One of the most difficult features of the Covid 19 pandemic is how if effects our minds. We feel trapped and depressed. Sometimes, in our despair, we fail to have gratitude for all that we do have. One shining role model and modern day Jewish hero, Natan Sharansky, has a lot to teach us about overcoming extreme adversity and triumphing against seemingly insurmountable odds, and what it means to be a proud Jew.
Natan Sharansky, the iconic former “Prisoner of Zion” always comes to mind at the Passover Seder when we recite “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Many Jews in the western world recite the famous concluding lines of the their Seder meals pro forma, without really meaning them. They are just part of the ritual. After all, for centuries of exile Jews recited these lines and then carried on with their lives.
Sharansky taught us that it is not just enough to “talk the talk” and yearn and hope and pray for redemption but rather one needs to ACT and “walk the walk” in order to do what is right. Natan could have taken the easy path and carried on living in the Soviet Union but he courageously chose the “path less chosen” and opted in 1973 to apply for an exit visa to Israel. He was denied for “security” reasons. The rest is history.
He continued to engage in “underground” Zionist activities and became a spokesman for all of the “Refusniks” trapped behind the Iron Curtain until his arrest by the Soviet authorities in 1977 on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage. His real “crime” was of wanting to realise the age-old Jewish dream of returning to Zion. Sharansky was found guilty in 1978 and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in a Gulag. He used his show-trial to courageously declare:
I am happy. I am happy that I lived honourably, at peace with my conscience. I never compromised my soul, even under the threat of death…For more that two thousand years the Jewish people, my people, have been dispersed. But wherever they are, wherever Jews are found, every year they have repeated,’ Next year in Jerusalem.’ Now, when I am further than ever from my people, from Avital, facing many arduous years of imprisonment, I say, turning to my people, my Avital, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’
Sharansky was sentenced to thirteen years in a Gulag in Siberia. He ultimately spent nine years in the prison, half of the time in solitary confinement and for 405 days in the punishment cell. Years later, following his release, Sharansky stressed his need throughout his imprisonment to remain emotionally independent and not sink into self pity. He attributed his survival of the lengthy incarceration and the brutal conditions to his resistance to any sort of emotional surrender. Hence Sharansky’s expression of the paradox that while an ordinary Russian, he was in fact a slave to the system; but that once he discovered his Jewish roots and was restricted for his allegiance to them, he was in reality a free man. As another great Jewish survivor, Victor Frankl observed:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
This global united movement to free Sharansky and other Refusniks ultimately led to Sharansky’s release in 1986. He arrived in Israel, proudly processing a new Israeli passport and ID card, that same night. Upon his arrival at Ben Gurion airport and after being greeted by dignitaries and throngs of excited Jews from across the political and religious spectrum he said in Hebrew, with his voice cracking with emotion,
Hinei ma tov u ma naim, shevet achim gam yachad. (How good and how pleasant it is, a tribe of brothers and sisters united together).
Indeed it took this great man to teach all of us how to survive and indeed thrive in difficult circumstances, and that we Jews should focus on what we have in common in order to bring out the best in us and make the world a better place for all of its inhabitants.
(Sharansky has continued to lead human rights efforts both through his writings as well as public activities since his release. Following his service as a Member of Knesset and Government Minister. Sharansky also served as Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Recently he, together with Gil Troy, has written a new book, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People” about his experiences and life story
Dr. Tuvia Book is the author of “For the Sake of Zion, A Curriculum of Israel Education” (Koren, 2017). His forthcoming book on the Second Temple Period, will be published by Koren later this year. He also is a Ministry of Tourism licensed Tour Guide and a Judaica artist. www.tuviabook.com