“Redeeming Captives”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kee Tavo is one of two parashiot in the Torah that are known as the Tochacha, G-d’s reproach of the Jewish people.

In this Torah portion, we read one of scripture’s most haunting verses, a verse that is particularly perturbing in light of the enormous losses due to assimilation in modern times. The Torah in Deuteronomy 28:41 boldly declares, “Ba’neem u’vanot to’leed v’lo yeeh’yoo lach, kee yayl’choo ba’sheh’vee,” You will bear sons and daughters, but they will not be yours, for they will go into captivity.

Although the Torah is referring to children who will literally be taken captive by the enemy during war, this verse particularly resonates because of the category of captive that is known in rabbinic literature as Teenok Shehnishba, a child taken into captivity.

A Teenok Shehnishba is not necessarily a young person, but any person who is raised in a non-Jewish environment with little or no Jewish training. These children or adults, who are so distant from Jewish life, have never had the opportunity to learn about the beauty of their Jewish heritage, and therefore can not be held responsible for any misdeeds they commit with respect to Torah observance.

While we generally refer to the contemporary movement of Jewish return as the “Baal Teshuvah” movement, that name is actually a misnomer. Baal Teshuvah literally means “Master of Return.” It applies only to a person who has had an intensive Jewish education, has abandoned it, and now returns with a fresh commitment to live a Torah-abiding life.

The young people whom we encounter today in America and throughout the world generally do not fall into that category. At best, they have had minimal Jewish exposure–frequently negative! Today’s alienated or marginally-affiliated Jews more properly fall into the category of Teenok Shehnishba, a child who was taken into “spiritual” captivity and raised for all practical purposes as a non-Jew.

The average American Jewish child today knows who was the mother of Jesus but has no idea who was the mother of Moses. The average American Jew knows the words to “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” but would not recognize the first line of the Chanukah hymn “Ma’oz Tzur.” They may even know the “Lord’s Prayer” and not be at all familiar with the “Shema” prayer. This abysmal ignorance is not a result of having rejected Judaism, but rather due to the fact that they never really had any positive, joyous experiences that would lead to a full Jewish life. It is as if they were raised in the jungle or by aborigines!

In Jewish law, the mitzvah of Pidyon Sh’vuyim, redemption of captives stands above almost all others. It is the only mitzvah for which a Torah scroll may be sold. The Talmud, in Bava Batra 8b, states that redemption of captives precedes the mitzvah of supporting and clothing the poor. Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), in his code dealing with Gifts to the Poor 8:10, as well as the Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah 2:52, rules that one who fails to redeem captives violates many Torah commandments. Any delay in redemption, when redemption is possible, is comparable to the shedding of blood.

The prophet Jeremiah states in 15:2: “Such as are for death, to death; such as are for sword, to the sword; such as are for the famine, to the famine; as such as are for captivity, to captivity.” The Rabbis (Bava Batra 8:2) exegetically deduce from this verse that the later a particular hardship appears in the verse, the more intense it is. Therefore, being taken into captivity is regarded as being the worst of all hardships, and its relief takes precedence over all others.

Six verses after we are told in Parashat Kee Tavo that our children will be led into captivity, the Torah explains why we are destined to suffer these great losses. Deuteronomy 28:47 states, “Tah’chaht ah’sher lo ah’vah’d’tah et Hashem Eh’lo’keh’cha b’sim’cha oov’toov lay’vav, may’rov kol,” Because you did not serve the L-rd your G-d amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant. In this startling verse, the Torah reduces it all to a nutshell: If we fail to provide positive, joyous experiences to our children, we will lose them!

We dare not be distracted by the abundant wealth and creature-comforts that envelop us today. The blandishments of our environment are greater then ever, and have the power to easily “kidnap” our children unless we inspire them through joy, happiness and provide them with an appreciation of the revolutionariness of our faith system.

As we ourselves witness with our own eyes the millions of Jews who are walking away from their Judaism “may’rov kol,” in the midst of extraordinary abundance, we must redouble our efforts to reach out to them and save them.

Perhaps the past generation was able to say about the Jewish losses during the Holocaust that, “We did not know.” What will we be able to say? “We did not care!”? We must reach out now to our children who have been taken into captivity.

May you be blessed.