What's worse? Death by the plague? By the sword? Starving to death? Or being sentenced to captivity?
What a horrible set of choices, and what a bizarre question to ask!
But our Sages asked precisely this question in response to a prophecy of Jeremiah that he addressed to a sinful people. A frightening prophecy indeed:
"The Lord said to me, 'Even if Moses and Samuel were to intercede with me, I would not be won over to that people. Dismiss them from my presence, and let them go forth! And if they ask you, "To what shall we go forth?" answer them, "Thus said the Lord:
Those destined for the plague, to the plague;
Those destined for the sword, to the sword;
Those destined for famine, to famine;
Those destined for captivity, to captivity.' " (Jeremiah 15:2)
There is no question about it. The Jewish historical experience is rife with all four of the above catastrophes. Jeremiah's prophecy came true more than just a few times in our history.
Is it an idle question to ask which of the four is the worst? Are they not all terrible?
But the question is asked in an astounding passage in the Talmud (Bava Batra 8b), in connection with the great mitzvah of redeeming captives. Rabbi Yochanan, one of the greatest teachers in the Talmud, refers to the above passage in Jeremiah and says: "Each subsequent calamity in this verse is harsher than the one preceding it!" For him, the sword is a worse fate than the plague for the body is disfigured. Hunger is worse than death by the sword because of the immense suffering involved in the former.
Captivity, Rabbi Yochanan asserts, is worse than all of the other three, because all of them are included in it. As Rashi explains: "The captive is totally at the mercy of his captor, who may slay him or starve him to death as he chooses."
Our people, who have endured so many forms of calamity, have known captivity firsthand and frequently. Our national consciousness has always known how painful captivity is, and how much effort we must invest in freeing captives and in appreciating the joys of freedom.
This past Shabbat, June 25, 2011 (Parshat Korach), marked exactly five years since one of our brethren was taken captive by sworn and fanatical enemies of the Jewish people. I refer of course to Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier who is being detained under miserable circumstances by Hamas.
It is important that each of us be constantly aware of his plight, which, we have just learned, is the worst of all plights. My home in Jerusalem is just a short walk from the headquarters of the Israeli Prime Minister; daily, I pass the tent from which information about Gilad is distributed, and from which poignant pleas for his release emanate.
This week, I choose to reflect upon the horrors of captivity in general, and to feel the pain of Gilad and his loved ones. This week, Gilad's suffering is especially relevant because it is in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Chukat, that we read of the very first Jew to become a prisoner of war.
The verse (Number 21:1) tells of the Canaanite King of Arad who "engaged Israel in battle and took some of them captive." Rashi, following the Midrash, hastens to add that only one prisoner was taken, a maidservant. Be that as it may, this is the first record of a Jew being taken into captivity in the heat of battle.
The reaction of the people to the horror of having a captive snatched from their midst is a powerful one: "Then Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, 'If you deliver this people into our hand, we will utterly destroy their cities.' " And they indeed proceed to do so, to the extent that the collective name of all the cities became Hormah, which means "doomed to destruction".
It may not be politically correct these days to call for the utter destruction of the cities of our enemies. The morality of such a response surely needs to be contemplated. But one thing is for certain. The loss of even one soldier has always been taken very, very seriously. Back then, with our maidservant, and now, with Gilad Shalit.
We do not know how Moses or Aaron responded, as it was the people of Israel who asserted that they could not tolerate the taking of a captive from their midst. Furthermore, we can never know what they really learned of the fate of that captive, nor of whether or not she was successfully recovered.
But we do learn that our response to the captivity of one of our fellow Jews must be one of indignant and effective action. Once again, the Torah portion of the week, which ties Korach with Chukat, astoundingly carries a message of relevance for today and for this moment in time.
This Sabbath, as we utter a prayer for the well-being and safe return of Gilad Shalit, let us fully realize that we must do all we can to advocate his release. And let us also fully realize that Gilad represents only the most recent example of a soldier who is tragically suffering that most dire of calamities, captivity.