Whatever your cost-benefit analysis of the efficacy of a hugely lopsided prisoner exchange — more than a thousand murderers who prey on women and children for a single boyish, kidnapped soldier — only the hardest of hearts is immune to the emotion evoked by Gilad Shalit’s return and his embrace by his prime minister and family. After five years in isolated captivity with Hamas killers, the Israeli soldier is home with his family and countrymen.

At the welcoming ceremony, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that for the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah this week, many synagogues will read from the book of Isaiah. He is referring to Isaiah 61:1: “The spirit of the Lord was upon me, to bring tidings to the humble, He sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to declare freedom for the captives, and for the prisoners to free from captivity.” In a country in which the history of the Jewish people is both a religious narrative and the stuff of the nightly news, one can understand why, in a real sense, Netanyahu had no choice but to reclaim Israel’s boy soldier.

The religious edict to rescue the captive is reinforced by the realities of the Israeli Defense Forces. Elliott Abrams explains:

There was indeed an unbreakable obligation to bring Shalit home. Here one must acknowledge that Israel is simply different from the United States. Its Jewish population is but 5 million, less than two percent of the total U.S. population. The United States is physically more than 450 times as large as Israel. And Israel, unlike the United States, has a conscript army consisting of young people like Gilad Shalit, and military service is nearly universal. For the great majority of Israelis, then, the soldiers are their children — or at least their neighbors’ or cousins’ children — and they must be brought home.

From the early days of the state there has been a policy of doing everything possible through military action or covert operations to rescue captives, and when that is impossible to trade for them — but always to recover them. Israel has even traded for the bodies of soldiers who were killed in action. This is the product of the compact between the citizen army and the society: we protect you and you protect us. And this is one of the reasons Israelis always reject efforts, like the Goldstone Report, to punish soldiers for their actions in combat: Again, they are protecting the Jewish state and in turn it will protect them, in the Goldstone case from unjust accusations emanating from the United Nations.

Yes, as Israelis like to joke, there are three standards: One for all nations, one for democracies and one for Israel. (Some would add: And one for Bibi.) But in this instance, in the tear-filled joy and consensus that virtually never characterizes the Israeli body politic, there is pride in the special nature of the Jewish state. As Netanyahu said, “On this day, we are all united in both joy and pain.” Netanyahu said he got the best deal he could, excluding Hamas leaders from the exchange.

But in the end, what mattered most was not the composition of the Hamas list of blood-thirsty killers, but the recognition that a unique country will endure great risks for a single life. At times like this I can’t help but believe it’s a freaking miracle that such a country survives in a lagoon of blood and death and hatred.