue of Jews from non-Jewish hands. In fact, none of the verses cited by Maimonides in his major halakhic work “Yad Hazakah” refers directly to the rescue of captives. This duty, he explains, falls under the general rule of mandated assistance to the hungry, the naked and the imperiled.

The absence of a distinct legal imperative to rescue captives is offset by the high profile afforded this subject in the Biblical narrative. Abraham, the first redeemer of captives, risks everything going to war against the great regional powers to rescue his captured kinsman Lot (Genesis 14). In Numbers 21, the nation of Israel inititates a war to retrieve (according to rabbinic tradition) a single captive of non-Jewish origin whom the Canaanites had taken in battle. And King David responds similarly when Jewish captives are taken by the Amalekites (I Samuel 30). In all of these cases, the mode of response is uncompromising, even in the absence of an explicit divine command.

How are we to understand this absence of an explicit order to fulfill the “great mitzvah”? The answer may lie in Rabbi Bahya ben Asher’s “Kad Hakmah”, which refers us to the Ten Commandments. In the First Commandment, which many halakhic authorities understood as the precept to believe in G-d, the Almighty presents Himself as the Great Redeemer, “I am the Lord your G-d, who has taken you out of Egypt”, Rabbi Bahya, like other commentators, is perplexed by the verse’s reference to the Exodus. If any feat were to be highlighted in this identifying statement, surely the creation of universe is the most obvious choice. Why settle for a more “local” and less extraordinary miracle? Rabbi Bahya concludes that the verse describes G-d as the redeemer of captives as an exhortation to become like Him.

Thus it would appear that the rescue of captives is so cardinal a principle that it merits implicit mention in the fundamental Jewish tenet: to believe in G-d. How can we explain this? Jewish sources state that there is more than one type of captive. The Talmud (Berakhot 8a) describes G-d Himself as a “captive” who can be redeemed only through our observance of mitzvot and study of Torah.

Kabala teaches that the redemption of captives is a symbol of the entire 613 commandments. While G-d in Himself is infinite, His hidden presence in the world – the Shekhinah- is perceived as being in exile and can be redeemed from its “imprisonment” through our good deeds. Thus the fulfillment of all commandments is an act of redeeming captives that releases the spiritual potential latent in all corporeal (physical) reality.

Finally, the very term “redemption of captives” suggests that even the liberation of flesh-and-blood prisoners involves something larger than the restoration of their freedom. In rabbinic sources, the term is always given in the plural, suggesting that there’s no such thing as a single captive, for the Jewish nation is understood as an organic spiritual whole that acts as a vehicle for the revelation of G-d. This wholeness is viewed as a prerequisite for the revelation at Mount Sinai, the messianic era and the ultimate fulfillment of Jewish destiny. Thus, as long as Jonathan Pollard is in captivity, all of us are in captivity as well.