Imagine you have been in solitary confinement for over a week. You don’t know how long it’s going to last. You’re talking to yourself to prevent losing your mind. With each day, you’re becoming more and more of a stranger—not just to the world, but to yourself.
Tragically, you’re only sixteen years old.
This was the true story that our video course instructor Miguel (*not his real name) shared with us one night in a video studio he owned in Washington, DC. We were his students, gathered around sharing popcorn from a vintage theatre machine after a lecture on apertures and shutter speeds. Miguel was by now in his late-forties, happily married, a gentle father, a church goer and law-abiding citizen with a team of videographers that were sent anywhere from the White House to New York City to Dubai.
So, how did Miguel go from a life of crime that landed him in solitary confinement to the fulfilling life he had today? What exactly saved him?
Miguel had arrived in DC from El Salvador with his family when he was thirteen years old. As overwhelmed immigrants, his parents were barely able to keep tabs on him. Miguel quickly found a sense of belonging on the streets. By fourteen, he was stealing cars. When he was fifteen, he stole a car that happened to belong to a gang member. When he opened the trunk, it was full of stolen firearms. He collected the guns and sold them on the street to rival gangs.
When Miguel was sixteen, he stole a car that turned out to belong to an undercover police officer. As a result, Miguel found himself arrested and promptly thrown in jail. Searching for relief from solitary confinement, he begged for something to read. The only material allowed was the Bible, so that’s what he read.
The results were life-altering. From the story of creation to the Exodus, from Ecclesiastes to Jonah and the whale, Miguel’s entire view of the world around him was forever altered. He suddenly saw that there was a spark of God not only in himself, but in all people. In order to respect that godliness in every individual, he understood that he could no longer act freely according to his own desires. A good society, he concluded, was not a place where everyone was free to do as they pleased; a good society was a well-structured world that included constraints and balances.
Miguel was eventually released from jail, still a teenager. He never broke the law again. Instead, he put his energies into building a successful video production business. He got married and had four kind-hearted children who he continues to have a close relationship with to this day. His first son is named Solomon out of respect to the texts that turned his life around. Every Sunday, Miguel attends church with his family and reads the Bible.
Strangely enough, we had landed on the topic of Miguel’s redemption because the other men, mostly fellow Latinos, wanted to order dinner from McDonald’s that night. When one of the guys turned to me kindly offering to cover the cost of my meal, I responded, “Thank you, but I don’t eat from McDonald’s since I keep kosher.”
The other students stared at me. I was definitely an oddball in the class, a modestly dressed woman with a scarf on my head sitting among large tattooed men. (Video production, or at least its technical aspects, tends to be a male-dominated field.) As a communications strategist in the defense sector who often directs creative projects, my manager had sent me to this video course to brush up on my production skills. The men knew why I was in the class, but until this point they had no idea that I was an orthodox Jew.
“What does kosher mean?” they asked me.
Most of the men had never met a Jew before. As for Miguel, his eyes lit up. He wanted to know if I went to a Jewish school and studied the bible. When I answered in the affirmative, he practically interrogated me. He wanted to know what I learned at school, what my community was like, what Israel was like. Most importantly, he wanted to hear my perspectives on several of the biblical stories. He wanted to compare notes, to see if his insights matched up with the perspectives of a “person of the Bible.”
It turned out we had a lot in common, or at least that we had come to a lot of similar conclusions. Once we had covered the Bible, I started to tell him about the Jewish holidays, starting with Passover. I explained that Passover is the oldest continuously-observed religious ritual in the world and thus the longest evolving commentary on what it means to be truly free.
Within the Passover discussions are two types of freedom: hofesh and herut. Hofesh is a freedom from something, such as slavery. It is fine for individual freedom, but cannot sustain collective freedom. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote, “A world in which everyone is free to do what they like begins in anarchy and ends in tyranny.”
Herut, on the other hand, is a freedom toward something. It is the collective freedom that depends on self-restraint and respect for our fellow citizens. Chaos is simple, but structure is complex; it is no easy task to build a society based on a multifaceted value system that employs checks and balances. Fleeing slavery and leaving Egypt, in a way, was the easy part; building a healthy, moral society when the Jews reached Israel would be the hard part.
This theme is so central to Passover that we call the holiday zeman herutenu—the time of our freedom. As we read through the text of the Haggadah on the first night of Passover, the Jews are called upon to be bnei horin—a free people. It is difficult to escape from tyranny, but it is harder still to build and sustain a free society.
For Miguel, it took losing his personal freedom and sitting in jail to appreciate the true benefits and requirements of a free society. It can be easy to take freedom for granted when we are born into it, but in many parts of the world the lessons of the Passover story remain as critical as ever. As we know from the Arab Spring and other revolutions that have taken place across the Middle East in recent years, freedom is not won by merely overthrowing a tyrannical ruler or oppressive regime. Rather, this is only the prelude to continued oppression, with a different leader.
True peace will only come to fruition under the rule of law and justice, including the participation of individuals who are appreciative of the wisdom behind the laws. A well-structured society, as Miguel figured out, requires individuals who not only fear punishment from the law, but have made it a part of who they are in their everyday actions. May we all be free in a way that enriches us as individuals and honors the freedom of all.