Commenting on a verse in the Book of Jeremiah (15:2), the great third century scholar Rabbi Yohanan asserts that dying by the sword is worse than dying of natural causes. And dying by famine is worse than death by the sword because death by famine is prolonged suffering. But worst of all is captivity since it includes deprivation and suffering of every kind – a truth confirmed by the reports of freed hostages. Hence, the rabbis of the Talmud (Baba Batra 8a) concluded that the redemption of captives is a religious duty of the highest order. In fact, the medieval Tosafists explain that the redemption of captives is not included with providing for the study of Torah and the dowering of the needy bride on the list of actions for which a Torah scroll may be sold to finance because the obligation to redeem captives is so obvious the rabbis did not have to state it!
Maimonides (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 8:10) writes that: “there is no religious duty more meritorious than the ransoming of captives for not only is the captive included under the heading of the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked, but his very life is in jeopardy.” Thus, a person who ignores the plight of captives stands in violation of no less than seven commandments. Echoing the opinion of Maimonides, Rabbi Joseph Karo (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 252:1) rules that there is no commandment greater than the freeing of captives. And there is no better exemplar of the performance of this commandment than Abraham.
After learning that Lot was taken captive (Genesis 14:14), Abraham musters his forces and, against tremendous odds, engages the captors in battle. With the darkness of night to shield his advance, Abraham succeeds in routing the forces of four kings in liberating his nephew Lot. Abraham neither hesitates nor equivocates. When human life is at stake, immediate action is required. What makes Abraham’s actions especially noteworthy is the fact that just one chapter earlier the narrative tells how Abraham and Lot were forced to separate because of the thievery of Lot’s shepherds that went unchecked. That Abraham and Lot had a falling out did not dissuade him from intervening. Personal feelings must never stand in the way of duty.
Moreover, the text itself reveals that bonds of kinship are ultimately stronger than the personal feelings that can sour a relationship. The Torah refers to the captured Lot as Abraham’s brother (ibid.) when, in fact, Lot was his nephew, suggesting that a Jew in trouble is like a brother and must be treated accordingly.
Abraham is the paradigm for fulfilling the commandment of redeeming captives as well as the paradigm for never letting feelings stand in the way of doing what is right and necessary.