Redeeming Captives in Jewish History
When Abraham heard that his nephew, Lot, was kidnapped, he went to battle to free him (Source 1). When the Canaanites succeeded in taking a single Jewish maidservant captive, the Jewish people went to war to return her home (Source 2). Rabbi Yehoshua paid a high price to release a Jewish boy from prison, who eventually became Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha (Source 3).
The Importance of the Mitzvah
In one of the Prophet Jeremiah’s prophecies, G-d tells him, “If the Jewish people ask where to go after the destruction of the Holy Temple, tell them that each person will go towards their suffering: Those to death, those to the sword, those to hunger, and those to captivity. (Source 4.) From the order of the verse, Rabbi Yochanan infers that captivity is the most severe of the list because captives suffer death, the sword, and hunger (Source 5). Maimonides rules that the mitzvah to redeem captives takes precedence over all other mitzvot (Source 6), and the Code of Jewish Law codifies this, writing that every moment delayed in redeeming captives is tantamount to murder (Source 7).
Spiritual Effort for the Captives
At one of the post-wedding feasts of the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin, held about a year-and-a-half after they left Russia, the Previous Rebbe said: “A moment doesn’t go by when I do not think about the plight of the students in Russia, and when they do not think of me.” (Source 8.) The Previous Rebbe continued with a Chassidic discourse in which he explained how to help the Jews behind the Iron Curtain. Fifty years later, in a discourse based on the Previous Rebbe’s discourse, the Rebbe began by citing the Talmud: “G-d did a kindness to the Jewish people by dispersing them among the nations.” (Source 9.) The simple meaning is that being dispersed among many other nations is beneficial to the Jewish people because when they are killed in one place, they will survive in another. The Previous Rebbe saw something deeper here: G-d did a favor to the Jews because when Jews cannot observe Torah and mitzvot in one place, in other places they are free to practice their religion. Their mitzvah observance helps their brethren and gives them the strength to persevere. The Rebbe added that not only does it give them the strength to risk their lives for mitzvot, it will cause the bondage to end, freeing them to observe the mitzvot in peace.
Captivity isn’t only when the captors refuse to let one leave, but also one whose negative inclination holds them hostage, for example, a person held “captive” by their career.
When another Jew acts correctly and ensures that they are not held hostage by their inclination, that very fact helps those who are struggling to learn from them.
Just as every generation has its unique challenge, so does every individual. In the times of Menashe, for example, the greatest challenge was idolatry. Nowadays, we cannot fathom the desire to bow to a stone. When a person observes the mitzvot that are easy for them, they support another Jew for whom this particular mitzvah is difficult.
This is a third interpretation of the statement that “G-d did a kindness to the Jewish people by dispersing them among the nations.” G-d helped us by giving us all different inclinations, so that everyone has their own challenge, making it possible to support others in their challenges.
Intergenerational and intercommunal support
Spiritual captivity is not only at the hands of antisemitic regimes, or the negative inclination. There are also times when the Torah itself places us in a situation of captivity, for example: Certain mitzvot are only observed in the Holy Land; Jews outside the land cannot observe them. When Israeli communities observe these mitzvot, the Rebbe says, that affects the diaspora communities.
This idea also connects different generations. Mitzvot associated with the Holy Temple, and observed by Temple-era Jews, affect us today in exile.
Lesson for life: We are all connected. We are all part of one unified entity. My actions affect you and yours affect me. When I do a mitzvah I release positive, G-dly energy into the universe, which fills your space with positive energy.
When we fulfill a mitzvah that the hostages aren’t able to fulfill, when we study the Torah they are not able to study, that sends them positive energy and strength. Firstly, it helps them be strong and optimistic, secondly, it causes that they should be released very soon.
In one of the challenging periods in recent history, the Rebbe spoke about how the mitzvah of mezuzah brings security to Jews worldwide, and not only to the inhabitants of that home (Source 10).