I will never forget sitting in my office one evening last October watching a pale, gaunt, frail young man drowning in a military uniform emerge from an Israeli helicopter. For five and a half years we prayed for that moment, the moment our beloved son would be redeemed from his terrifying captivity in Gaza. On that day, I felt the emotional burden straining the soul of our people lift. Gilad Shalit had returned home.
In my mind, I juxtapose that image with another appearing just eight months later in the sports section of the New York Times—a picture of a hearty Shalit decked out in a New York T-shirt with an ear-to ear smile. Shalit was in the U.S. to cover the NBA finals before leaving for the European soccer championship. Shalit is now a reporter for the popular Israeli newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. The picture captivated me. I saw a healthy, smiling young man with an expression betraying his zest for life. I saw a young man who had found a way to free himself from the imprisonment of soul and spirit that accompanied his physical captivity.
It is unbearable to imagine what Shalit’s life must have been like during his six years in Gaza. What we know for sure is that he lived entirely underground without any attention from the Red Cross. He was not allowed to communicate with family members, something to which he was entitled as a captured soldier under the Geneva Convention.
And yet, through tremendous mental strength and perseverance, Shalit was able to overcome his captivity, retain his human dignity, and less than a year after his redemption emerge in the fullness of freedom, pursuing his dream of being a sports writer.
Shalit, in so many ways is an inspiration to me—an embodiment of the power of human resiliency, a reminder that at the core of every human being is a Divine spark. In the words of the great Jewish philosopher, Viktor Frankl “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.
Shalit’s transition from captivity to freedom displays the deepest nature of teshuvah. On one level, teshuvah is the act of repenting for sin and seeking forgiveness from those whom we have wronged. But there is a far deeper level of teshuvah—a layer of meaning that explores the fundamental nature of humanity. In his superlative work on teshuvah, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes that Judaism has always maintained “it lies within man’s power to renew himself, to be reborn and to redirect the course of his life. In this task, man must rely upon himself; no one can help him. He is his own creator and innovator…he is his own messiah who has come to redeem himself from the darkness of his exile to the light of his personal redemption.” Shalit’s physical return was impressive and important, but what truly inspires me is his internal striving to return to himself, renew his life, and take ownership of his freedom.
In this regard, Shalit is not alone. Let me tell you a story about Noah.
In May of 1969 Noah, a senior at the University of Wisconsin, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Fear of being drafted into a war he did not believe in, combined with old personal issues and a steady diet of drugs, sent him barreling over the edge. But one day, while confined to the maximum-security ward, Noah peered out a small bathroom window covered by wrought iron bars. And as he looked out towards the manicured grounds, he made a vow. He vowed that someday he would rejoin the world and escape the imprisonment of his own thoughts.
After being released from the hospital in February of 1970, Noah fell in love… with a salad bowl… which led him to start the Alper Wooden Bowl Company, the first of his five businesses. One of those businesses is Noah’s Bagels.
In 1996 Noah’s Bagel’s was sold for $100 million. The sale allowed Noah to realize his dream of moving to Jerusalem to study Torah. Soon after his arrival in the Holy Land, he found himself sitting in a neighborhood synagogue gazing through another window covered by wrought-iron bars. In that moment, he was emotionally transported back to the bathroom at the hospital. The promise he made to himself half a lifetime ago was fulfilled. Noah Alper had returned to his true self, his soul self, to build a family, a career, and a future. Like Shalit, Alper is an example of someone who was able to transcend their captivity by breaking down the walls of their incarceration. They are people who were able to find themselves in the wake of life’s traumas.
In a sense, we are all captives, enslaved by the accretions that collect in our being that dim the light of our souls, and block the seeds of our potential waiting to blossom. As Mordecai Kaplan describes in his haggadah: “Men can be enslaved in more ways than one. Men can be enslaved to themselves. When they let emotion sway them to their hurt, when they permit harmful habits to tyrannize over them— they are slaves. When laziness or cowardice keeps them from doing what they know to be the right, when ignorance blinds them so that, like Samson, they can only turn round and round in meaningless drudgery—they are slaves.”
We are all bound by mistakes of the past and our complacent compulsion to repeat them. We are shackled by shame, self-deception, self-aggrandizement, or self-denigration. We are fettered by the fact that we are not living in consonance with the way in which God intends.
And we know it!
What is remarkable about Gilad and Noah is not what happened to them. Rather, it is the fact that they broke free from their mental enslavement in the wake of attaining their physical freedom. They were unwilling to capitulate to the modes of thought and behavior holding them captive. They were able to reclaim their lives from spiritual enslavement. And yet so many of us persist in our past ways. We become accustomed to our engrained habits of action, thought, and self-perception. We convince ourselves that we are comfortable with them, even when we know they are dangerous to our health and an impediment to living a more meaningful life. Like our ancestors wandering in the wilderness, we cling to captivity.
Another story: In the 1960’s the National Zoo in Washington DC housed a regal white tiger named Mohini. For many years, Mohini lived in the old lion house—a typical twelve-by-twelve-foot cage with bars and a cement floor. She spent her days pacing restlessly back and forth in her cramped quarters. Eventually, biologists and staff worked together to create a natural habitat for her. Covering several acres, it had hills, trees, even a pond. But when Mohini arrived at her new home, she didn’t rush out, eagerly adapting to her new habitat. Rather, she marked off a 12-by-12 foot square for herself as if nothing had changed and paced those 12 square feet until her death.
We all have the propensity to behave exactly like Mohini. We create invisible cages for ourselves, limiting our lives within their boundaries. However, we are not Mohini. We are human beings made in the image of God. We are endowed with the ability to make conscious changes in our lives. We can overcome habitually engrained patterns. We can return to our true, God-given roles as Jewish men and women imbued with specific roles in this world.
This is why we come to shul on Rosh Hashanah.
As we enter into Rosh Hashanah and a New Year, we have an opportunity to free ourselves from that which is holding us back. As we sound the great shofar for our freedom, we invite its clarion call to shatter the walls and free the fetters that enslave us, just as the shofar signaled the release of all slaves during the Jubilee in the time of our ancestors. We allow its shrill notes to break down the barriers in our lives that keep us captive.
The sound of the shofar proposes that there are elements of our essential nature poised to burst into life if we would only allow it to happen. The shofar inspires us to live like Gilad and Noah who might have succumbed both physically and emotionally to their imprisonment becoming like Mohini. Yet, they worked with all of their might to become the people they are intended to be.
Today, can be the first day of the rest of our lives if we engage in deep work of Teshuvah. We have an opportunity to begin down the road that will return us to ourselves knowing the journey will not be a short one. Keeping our negative habits and inclinations at bay requires constant attention. The late existentialist philosopher Rollo May once wrote that “freedom does not come automatically. It must be achieved. And it is not gained at a single bound. It must be achieved every day.” Rosh Hashanah an opportunity to break free from our self-imposed captivity and find our own route through the wilderness to freedom. As we enter into the new year of 5773 may we embrace an awareness of the ways in which we are held captive each day. May we find the internal strength to overcome negative habits. And may we realize our true selves in the fullness of life, grateful for the blessings of our freedom.