They say that good things often come in threes. This October was certainly no exception. It has been awhile since I've been away from Israel, one month to be exact. But today, on my return to Israel after a few weeks away, I am thrown back into Israeli culture in the highest of spirits. Perhaps the most festive and joyous time of year is upon us here in Jerusalem as we celebrate the holidays of Sukkot, which has just passed during the last week, and of Simchat Torah, which falls on today's date. If you have not been hooked into your local news, let me fill you in on the biggest reason to celebrate today: the return of Israeli's beloved soldier, Gilad Shalit, who after five insufferable years in captivity, is home as of yesterday with his family after Israel's largest and most historic prisoner swap in history. It seems fateful that these three joyous occasions would come together hand-in-hand.
|Gilad Shalit on October 18, 2011 after the prisoner swap between Palestinian Hamas and Israel|
|Gilad Shalit makes the first phone call to his family in over five years upon his historic release October 18, 2011|
As for Sukkot, this festive holiday is one of the Jewish religion's three pilgrimmage holidays in addition to Passover and Shavuot. Crowds, energy and excitement overtake the streets of Israel and of Jerusalem in particular. Many Jewish people argue that Sukkot is by far the best time of year; it is a time when friends and family come together and celebrate. The holiday commemorates the houses (or Sukkot in Hebrew) that went up in ancient Israel when our ancestors fled from Egypt in pursuit of peace and freedom. These temporary dwellings are recreated during the seven-day festival of Sukkot. Also during this time, we celebrate the harvest and pray for a plentiful year ahead. Typical symbols of Sukkot include the lulav (palm frond), the etrog (citrus), the willow and the myrtle which are used in a blessing given over the Jewish people during this holiday. It just so happens that on my plane from Belgium to Tel Aviv yesterday, we saw multiple religious Jews carrying with them tall palm fronds from their Sukkot celebration. Only during this time of year will you see such a sight.
After the joyous celebrations of Sukkot come to a close, Simchat Torah approaches. On this most festive of holidays, the reading of the Torah cycle comes to a close and restarts once again. If you were not aware, it takes one year in the Jewish calendar, from start to finish, to read through the Torah. We read a new Torah portion each week. The cycle begins and ends on the holiday of Simchat Torah, which falls on today's date. In Jerusalem, and in Jewish communities throughout the world, you will see religious Jews celebrating wildly on this happy occasion in the Jewish calendar.
As I mentioned above, not only are we celebrating Sukkot and Simchat Torah here in Israel and around the world, we are also celebrating in relief and sheer joy at the return of Israel's beloved soldier Gilad Shalit. I was in Israel in June of 2006 on my Birthright Israel program when Gilad was captured while on duty near the Gaza border. In a huge raid which left several Israeli soldiers dead, Gilad was injured and subsequently kidnapped by Hamas, where he was held captive for the last five years in a Hamas prison cell. There, he was contained and used as a bargaining tool by Hamas in order to release Palestinian prisoners and terrorists from Israeli prisons. The topic of Gilad's kidnapping is the single most heartfelt issue in modern Israeli culture and was similar in its devastation to what an American might feel when speaking of 9-11. For several years, we wondered whether he was dead or alive. In the past, Israelis have bargained deals and prisoner releases in return for the dead bodies of their young Israeli soldiers whose carcasses were captured by Palestinian extremist groups. This time, after five long years of unimaginable suffering, Gilad has been returned alive in the largest prisoner swap in history. For Gilad's life and safe return, Israelis have agreed to return 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are serving multiple life sentences for acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians. Clearly, feelings are mixed regarding the terms of Gilad's emotional release, especially the families who have lost loved ones due to terrorist acts played out by the hands of the now released Palestinian prisoners. Regardless, you will be hard pressed to walk outside in Israel today and not see the overjoyed and relieved faces across this nation due to Gilad's safe return.
|The first images of a thin and malnourished Gilad as he salutes Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu|
|Netanyahu hugging Gilad Shalit upon his release|
|Gilad and Prime Minister Netanyahu walking arm in arm|
|Gilad on his way to greet his father and family|
|The free soldier is met with hug after hug in an emotional televised release|
|Gilad Shalit and his father Noam embrace for the first time in over 5 years|
|Gilad and his father Noam walking arm-in-arm upon his October 18, 2011 release|
|A military IDF plane flies Gilad and his family members home, a journey 5 years in the making|
|Gilad walking into his home after 5+ years away|
|Israeli soldiers watching Gilad's release unfold|
|Gilad Shalit supports become emotional as they watch the first images of him appear on the TV screen after years of waiting|
As time continues, we will have to wait and see what unfolds as a result of this prisoner swap. However, in the end, it was the right thing to do since the Jewish tradition teaches that: "he who saves one life, saves the world". This optimistic and sincere attitude can be felt across the Jewish world today as we celebrate the miracle of Gilad's return in conjunction with the most festive holidays of the Jewish year, Sukkot and Simchat Torah. It has been a good few days and we pray that the upcoming year will be filled with more peace and positive relations between the Israeli and Arab people as the peace process continues to unfold during what seems to be a historic year for the conflict.
|Buses full of Palestinian prisoners are removed from the Israeli prison outside of Ramallah|
|Palestinians celebrating the homecoming of nearly 500 prisoners|
|Hamas rejoicing in the prisoner swap|
|Palestinian prisoners being released from Israeli prison|
|Arabs celebrating in the West Bank|
|Awaiting the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners|
Understandably, it is difficult to see the excitement in the above images since many feel that the prisoner swap awards terrorists and enables them to continue kidnappings and similar behavior in the future. As for me, despite my torn feelings regarding the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners during a time in which I am living in Israel, I know that I will at least be sleeping a little bit better tonight and from now on, knowing that Gilad is safe and sound, home with his family where he belongs. We have to hope and pray that this one step forward will be a move in the right direction and not the contrary. To all, Happy Sukkot and Simchat Torah!