Crazy about Survival

“If a person saves a single human being, Scripture considers it as if he saved the world.”

(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.)

We are living in a moment of Jewish historic significance, one that embodies the blessing: “Thank you God for helping us arrive at this day.” We have come to the end of a five-year struggle to achieve the freedom of one Israeli soldier: Gilad Shalit.

I will now put away his dog tags that have been near my Shabbat candles, helping me think of him when bringing extra light into my own home. I wonder at how he has changed these past years and how excruciating it must be to leave one painful world and enter another realm entirely, one full of heroic expectations.

Throughout the difficult moral debates of the past weeks, the Jewish unity that people expected has broken down into understandable fractiousness. In my mind, I have gone back to one of the most well-known statements in the Mishna: “If a person saves a single human being, Scripture considers it as if he saved the world” (BT Sanhedrin 4:5).

We hear this used in all kinds of metaphoric contexts, but now the situation is real and the question is painful. Should we do anything to save one human life? As we read the long list of prisoners have and who will be released, we cannot ignore the heinous crimes of most and the fear we have that years in Israeli prisons has only toughened their determination to return to terror. Will kidnapping soldiers become the ticket to prisoner freedom in the future?

There is another Talmudic principle that comes to mind: “If confronted with a certainty and a doubt, the certainty is preferable.” We do not know how to answer the above questions. They are all part of a future landscape we can only imagine, but one that has not been actualized. We know for certain now that this lone Israeli soldier is alive and can be freed and so, in our Jewish tradition of redeeming captives as the most important collective commandment we can perform, we will go with that certainty and forgo the doubt for now.

But these decisions are political ones, not Talmudic ones. They were made under great national pressure but also with the overwhelming support of the Knesset and Israel’s security services. They were made when a small window of opportunity opened in a Middle East collapsing with anarchy. And if Gilad were allowed to languish in captivity to prevent this kind of leveraging, would any parent of sound mind be prepared to send a child into an army that is not committed to returning their children, whenever possible, home safely?

I have found my response in a muted, complex happiness and in a prayer found on a piece of wrapping paper in the Ravensbruck concentration camp:

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we brought thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

I will think of the thousands of kindnesses that have led to this moment in time, the fruits we have brought to the altar of suffering, the fruits that sometimes can only come from suffering. I will pray that those who are freed will use their freedom responsibly and that we can create a universe where God will redeem suffering because we do.

In the past 54 years, Israel has exchanged 13,509 prisoners for 16 soldiers. Gilad is not the first, and he probably won't be the last. And if this is the craziest thing we do as a people to show what the value of one life means to the rest of the world, so be it.

We are crazy about survival—the survival of each and every one of our people. And we’ve survived longer than most because of this almost fanatical—meshugena—commitment to what life means. And to an enemy that blows up its own people and calls them martyrs, we say loudly, “Not us. To us, every single life is a treasure.” It doesn’t get more Jewish than this.

Dr. Erica Brown (pictured, click to download) is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at

Posted on September 5, 2011 and filed under Israel.