The Russian military in Syria has begun excavating the cemetery near Yarmouk in Syria in an attempt to find the remains of IDF soldiers who went missing during the First Lebanon War in 1982, nearly forty years ago.
Russian Searching Syrian Cemetery
The search began last Thursday when the Russian military closed off the cemetery with the intention of identifying DNA samples from the graves in the cemetery that stands near Damascus. Local media said Russian forces came with a specialized medical truck equipped with DNA testing tools.
The main focus will be searching for the bodies of Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, both the children of Holocaust survivors, who were declared Missing in Action after being captured by the Syrian army in the battle of Sultan Yakoub in the Lebanese Bekaa, close to the borders with Syria. The battle lasted six hours and was particularly devastating for the IDF. After being surrounded, the Israeli armored battalion lost 10 tanks and about 30 IDF soldiers were killed. After the battle, Feldman, Katz, and Zachary Baumel were reportedly paraded through Damascus atop their captured tank.
Over the years, Palestinian and Syrian officials have made many references to information in their possession regarding the MIAs, but have been unwilling to cooperate in efforts to return the missing soldiers to their families.
In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian army, in coordination with the Syrian military, had found Baumel’s remains. Baumel’s remains were handed over to Israel in an official ceremony at the Russian defense ministry in Moscow and interred the following day at the Mount Herzl military cemetery.
Honoring the Dead: A Biblical Imperative
In Judaism, tending to the dead is a Biblical imperative. This is learned from the book of Leviticus which prohibits Kohanim, men of the priestly caste, from defilement by contact with a dead body .
Hashem said to Moshe: Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, Leviticus 21:1
The Talmud prescribes that if a priest, even the High Priest, chances upon a corpse by the wayside, and there is no one else in the area who can be called upon to bury it, then the priest himself must forgo the requirement to abstain from defilement and perform the burial of this person. This mitzvah is expanded to include anyone who happens upon such a body.
Dead who have no next-of-kin or who are for other reasons unburied or improperly buried are termed a meit mitzvah (Hebrew: מת מצוה, a mitzvah corpse). Tending to a meit mitzvah overrides virtually any other positive commandment of Torah law, an indication of the high premium the Torah places on the honor of the dead.
Tending to the dead is also referred to as chesed shel emet (kindness of truth) because the act is selfless as it can never be returned in kind.
It is this important mitzvah that has led Israel to go to great measures, including releasing terrorists to recover the bodies of soldiers.