Taking and Giving: Responding to the Kidnapping of Three Young Israelis

For many in Israel, and among those who are attuned to Israeli life, the kidnapping of three teenagers over one week ago tore open a hole that cannot yet be sewn back. While there is a flurry of activity, from military operations to press conferences, prayer vigils to hashtag campaigns, the overall feeling is one of overwhelming powerlessness and uncertainty. Those who chose to carry out this assault, whatever their ultimate plans or fate may be, sought just this outcome. Beyond the heart-wrenching reality of the aftermath of terror, beyond the mobilization of forces to find these boys and bring the kidnappers to justice, how can we respond to these despicable acts?

Last week the Torah told a story that hinges on the kind of calculation central to the use of terror. Korach is a cousin of Moses, a fellow Levite, but he takes it upon himself to agitate against Moses' leadership and the elevation of Moses' brother Aaron to the role of high priest. He frames his challenge in high-minded terms, arguing that the "entire people is holy" and that Moses and Aaron take too much upon themselves. However, in the beginning of the story of Korach, there are signs that he and his band of associates are employing the rhetoric of holiness and fairness to advance a personal agenda: "Vakikach Korach ... anshei Shem. " ("Korach took for himself ... men of name.") The Hebrew echoes with the word "koach" ("power"). Taking power is the hallmark of this rebellion. Korach perverts the true meaning of the holiness for which he claims to fight and eschews the humility that must go with it in order to mock Moses and aggrandize himself.

We should not be afraid to talk about the grievances that some claim justify violence. After all, the Torah even gives us the motivation for the first act of cruel brutality, the murder of Abel by Cain. We learn that Cain was upset that G*d thought more of his brother's animal sacrifice than of his own offering of fruits and vegetables. He thought it was unfair and degrading. And yet there is no sympathy for Cain's reaction, no ambiguity about the condemnation he deserved for rising up against Abel and taking his life. The blood that Cain shed "cries out from the ground" that swallowed it.

Just as the words surrounding the beginning of the Korach story echo the idea of "taking power," Cain's name in Hebrew denotes taking something as a possession In the world of Cain and Korach, the giving and the taking are part of measuring things solely by what they seem to be worth -- a tradeoff that is all too much at the heart of the political world. It's the weighing of all actions by either their justification or their cost.

And this calculus is also behind the cynically named tactic called, in Hebrew, "Tag Mechir" ("price tag"), which uses vandalism, threats and violent harassment to make Arabs or Israeli authorities "pay a price" for uprooting settlements or concessions to Palestinians. As the perpetrators, usually young, ideologically driven kids, target mosques and Israeli-Arab businesses with graffiti and arson, another group has responded with a different approach: "Tag Meir," a play on words that means "value of light." "Tag Meir" organizes efforts to restore the damage or visit the victims of "Tag Mechir" and, in recent days, gathered together Christians, Muslims, and Jews of Palestinian and Israeli origin to pray together at the spot from which the three teens were last heard.

The use of terror is the ultimate act of reducing human beings to means to an end. A terrorist, especially a kidnapper, is dealing not in the infinite worth of a human being but in what a human life may be worth to someone else. However, understanding that all human beings are created in the Divine image, a teaching common to many religions, including Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, must preclude us from treating human life as something that can be reduced to a give-or-take.

May Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar be brought home in safety without delay, and may we find a new light to illuminate the infinite worth of all human beings soon and in our days.