The Army and the Torah Scroll
On July 16, 2008, in the presence of Red Cross and UN observers, the State of Israel transferred to the Hezbollah terrorist organization four jailed Hezbollah fighters, about two hundred other Lebanese and Palestinian militants captured in various wars and anti-terrorist operations, and PLFP member Samir Kuntar, who was convicted of brutally murdering a father and his four year-old daughter.
Israel let these 205 terrorists go free. What did Israel receive in return?
Israel received, in total, the remains of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, captured in 2006.
The State of Israel has made many lopsided exchanges with its enemies. For example, in November 1983, Israel traded 4,600 Arab prisoners for six Israeli soldiers.
What is most startling in the 2008 exchange was that Israel gave up live enemies in order to retrieve the dead bodies of its soldiers. This was not the first time it happened: In 1990, Israel released fifty-one prisoners in return for proof of a missing Israeli soldier’s death. In 2004, Israel gave up 436 Arab prisoners and the bodies of 59 Lebanese militants in exchange for one (live) Israeli civilian and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.1
Whether or not to conduct such exchanges is a complicated question, and not one we can adequately deal with here. What is of interest to us is that, virtually alone in the world, and with the backing of a strong majority of its population, Israel actually does it. Providing a proper Jewish burial for its soldiers is ingrained in Israel’s conscience. Let us try to understand why.
Many Americans first heard of the holiness of Torah scrolls when ZAKA Rescue and Recovery, helped by units of the US National Guard, rode in inflatable rafts to reach New Orleans’s Beth Israel Synagogue to salvage its Torah scrolls from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.2 Today, rabbis and congregations around the world try to locate and save Torah scrolls that were damaged in the Iraq War, buried or desecrated in the Holocaust, or stolen by the Communists. Jews are willing to pay exorbitant prices, and sometimes take great risks, for the sake of a Torah scroll. When found, these ancient Torah scrolls are inevitably damaged. Sometimes they can be repaired by a scribe.
When repair is impossible, the Torah scrolls are buried: a dignified "end" to the "life" of the Torah scroll. Our tradition explains that once parchment is used for a holy purpose — to hold the letters of the Torah — the scroll retains that holiness forever. Even if severely damaged and no longer kosher, the scroll is still holy and must be buried honorably. Torah scrolls are very important. And they retain their holiness even once desecrated or damaged beyond repair.
People are more important than Torah scrolls — in the face of danger, saving a person takes clear precedence over saving a scroll. Human beings contain a spark of holiness — and human bodies retain their honor, dignity, and holiness even when the soul has left.
Jewish sources explicitly make the connection between a human body and a Torah scroll. Anyone dealing with a dead body must know that he is dealing with a sacred object: The body of a person is not simply a container for holiness, that served the holy soul, rather it itself became sacred … similar to a Torah scroll.3
During the life of a person, while his/her soul … is in it, [the body] is called a living Torah scroll (it is important a person not forget this, and be careful with his/her Torah scroll and those of his/her friends), and so, one who witnesses the moment of death of a person it is as if he is watching a Torah scroll burn …4
A living person contains holiness. Like a Torah scroll. And a dead body retains its holiness, like an old and damaged Torah scroll. Because of its great holiness, a dead body is to be treated with great reverence. Jewish funeral practices are based on the overriding principle of the sanctity of the human body. The body is never left alone5 because doing so would be like abandoning it — "like an object that one no longer wants, sitting in disgrace." 6
The body is reverentially cleansed by trained and caring members of the honored Jewish burial society, the chevra kadisha (literally, the "holy society"). The entire burial process is done with the utmost respect and decorum.
Surprisingly, Judaism teaches that our bodies don’t actually belong to us. They belong to God and are on loan to us (the real "us" being our souls) so that we can function in the world.
We are our bodies’ custodians, not their owners, and should not destroy something that is not ours.
1 Dan Balilty, "Israel’s Agonizing Debate over Prisoner Swaps," CBC News, July 16, 2008,
2 Congregation Beth Israel, "Beth Israel and Hurricane Katrina," http://bethisraelnola.com/beth-israel-and-hurricane-katrina/.
3 Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky, Gesher HaChaim, 1:64.
4 Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan 25a, and Tucazinsky, Gesher HaChaim, 1:65.
5 Even when there is no real danger of something happening to it.
6 Ibid., 65–66.