Emotions peaked last week as Hezbollah handed over the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping touched off the 2006 Lebanon War, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, in exchange for Israel's release of Samir Kuntar, the unrepentant terrorist and child murderer.
The reaction in Israel was of somber national mourning.
In Lebanon, it was a day of national celebration. Government offices and banks were closed, and Kuntar was accorded a hero's welcome amidst huge rallies and fireworks.
With his military garb and arm proudly thrust forward in a Nazi salute, Kuntar vowed to murder more innocent Jews.
Throughout most of the civilized world, the reaction to this scene was revulsion and disdain.
My reaction was sorrow, mixed with humble gratitude, as I recalled this story from the Holocaust:
Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the revered Klausenberger Rebbe, was savagely beaten by a Nazi with crushing, deadly blows. As the rabbi was sprawled on the ground, bleeding from his head, the Nazi thrust his jackboot into the rabbi's chest and mockingly sneered: "So tell me, how does it now feel to be a Jew?"
Rabbi Halberstam looked up calmly and said, "I'd much rather be a Jew on the receiving end of this torture, than to be a German administering it."
Last week's prisoner exchange evoked tremendous pain. Yet it evoked as well as sense of pride at the vast gulf between how Israel and its enemies view the world.
The prisoner exchange revealed the vast gulf between how Israel and its enemies view the world.
The same Lebanese Arabs who glorify Kuntar for crushing a 4-year-old girl's skull with his rifle butt also danced in the streets at the destruction of the Twin Towers. Two summers ago, Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets from Lebanon that displaced nearly 20 percent of the Israeli population. And it was a group of Lebanese terrorists who launched the 1978 terror attack that left 36 Israeli civilians dead, including 13 children -- led by Dalal Mughrabi, whose body was returned to Lebanon last week, also amidst heroic celebration.
On the other side of the border was Israel, making concessions that jeopardize its national security, in order to safeguard its commitment to the preciousness of every Jewish soul. Whether you agree with Israel's decision or not, one can appreciate the valor of Smadar Haran: Having lost her entire family -- husband and two young children -- on the night of Kuntar's attack, she did not oppose his release, rising above her personal pain to support whatever action would be in Israel's best interests.
Those are their heroes, and these are ours.
An ancient Jewish teaching says: "A person is known by his praise." One is known not only by how he is praised by others, but also by that which he chooses to praise -- i.e. his heroes.
Last week, the heroes on each side of the border so starkly revealed the core values that are driving each society. And as I watched the despicable display of inhumanity in Lebanon, I humbly thanked God for making me a Jew.
Jewish National Mission
So where do we go from here? How do we pick up the pieces of this crushing national tragedy and -- as Jews have always sought to do -- turn it into a vehicle for good?
When Rabbi Halberstam emerged from the Holocaust, he discovered that his wife and 10 children had been murdered. Yet rather than complain or become embittered, he immersed in a rigorous campaign to reach out to others -- founding schools, orphanages, relief organizations, and what is today the largest hospital in Netanya.
We, too, need to respond by strengthening our Jewish national mission.
Which begs the question: What is the special mission of the State of Israel, the ideology holding it all together?
If there was ever a time that Jewish values need to be embraced, it is now.
What makes us different is the moral doctrine that Judaism brought to the world -- that every human being is created in the image of God, and that peace is our highest value. And if there was ever a time this needs to be embraced, it is now, with the Western world facing off against radical Islam -- an ideology that feels no remorse over blowing up commuters in European capitals or chopping off the heads of infidels; an ideology fueled by Saudi petro dollars and emboldened by the burgeoning Iranian nuclear program.
There are many more Kuntars out there yearning for the chance to murder, hoping to see all of Western civilization dead, gone, wiped off the face of the earth. Defeating this evil will not come by being passive, or by maintaining the status quo. We have to wake up and do something.
We are now entering the period of the Three Weeks, the time of the Jewish year that commemorates the destruction of the Temple Jerusalem at the hands of Romans in 70 CE, and the Babylonians 500 years earlier. The Temple was the central source for exporting Jewish values to the world, as Isaiah famously said, "From Zion, the Torah will go forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem."
These three weeks are traditionally a time to look inward, to examine what is holding the Temple back from being rebuilt. Where have we fallen short, and how we might strengthen our personal commitment to the cause?
The answer seems clear. If Jewish values are the target of Islamic barbarism, then Jewish values are the solution. Studying Torah and teaching it to others will help bring the world to a point where there will be no more terror attacks, no more wars, no more Holocausts.
Today, each of us is on the battlefront for Jewish values that celebrate life, not death. Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser heroically served on the front lines and died for it. With their graves still fresh, now is the time for us to commit to live for it.