Zachariah, the prisoner of hope

Another famous Zachariah, the prophet Zachariah, once described himself as a “prisoner of hope” (Zechariah 9:12).

April 20, 2019 21:00
3 minute read.
Zachariah, the prisoner of hope

ZACHARY BAUMEL is laid to rest last week.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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At the beginning of this month – way before we were split by political division – our country was united and comforted. If you have a good memory, you’ll recall that on the first Thursday of April, the remains of Zachariah Baumel were returned to their final resting place in Israeli soil.

The story of Sultan Yaqub has been told extensively during the past four decades. It is a tale replete with intrigue, twisting plot structure, as well as regret. The latest installment of the story has been spun from the perspective of a suspenseful rescue operation and a miraculous intelligence coup by the Mossad. Russia, too, is worthy of honorable mention. We must not, however, surrender the opportunity to view what transpired as a narrative of hope.

In 1999, just after we made aliyah, my wife and I hosted Yonah Baumel as a salon speaker in our home. Dear friends came to show support. One could not help but be moved by a father’s pain, sense of mission and depth of love. Whether or not you believed Zachariah was still alive, there was no room for a cynical response to Yonah’s tears. At that time, the Baumel family was still clinging to the possibility that Zachariah – the soldier, the son – could be liberated. But even that glimmer of hope was overshadowed by dissonance given the likelihood that a living Zachariah was a tortured Zachariah. What were we rooting for?

As evidence trickled in over the years, rabbinical leaders in Israel asked us to accept a reality that Zachariah departed this world. The determination was made on the basis of forensics, logic and practicality. There was no longer sufficient probability to entertain a notion of Zachariah being alive. At that point, the objective switched. All efforts would be made to obtain the sacred remains and bury them in Israel. Even in the new scenario, the stakes were still high because the revised goal was so important to the family and to us. Finally, finally we all paused to watch as the burial was carried out without rancor, but with nobility at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem.

In hope theory, as advanced by Prof. Rick Snyder from the University of Kansas, there are three simple components. One must have a goal, a pathway to reach that goal and the motivation to set out on that pathway. The goal, however, must be a plausible one. Although I am an ardent fan of the NBA, it would be irrational for me to set a goal of playing basketball like Omri Casspi since this is simply not plausible, and for all who know me, this is obvious. But there are more subtle situations in life wherein we set a goal and clench our hands around that goal even though it may become less possible over time.

In my practice as an oncologist, I see this frequently. All patients want to be cured. But despite meteoric progress in cancer research, this is not always possible. So there are times when we administer therapy – first line, second line and even third line drugs or immunotherapy – but ultimately realize that the disease cannot be overcome. At such moments, it is the duty of the oncologist to help the patient set other goals (control of pain, prevention of bleeding and even a “good death”) which can now come into focus since they have emerged as the remaining practical objectives. In Snyder’s lexicon, this process is called “re-goaling.” It is a mature, healthy process. It is the dynamism of hope.

In a very organic way, I believe the Baumel family and the country witnessing them carried out a process of re-goaling. I believe this is part of the explanation for the widespread support and the absence of disappointment associated with the return of Zachariah’s remains. Unlike previous and ongoing negotiations to return the remains of other MIAs, no controversy surrounded the case of Zachariah Baumel. Instead, we shared a national sigh of relief.

Another famous Zachariah, the prophet Zachariah, once described himself as a “prisoner of hope” (Zechariah 9:12). Hope is such a powerful force that it truly has the capability of imprisoning every one of us. In Hebrew, the root of the name Zechariah underscores the importance of memory. We would do well to remember the principle of re-goaling which was exemplified by the Baumel story. The prophet would be proud of the dignity accorded to his namesake this month.

The writer is the chairman of the NGO Life’s Door and the deputy director of the Shaare Zedek Cancer Center in Jerusalem. His research focuses on the science of hope

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