Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • A Nation and its Halachot
To dedicate this lesson

On the Importance of Freeing Jonathan Pollard

The commandment to redeem Jewish captives actually embodies the most important idea in Judaism. This commandment constitutes a direct continuation of the Exodus from Egypt, which underpins our entire existence as a nation and all of our commandments.


Various Rabbis

Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu:
It goes without saying that every Jew, wherever he or she might be, has a religious obligation to do everything in his or her power to help free Jonathan Pollard. In the case of Jonathan, who sacrificed himself on behalf of the Jewish people, the importance and merit of this duty is especially great. Not only did Jonathan Pollard sacrifice himself for the Jewish people, he has been suffering a living hell for more than twenty years in American prisons.

This obligation applies to every Jew, in Israel and in the Diaspora. All are obligated to act in any way possible to influence whoever may have the power to release Jonathan Pollard from his captivity. May God grant us the privilege to welcome Jonathan Pollard home, here in the land of Israel, speedily in our days, Amen.

(Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu recently paid a visit - his tenth to date - to Jonathan Pollard and came away terribly disturbed by Jonathan's poor state of health. The rabbi requests that all pray for the health and speedy release of Jonathan ben Malka.)

Rabbi Dov Lior:
From the hills of Judah, the cradle of the Kingdom of Israel, I wish to extend my blessings to all those who act on behalf of the release and homecoming of our brother, Jonathan Pollard, imprisoned now more than twenty years for his efforts to protect the Jewish people.

Redeeming Jewish captives is one of the most important commandments in our Torah, and we are obligated to do everything we can to bring all captive and imprisoned Jews home to their families.

Under the existing circumstances, the responsibility for bringing Jonathan Pollard home ought to rest primarily upon the shoulders of the Prime Minister and the Israel Foreign Service, and they are obligated to spare no efforts to free him. In many places in the world, the accepted practice is to trade prisoners and incriminated citizens and there is no reason in the world that the United States Government should not behave in a similar manner towards the State of Israel.

Therefore, we extend our blessing to strengthen the Prime Minister, and may the God of Israel support him and give him the might to stand proudly before the leaders of the world, for the honor of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and may God grant him success.

Rabbi Yaakov Ariel:
Redeeming Jewish captives is considered the most important of all the laws governing interpersonal relationships. And of all the commandments relating to charity, redeeming captives is at the highest level.

In the words of the Rambam, "The mitzvah to ransom captives takes precedence over supporting and clothing the poor. Indeed, no commandment, be it ever so important, can compare with [it], since the captive is in the category of those who suffer hunger, thirst, nakedness, and are ever in mortal danger.

"One who is willfully slack in aiding to ransom a captive transgresses the commandments: ‘You shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother (Deuteronomy 15:7); ‘That your brother may live with you’ (Leviticus 25:36); ‘Deliver them that are drawn unto death’ (Proverbs 24:11) - besides many other similar commandments. Truly, no commandment, be it ever so important, can compare with the ransom of captives."

There are stories of great Torah scholars from the days of the Talmud and up to modern times who sacrificed themselves for the sake of redeeming Jewish captives. Regarding R' Pinchas ben Yair it is told (Hullin 7) that he went to redeem captives, and the merit of his efforts caused a river in his way to part. Not only did the river part for him, it parted for a companion of his who was on his way to get wheat for making Passover matzos, and for an Arab merchant who was with them. The waters of the river parted for all of these people by virtue of R' Pinchas ben Yair who was on his way to redeem captives.

The Maharal of Prague explains that rabbinic lore contains profound ideas that go beyond the literal, face value understanding of the text. The parting of the river here teaches us the extent to which a person must go in his efforts to release captives, to overcome any obstacles in his way. The religious obligation to redeem Jewish captives contains great force, force that penetrates whatever it comes up against. It has the power to split rivers, to traverse oceans, to accomplish great feats. The gravity of this commandment is so great that it gives a person the strength to overcome all obstacles.

The commandment to redeem Jewish captives actually embodies the most important idea in Judaism. It is the commandment that constitutes a direct continuation of the Exodus from Egypt, which underpins our entire existence as a nation and all of our commandments. The Exodus is mentioned in the Torah fifty times, and the Ten Commandments open with the words, "I am the Lord your God Who took you out of Egypt, from the house of bondage," for it is the foundation of the Torah and of our religious faith.

The Exodus from Egypt was an exodus from bondage, and it constitutes the Torah's foundation, for a human being who lacks freedom is not a human being at all. Judaism looks upon freedom as the foundation of human life, as the Talmud says (Baba Metzia 10): "They are my slaves - not the slaves of slaves." From here we learn that if a person is imprisoned and lacks freedom, he is not a human being, for freedom is the foundation of our entire Torah.

In the case of Jonathan Pollard, we must keep in mind that he was incarcerated despite his innocence, and therefore we must do everything we can in order to release him from imprisonment. Remember what the Maharal of Prague has taught us: Where there is a will, it is possible to part all rivers and overcome all obstacles in order to save his life.

The obligation in the case of Jonathan Pollard is especially great: Generally, despite the gravity of the commandment to redeem Jewish captives, Jewish law warns that "it is forbidden to redeem captives for anything above the regular price." However, Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, in his work "Amud HaYemini," rules that regarding a person who has acted on behalf of the Jewish people, an exception must be made. A similar exception is made in the case of a married woman - her husband must redeem her from captivity at any price, even more than the regular price.

The law that "it is forbidden to redeem captives for anything above the regular price" applies to ordinary circumstances, not to the case of one's wife, who is like one's own flesh and blood. Likewise, in the case of a person who sacrifices himself for the sake of the Jewish people, explains Rabbi Yisraeli, our responsibility to redeem him is greater than usual - we have a special responsibility for him.

Therefore, there are sometimes great hesitations when it comes to the release of terrorists in order to save our captives, and this matter is extremely complicated. Regarding Jonathan Pollard, though, the matter is perfectly clear: Here we are talking about a person who acted in the agency of the State of Israel, who acted with great responsibility in order to save the State of Israel from great peril.

Some people are of the opinion that we must be careful about straining our relations with the United States, and this is indeed a valid concern, however, "straining" relations is not the same as "tearing" relations, and a little tension is permissible in order to save Pollard. Even between friends there is sometimes tension. We must say to the United States: Jonathan Pollard is our brother, and he acted in a perfectly moral manner in order to save Israel from great danger. We are responsible for him and we demand his release.

The moral claim must be directed primarily at the free and autonomous State of Israel: Why does Israel not demand the release of Jonathan Pollard more emphatically? The Prime Minister is afraid to discuss this matter with the United States. However, he need not discuss - he must shout out, to demand the release of our brother Jonathan! He must shout so loud that our brother Jonathan himself hears him.

Jonathan is there, there in that terrible prison, and he has to hear a clear and powerful voice from Jerusalem, a voice that says we have not forgotten him, we have not abandoned him, that he is our brother and we are responsible for him.

This is not a time for words, it is a time for action, to shout out so that our voices travel the length of the entire world, from one side to the other. May we merit seeing the speedy fulfillment of the verse, "And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads" (Isaiah 35:10).
Translated biblical verses and/or Talmudic sources in the above article may have been taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).
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