Today we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Operation Entebbe, the successful counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission carried out by commandos of the Israeli Defense Forces at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976. On this very significant date, I believe we are celebrating more that the impressive military feat.
After the Entebbe rescue, many halakhic authorities debated whether it was halakhically appropriate for the IDF to engage in such a risky mission. More broadly, they asked: Is it appropriate or permissible for an individual to place himself in a potentially life-threatening situation in order to save another person?
In Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Dei’ah 2:174, Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that even though we are not obligated to place ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation in order to save another person, we are permitted to do so. According to this ruling, one can argue that the brave commandos of the IDF were permitted but not obligated to rescue the hostages in Entebbe. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling does not specifically address lives risked in the context of nations at war.
In a famous passage in the Minchat Hinukh (#425), Rav Yosef Babad argues that the typically governing principle of not placing yourself in a dangerous situation does not apply to times of war. Despite the understanding that people will undoubtedly die during wartime, the Torah nevertheless does authorize us to engage in warfare under certain circumstances. The Minchat Hinukh is telling us that, at times, it is permitted to engage in military exercises that we know bear the risk of losing Jewish lives.
After the successful Entebbe mission, Rav Shaul Yisraeli, former Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz HaRav and President of Eretz Hemdah Institute, wrote that the military option to rescue the hostages was not simply permissible, but that it was the optimal response for the IDF. Though submitting to the terrorists’ demands of ransom money and prisoner release might have avoided the risks of the IDF mission, Rav Yisraeli argued that capitulating to the terrorists would have constituted a Chillul Shem Shamayim, a desecration of God’s Heavenly Name. This is a powerful statement. Would it not have been understandable if the Israeli government had opted to meet the demands of the captors? Why would this have been a desecration of God’s name?
I believe that Rav Yisraeli’s point is underscored by Rav Soloveitchik in his famous 1956 essay, Kol Dodi Dofek. In that essay, Rav Soloveitchik wrote that with the establishment of the State of Israel, “God… suddenly manifested himself.” One manifestation was that upon the creation of the Jewish state, it became known that “Jewish blood is not free for taking, is not hefker.” We tend to think that we sanctify God’s Name by observing His Torah, and that it is most admirable to do so even if it means dying for the sake of Heaven. But perhaps an even greater act of sanctifying God’s Name is to preserve Jewish life and to demonstrate to our enemies that those who try to murder members of God’s chosen nation will pay a heavy price.
I believe that this is what we are truly celebrating, as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Operation Entebbe. Forty years ago, the daring rescue mission in Entebbe made clear for all the world to see: Jewish blood is not free for the taking. Jewish blood is not hefker.
This past week we mourned over two more victims of terror, Hallel Ariel and Rabbi Miki Mark. We are emotionally crushed and distraught that two more precious souls have returned to Heaven long before their time. As they did 40 years ago, our enemies once again want to use terror to convince us to submit to their demands. But just as we did 40 years ago, and just as we have done since the very creation of our state, the Jewish nation remains resolute.
Today, let us hope and pray that we will forever continue to sanctify God’s Name as we did 40 years ago, proudly and bravely proclaiming to the world that our blood is not free for the taking; our blood is not hefker.