06/24/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

Missing People: The Pain of Waiting

Imagine sweating through sleepless nights never knowing if your child would ever return home.

The recent kidnapping of three teenagers in Israel by terrorists has shaken the Jewish world. The international campaign slogan, "Bring Back our Boys" was modeled after the "Bring Back our Girls" campaign that was popularized following the abduction of 250 school girls by Islamic militants in Nigeria. Unfortunately, in both Israel and Nigeria, the children remain missing.

Every tragedy disturbs us and disrupts order in our lives, but when innocent people go missing the pain runs deeper. Where have they gone? Are they okay? Who is responsible? What have these innocent children done to deserve this? What can we do to get them back? We are left helpless with innumerable questions and desire for action but no sure remedy.

What is particularly disturbing here is that it remains unclear who committed what Secretary of State John Kerry aptly described as a "despicable terrorist act," although he and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu have both pointed toward Hamas to varying degrees. For its part, Hamas has maximized the destructive potential of this tragedy, simultaneously denying responsibility while praising those who committed the crime.

The Torah has a particular commandment (hashavat aveidah) for returning lost objects (Deuteronomy 22:1-4), and this is all the more true with missing people. We should be a part of a productive solution in any ways possible.

Sadly, the tragedy of kidnappings is very alive today. Nicholas Schmidle wrote in the New York Times Magazine:

Few sectors have endured the economic downturn of recent years better than kidnapping. Confidence in big banks and stock markets might be shaky, but the crudest form of trade--abducting and bartering people--seems alive and well. Gregory Bangs, the kidnap-and-ransom manager for Chubb Group, an American insurance company, said that patterns of kidnapping around the world are "almost inverse" to that of the global economy. "In a recessionary environment, the kidnapping rate goes up," he told me.

Whenever people "disappear," it inflicts a disturbing wound, as rarely are victims found or the guilty brought to justice. A generation ago, thousands of people were "disappearing" from Guatemala and El Salvador in Latin America, to Argentina, Brazil, and Chile in South America (the Spanish word desaparecido, meaning "disappeared person," was used throughout the region), as the military and "death squads" roamed the countryside eliminating dissidents and sometimes random personal enemies. The governments, while usually denying they had arrested or murdered the disappeared, nevertheless invariably claimed that they were ridding the country of communists. Fortunately, over time their murderous military regimes have been overthrown or replaced, although the wounds they inflicted remain. In 1998, the forcible disappearance of people was declared a crime against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court.

International law notwithstanding, brutal political factions continue this atrocity, as Human Rights Watch has documented. In Rwanda, which is supposed to be a free state today after the nightmarish 1994 genocide, there have been disturbing stories about the disappearance of many people who have been critical of President Paul Kagame, who has skillfully used the murderous brutality of his opponents to cloak his own violence. Human Rights Watch recently issued a report citing Kagame for using his army and police to seize people under the false blanket charge of belonging to the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the remnants of the forces who participated in the 1994 genocide. Even Paul Rusesabagina, whose heroism in 1994 inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, has accused his government of "swallowing people who disagree." Disturbingly, President Kagame, far from denying the charge, embraces it, stating that he will "continue to arrest more suspects and...shoot in broad daylight those who intend to destablilize our country."

In Syria, the ongoing civil war has brought about a legion of human rights abuses, from the indiscriminate slaughter or exile of millions of civilians to forcible disappearances. The Syrian government has seized tens of thousands of people in this manner, from opponents of the Assad regime to human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, students, children, and at least one high official of the Red Crescent (the Arab equivalent of the Red Cross). Many have been tortured in excruciating fashion, and many others have died. While it is difficult to document precise numbers, those closest to the situation estimated that nearly 500 people have died in Syrian custody in 2013, including 64-year-old Omar Aziz, whose apparent crime was trying to bring in aid to frightened civilians trying to stay alive in the midst of the civil war. On the other hand, it should be noted that Syrian rebels have also resorted to kidnapping and other human rights abuses (e.g., attacking health care facilities and vehicles) as well. Compounding these injustices is the continued obstruction of Russia and China, permanent UN Security Council members, whose veto power effectively prevents international action.

Throughout history warring nations have routinely turned to kidnappings, or hostage takings, as a means of seeking leverage in the conflict, gathering information, or to show tactical superiority. In antiquity, for example, the losing warriors were commonly subjected to slaughter or enslavement, like the infamous gladiators who were, in fact, Roman prisoners of war. During modern times prisoners of war (POWs) and combatants missing in action (MIAs) have become an almost routine aspect of warfare. During WWI about 8 million servicemen were held as POWs and hundreds of thousands were MIA. In 2010 the remains of Army Private Henry A. Weikel, of Mt. Carmel, PA, were finally located in France, identified and returned to the US after nearly a century of being missing. During WWII millions of prisoners of war were taken by nearly every nation participating in the conflict. War records indicate that over 5.7 million soviets were taken by the Axis powers (3.3 million died in captivity) and an estimated 130,000 US soldiers were taken POW during the war, another 4,700 US citizens living abroad were held prisoner by Nazi Germany and approximately 14,000 US citizens were detained by Japan. To this day, according to the Department of Defense 73,547 American service personnel are deemed missing in action/not recovered from the Second World War.

A more recent case of a missing person finally set to be returned to his family is that of Bowe Bergdahl, the longest held American prisoner of war since the Vietnam War. Though the case has become ammunition for partisan politics and "debate" in the media, the simple facts show that the Taliban captured Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl while he was serving with his Army unit in the Paktika Province of Afghanistan in June 2009. Nearly five years after being taken prisoner Bergdahl, now a Sergeant, was released as part of a prisoner exchange between the US and Afghanistan governments with the Taliban, brokered by Qatar. In exchange for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl the United States released, to Qatar for a period of at least one year, five Guantanamo Bay detainees.

These tragic examples confirm the wisdom of categorically rejecting these despicable tactics. Consider the teaching of the Rambam about our responsibility:

The freeing of captives takes precedence over feeding and clothing the poor. There is no commandment greater than freeing of captives, for the captive is hungry, thirsty, and naked, and his life stands in grave danger. One who averts his eyes ignoring the duty to free captives transgresses the following prohibitions: "Do not harden your heart and hot your hand" (Deut. 15:7); "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (Lev.19:16); and "He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight" (Lev. 23:53). In addition, he nullifies the following positive commandments: "You surely must open your hand to him" (Deut.15:8); "Let him live with you as your brother (Lev.19:18); "Deliver those who are drawn toward death" (Prov. 24:11) and many other abominations. And there is no greater mitzvah than the redemption of a captive (Halachot of Giving Gifts to the Poor 8:10).

We have seen too many societies succumb to the terror of forcible disappearances, and our sages have warned us against this destructive behavior. Hamas, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups, in their perverse thirst for battle, would like nothing better than to foment violence, and then claim they are being victimized. Instead, we must focus on the human tragedy of the kidnapping and work for the freedom of these three teenage boys. Too often, though, there do not appear to be productive ways to engage and all we can do is beseech heaven for support. But when there are opportunities to rally, raise awareness, and advocate that government officials do all they can to bring home captives, we must do so.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."