By Rabbi Dorit Edut
As many of us exit the theater, having just seen the new Spielberg movie “Lincoln”, we cannot help but think about the impact this great president had on our world to this day through his courageous decision to put an end to slavery in this country. This act of great justice was not only in line with the founding principles of democracy embodied in our Constitution, but also based on the Biblical idea of offering freedom to slaves during the 7th and 50th years of the Hebrew calendar. It opened the door to new life, new opportunities, to the blessings which freedom could bring to a whole race of people who had been so terribly mistreated and forgotten for so long. Slavery is just one form of imprisonment or captivity which we should all be aware of and sensitive to.
The mitzvah of releasing captives – Pidyon Shevuyim – is considered a “mitzvah rabbah – a great mitzvah “- according to the Talmud (Baba Batra 8b), since captivity is viewed as worse than starvation or death. The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 252:3) urges us to prioritize our actions to help others in captivity since, “Every moment that one delays in freeing captives, in cases where it is possible to expedite their freedom, is considered to be tantamount to murder.” Certainly in our thrice-daily Amidah prayer we refer to God as “Matir Asurim – The One Who Frees Those Who Are In Bondage.” We not only pray for Divine intervention, but also remind ourselves to emulate this behavior in our daily actions.
A most dramatic example of a forgotten captive is in this week’s Torah portion. Jealousy and vengeance have led to Joseph’s wrongful imprisonment in Egypt. After many years, there is finally a glimmer of hope when Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of two cellmates. When one is released to serve Pharaoh again as butler, Joseph pleads with him to remember Joseph. However, as we learn from the closing words of the portion, “Va-yishkaheihu – But [the butler] forgot about him.” (Gen. 40:23) Even though as readers we know that Joseph will be freed in next week’s Torah portion when Pharaoh needs a dream interpreter and the butler finally remembers Joseph, we wonder about this delay. Midrash Genesis Rabbah 89:2 tells how the butler repeatedly tried to remember Joseph by tying knots in his handkerchief, but HaShem sent an angel at night who untied the knot. Then HaShem told Joseph that it was wrong to rely on government officials who are forgetful and disinterested in really helping him, instead Joseph should know that HaShem would release him when the right time came.
Though we cannot know when the right time will be, it does not mean that we should sit idly and do nothing to further the cause of the captives. Many of us were active in the movement to help free the Jews of the Soviet Union through the large-scale protests, political pressure, and secret contacts during the 1960′s-80′s. More recently, we witnessed the release of the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who after being held in captivity for five years was released as a result of protests and diplomatic efforts. Yet there are others who are still awaiting release from wrongful imprisonment – and WHOM WE NEED TO REMEMBER AND ACT ON THEIR BEHALF.
For example, there is Jonathan Pollard who worked in US Naval Intelligence and has been imprisoned for transferring military secrets to Israel. Despite protests, the Israeli government taking full responsibility, Pollard’s publicly apologies, and his original plea agreement being completed, he is beginning his 28th year of captivity. No one else in the history of the United States has ever received a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally and the median sentence for this type of offense is 2-4 years.
Then there is Alan Gross, the American social worker who brought Internet access equipment to the Jewish community in Cuba two years ago as part of a US Agency for International Development humanitarian aid program. Gross was arrested by the Cuban government and charged with “implementing a covert program which was aimed at disrupting the constitutional order in Cuba”. He was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment and so far all efforts to free him from Cuba by our government have been unsuccessful. Let us not forget these and others wrongly imprisoned – doing whatever we can for their speedy release, and praying that God will also see that the time is right. Kein Y’hi Ratzon – May it be God’s Will!
Rabbi Dorit Edut (’06) heads the Detroit Interfaith Outreach Coalition and teaches at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.