Freedom by Aviva Meshwork
Amongst the Nazi guards and the inmates alike, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Winkler was known as a very special and pious man who carried himself with integrity and sincerity. He and his fellow Jewish prisoners survived terrible atrocities during the dreadful days of slave labor in the Holocaust at the hands of the evil Nazis. Yet despite it all, Rabbi Winkler maintained his steadfast commitment as a Jew and dedication to the Torah given commandments that he so strongly adhered to. He was particularly known for not eating anything unkosher, even if it meant unbearable starvation.
One day towards the end of the war, one of the Nazi guards gathered the tired and weary inmates together. He announced that they were soon going to be free and liberated men, that the Germans were losing the war and the end was closing in on them. However, there was one more test, one more trial that they would have to bear witness to before their imminent liberation. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Winkler was then shoved to the center of the gathering and was presented with a single piece of pork. The Nazi publically informed Rabbi Winkler that he knew that he wanted to go home like everyone else, but before he did, he would have to take a bite of the pork first. His liberation from the camp and his life on earth was contingent on him taking this bite of the pork. With no time to waste the German Nazi took out his revolver and demanded that Rabbi Winkler decide his own fate. Would he be the last one killed in the camp before its liberation, or would he eat the pork and walk out a free man?
Rabbi Shraga Feivel Winkler was shot and killed that day for he refused to eat the pork. He did not walk out of the camp towards a liberated life but rather he died as slave in labor camp. But, he died a free man.
The dictionary definition of freedom is ‘the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.’ I however think that this definition is inaccurate because it neglects to mention that our right and power to choose how we behave, speak and think includes hindrance and restraint. Freedom is linked to our ability to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something. ‘Yes’ to that which we believe is in our best interests and ‘no’ to that which is not, even if we are meant to believe otherwise. For example, ‘no’ to pork, ‘yes’ to an eternity of spiritual gain, or ‘no’ to late nights and ‘yes’ to alert and happy mornings. ‘No’ to anger and ‘yes’ to positive relationships. Freedom comes from the liberty to choose a better way. If we cannot say ‘no’, then are we truly free?
Take Ronen, a real life character from an autobiographical book I read called, ‘Escape from India’. Ronen was caught and charged with selling drugs in India. The book details his life in prison and his amazing escape from it after a long time of legal mistreatment and horrid living conditions. In his book, Ronen recounts life before his time in jail and the circumstances that lead him to being in a situation that could allow him to be trafficking drugs from India in the first place. It’s an amazing story of a man who rose up from the depths, and in the most unusual of places, found G-d, himself and essentially his freedom- all while in jail.
Before his stint in jail, Ronen lived a very carefree life. Ungrounded in the values he holds dear today, he found himself in many terrible situations. Imagine a life of all night parties that he and his friends organized, scores of people that he did and didn’t know coming in and out of his apartment, money being earned quickly and spent even quicker, together with a never ending need for cheap thrills. This was his life, a life where ‘yes’ was the name of the game- until he was caught and the life of ‘yes’ became a life of ‘no’ in an Indian prison cell. No to parties, no to drugs, no to music and fun, no to family and friends. No, no, no. And yet it was there that he found true freedom.
Ronen was not a free man before India despite having thought so. He was a slave to his out of control life due to his inability to say ‘no’. He couldn’t stop the insanity because he was a ‘yes’ man. So much was permissible and boundaries were scarce ultimately leading him to a life that spiraled out of control. He became a slave to the upkeep of his life and the only way to continue it was to keep saying ‘yes’ to everything. It was only when Ronen decided to say ‘no’ to his whims and desires and ‘yes’ to the will of G-d that he was able to improve the circumstances of his life.
Ronen didn’t exchange slavery for freedom but rather he exchanged his previous notion of freedom for one that is more genuine. Now instead of acceding to his urges and impulses, he accedes to the will of G-d and lives a life of service to The Creator. This is essentially what happened to the Israelites when they were released from Egyptian enslavement. When the Jews were freed they were able to exchange one form of service for another; and this is perhaps the essence of what we must remember on Passover.
It is true that our ancestors’ departure from Egypt marked the end of a 210-year era of brutal and merciless enslavement to Pharaoh. However, the freedom that they received was essentially the freedom to say ‘no’ to Pharaoh and ‘yes’ to G-d. As we gear up to celebrate, and perhaps more so, commemorate the exodus from Egypt that we, a yet unborn nation experienced thousands of years ago, we must remember one thing; we are hard wired to serve. However, it is what we serve that we have the freedom to choose. We either serve something other than our Creator or we serve our Creator, but either way, we are servants to something or someone.
The release from their bondage, which came through a blaze of Divinely orchestrated miracles is chronicled in our sources and retold on Passover night. Even though it is old news that G-d took us out of slavery, we still gather around the Passover table and discuss it in an orderly fashion called a Seder. This Passover let us remember the actual freedom that we were given. Not the freedom that society tells us we should have, but rather the liberty to say ‘yes’ to G-d and ‘no’ to anything antithetical to G-d. Not all of us know exactly how to do that, or are yet ready to accept that on, however we have is the autonomy and the freedom to do so. That is what freedom is really about.
Have a meaningful and Happy Passover!
Aviva Meshwork is an educator, writer, and Trip Director for the JWRP. Originally from Toronto, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children.