Insight – Unchained Spirits

By Rabbi Simcha Scholar


once read a fascinating narrative about the effects of communism on the Jews and non-Jews  languishing behind the Iron Curtain. A permeating fear hovered over them. They were terrified of the KGB, the Gulag and being tried for treason for absolutely nothing. The book described the heightened alert, the tyranny, and the persecution  that the communist leaders inflicted on their citizens. But it also depicted another effect of the communist cruelty; not just oppression but depression.

“No one smiled,” one witness attested. “They were bereft of happiness.” People had drawn, sullen faces and did not greet each other, glance at each other, or trust each other. They may have been free to walk the streets and go about their lives, but they were clenched in the suffocating grasp of a dominating ideology. Their bodies may have been free, but their minds were held captive.

Indeed, there are different forms of slavery. Some are enslaved with their bodies, forced to work under cruel, harsh conditions. But at times, it’s not (only) the body that’s affected, but the heart and the mind. One whose circumstances prevent him from being able to feel or express joy is, in a sense, a slave to an imperious grip on his emotions by someone or something beyond himself. His moods, his feelings, and his sentiments are constrained. He’s a slave of the spirit.

We surely cannot fathom the effects of 210 years of shibud Mitzrayim. Not years or decades but generations of oppression. We celebrate the freedom from every aspect of that slavery, remembering and commemorating what we went through and what we became. Our bodies were liberated from repressive labor, our souls were released from spiritual devastation and our spirits were free to soar, to rejoice when we pleased and how we pleased. “Harei anu ubaneinu u’bnei banenu mishubadim hayinu l’Pharaoh b’Mitzrayim” doesn’t necessarily mean that we would still be serving Pharaoh in forced labor; the stifling clamp on our spirit, however, would surely have remained. We would be slaves of spirit, eternally bound.

It is not only a tyrant or dictatorship that enslaves the spirit. Often, predicaments and situations that people go through inhibit them from feeling or expressing the joys of life. Illness, stress, and anxiety can impede a person’s ability to be happy or feel happy; while he may be living a life of freedom, his spirit may be bound and subjugated. Dovid Hamelech describes “masger nafshi” and “b’hisatef alai ruchi,” two forms of suppression, restricting the soul. There are those whose enslaved spirit prevents them from seeing good in others, and, painfully, even good in themselves, ultimately hampering any possibility of unity. How can we love others “like ourselves” if we cannot even love ourselves? Perhaps this prompted the prayer of “Mi she’asa nissim l’avoseinu”; may He who released us from slavery to freedom bring us together, “chaveirim kol Yisrael,” as free, uninhibited spirits, rejoicing together as one. n

Rabbi Simcha Scholar is the chief executive officer for Chai Lifeline.

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