Lest one think that the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, redeeming captives, is ancient history, one need only read recent headlines.
In the last month, one American Jew (Warren Weinstein, a development expert working in Pakistan), was kidnapped from his home in Lahore, another (Josh Fattal, a hiker arrested last year after straying from Iraq into Iranian territory) was sentenced to an eight year prison sentence, and a third (Alan Gross, a development worker arrested two years ago in Cuba on the charge of subversively helping the Jewish community access the Internet) had his 15-year prison sentence upheld.
That’s in addition to Ilan Grapel, an Israeli-American who was arrested in Egypt in June and charged with spying for Israel, or three yeshiva students from Israel who are jailed in Japan after their arrest three years ago on a drug smuggling charge, the trio apparently serving as unwilling dupes for a “friend.”
And there is, of course, arguably the most-famous Jewish prisoner-captive in the world today, Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas five years ago, and, assuming he is still alive, will turn 28 on Sunday.
Most of the Jews mentioned above as prisoners or hostages are largely unknown outside of diplomatic circles and the individuals’ friends and family. Breaking news quickly eclipses the immediate reports of arrest and kidnapping, and behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to obtain the men’s release often work best outside of the glare of publicity.
But as members of a community that prides itself on being an extended family, we cannot afford the luxury of keeping these captives outside of our thoughts and prayers – or outside of our lobbying, activist efforts if such actions are in the men’s best interests.
Some would argue that Jonathan Pollard, convicted and jailed in this country for spying on behalf of Israel, also belongs in this group. The subject of ongoing lobbying by his supporters in Israel and in successive American administrations, he is unlikely to be forgotten as long as he is imprisoned.
The Torah portion read in synagogues this Shabbat, Parshat Re’eh, includes this passage: “Do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy fellow,” Deut. 15:7. It offers a reminder that the obligation to redeem captives from our midst is eternal, and frighteningly contemporary.