By DONNIEL HARTMAN
For millennia, we have been taught that the righteous and wise path is identified with a life of moderation, or what Aristotle termed the Golden Mean – in successfully balancing between opposite extremes, vices, and even virtues. Thus courage is to be found somewhere in between recklessness and cowardice, and charity a balance between selflessness and selfishness. In addition, because life’s central challenges rarely entail a choice between good and evil, but between competing goods, the paths of wholeness, health, prudence, good judgment, and righteousness are found in finding the proper balance between them, and effectively calculating the measure which each ought to contribute to one’s life.
Yet, there are moments when moderation and the middle path are simply too narrow and limiting, and inadequately give expression to the feelings, values and commitments which are central to our lives. Human life can indeed find prudent wisdom in the middle path, but often it is not the place where one achieves greatness. There are times when we are called upon to leap, to leave balance and moderation behind – not only in order to live life to its fullest, but to allow our deepest instincts and values to fully and more clearly have their say.
Over the last five years, we Israelis were at a loss to try to find the golden mean, to locate the space between our moral responsibility to Gilad Shalit and our moral responsibility to the security of the country and its citizens. What is the “right” number of terrorists which ought to be exchanged for one soldier, the number that will adequately encapsulate the value that we place on every single life without itself diminishing the value of life by creating an incentive for further terrorism? What is the “correct” number of terrorists with blood on their hands who can be released in order to fulfill our responsibility to the Shalit family without at the same time undermining our responsibly to the families who were the victims of these murderers?
The search for the golden middle path, that which is paved with the right measures of wisdom, prudence, and morality, left us in a Solomonic quandary, a quandary from which we could not move. Our government, and most significantly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, considered the competing values, concerns, and consequences, and made a courageous decision – a decision to end the quandary.
This decision is destined to be second guessed by citizens and pundits alike, especially once Gilad comes home, the murderers begin to walk free, and the stories of both their crimes and the lives of their victims are publicized in the media. It will be second guessed by those for whom the Hamas-led celebrations and rhetoric of future intent to harm us cannot be ignored. It will be second guessed by those who feel that we exhibited weakness, and in the Middle East one does not survive when one’s enemies believe one is weak.
I do not criticize or belittle in any way the above concerns and feelings. I do not feel that there is a single way to evaluate the security consequences of the Shalit deal. Who knows whether there are already enough murderers out there, or whether the addition of these new ones will make a difference? Can our security forces adequately keep track of them, or are we laying the foundation for future terrorist attacks? I do not know if the deal that was struck was located in the midst of the golden mean. At the same time I am happy and grateful to my government for trying to approximate it.
That said, for me, as the years passed, bringing Gilad home shifted from being an issue determined by the search for the right and perfect balance, or a question of the dictates of prudent policy, to a basic if not gut feeling that as a Jewish society, we had to move away from the middle path if we were to live up to our noblest standards. I felt that as a Jewish people we could not let a member of our family perish in front of our eyes, one day at a time. We could not build a caring Jewish people, for whom collective responsibility is a central virtue, and at the same time stand by and effectively ignore the immeasurable and ongoing pain of one family. I found myself unconvinced and unmoved by the discussion of the various halakhic parameters to pidyon sh’vuyim, (the obligation to free captives), and instead felt that the sum of our core Jewish values obligated us to bring Gilad home.
For some these words will reflect an inexcusable weakness, for others they are morally shortsighted. For me they are the embodiment and expression of the gift of Jewish sovereignty, a manifestation of our ability as a free and powerful people to decide to take risks for our ideals, to at times dare to go beyond the dictates of moderation, prudence, and the middle path and to place certain feelings and Jewish values at the center of our individual and national consciousness and policy.
I do not know what tomorrow will bring and whether our decisions today should become a model for the future. I do know that today is a good day for Israel and the Jewish people. A day in which we chose to elevate certain values over others, values which at times, at this time, need their own place in the sun, a place to define and energize our lives without the moderating temperance of their opposites.
A life of greatness and virtue will not always be found in the constant balancing of values but in the balance found in the totality of a life in which a broad array of values and concerns each find expression at different times and in different circumstances. Today we added another chapter in shaping the sum of this totality. Today is a good day. Today is Gilad’s day. Gilad – welcome home. May you and your family and indeed all of Israel find the love, happiness, and peace that we so profoundly yearn for.