Natan Sharansky on the virtues of a life lived backward
This essay was adapted from a new book Natan Sharansky wrote with Gil Troy, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People.”
After living my life backward, the usual sequence seems overrated. Whenever I hear of friends separating after decades of marriage, I wonder, “Maybe they did it in the wrong order.” My wife, Avital, and I were separated one day after we married. We didn’t see each other for 12 years, then lived happily ever after.
I was circumcised when I was 25 years old, not eight days. So, unlike most, I could give my consent. And, two days later, when I joined yet another Refusenik protest, the KGB imprisoned me for 15 days. Thus, the Soviet secret police enabled me to commune quietly with Abraham, the first Jew, who circumcised himself at the age of 99, and soon hosted angels in his tent.
Years later, after some other freed Refuseniks and I founded an Israeli political party, we thought up a fitting slogan. Promising that “we are a different type of party, we go to prison first,” we won more seats than expected. Finally, at the age of 65, I had my bar mitzvah 52 years late. My belated ceremony was cost-efficient: I now had a squad of grandchildren to pick up the candy the guests would throw at me in celebration, so everything stayed in the family. Most importantly, I could better appreciate my Torah portion’s relevance and explain it to everyone without having my rabbi write my speech for me.
A year earlier, when I was 64, one of my sons-in-law had been reminiscing about his bar mitzvah. I asked him what my Torah reading would have been. He looked it up, based on my birth date. I thought he was teasing when he answered a few minutes later: “It’s Parashat Bo,” at the beginning of Exodus.
Parashat Bo? When Moses tells Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” uttering those mighty words that became the slogan of our struggle for freedom in the Soviet Union?
“This cannot be a coincidence,” I thought. “I will have to have a bar mitzvah.” 65 seemed like a perfectly good age—five times thirteen.
On the appointed day, I read the first two parts of the Torah portion, with the proper trope, the traditional cantillation. Fortunately, my two sons-in-law stepped in and read the other five parts and the accompanying biblical passage from Jeremiah 43 — the Haftorah — which envisions the Jews being redeemed.
Yet the ordeal wasn’t over after the candies had been pelted and my young cleanup crew had arrived. I still had to make that speech. I analyzed Exodus 10:1 through Exodus 13:16, which peaks with the tenth plague, killing the firstborn Egyptians.
I asked, “What makes this plague different from all the other plagues the Egyptians endured?”
The first nine plagues seem like a Greek drama starring three protagonists: God, Moses and Pharaoh. Aaron is a supporting player. The mass of Jewish slaves have no individuality. Their voices merge into one Greek chorus. But for the big one, the tenth plague, every Israelite must act individually. Every adult in the community has to take a stand. Each Israelite first has to decide to be free, then act free. Each one rejects the Egyptian gods by slaughtering a lamb, an animal Egyptians worshipped. Then the Israelites publicly proclaim they no longer wish to live there, marking their doorposts with the lambs’ blood.
I explained that only by defying Egypt publicly could those slaves become free. And only through each individual declaration of independence could they join together in the national exodus. Real change occurs when each person stops being controlled by fear and starts acting independently.
All this paralleled the Refuseniks’ struggle against the Soviet system. Like Egyptian slavery, the Communist regime was designed to intimidate, to crush. Every Jew hoping to emigrate had to overcome overwhelming fear by soliciting an invitation from Israel, a Soviet enemy. Applying for a visa required seeking permission from each Soviet school and workplace that defined your life. Essentially, you shouted publicly, “I don’t accept your gods. I want to leave this country.”
And what was the payoff? In Exodus, God offers the Jewish people… the Jewish people. The Jews leave Egypt and seven weeks later receive the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, accepting identity and freedom as a package deal. This would become one of our people’s main missions: balancing our right to belong and to be free.
Thirty-five hundred years later, I got the great payoff by joining that journey. Once I hopped aboard, I was never alone.
The most important conversation of my life has been the ongoing dialogue between Israel and the Jewish people. I first backed into it on the streets of Moscow, when I joined the movement for Jewish emigration. It is an eternal, global, meaningful, and sometimes shrill conversation that saved my life decades ago. Today, it enriches our lives by confronting questions about the meaning of faith, community, identity and freedom. Only through this dialogue can we continue our journey together. And that’s why it is a dialogue worth defending.
While wearing different titles during my subsequent journey — Refusenik, Soviet dissident, political prisoner, head of the new immigrants’ party in Israel, member of Knesset (Israel’s parliament), minister in four Israeli governments, human rights advocate, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel—I always remained comforted by a tremendous feeling of belonging to this ongoing conversation.
I first joined this dialogue from behind the Iron Curtain. I continued it behind prison bars. My contacts were restricted, my involvement sometimes purely imagined, but this dialogue always fortified me. Participating in it, I exercised my newly developed muscles — my newfound commitments to my people specifically and to freedom for all. Later, as a member of the Israeli cabinet, I represented the Israeli side of the dialogue and saw Diaspora Jews as the Jewish state’s cherished partners. While enjoying that bridge-building work, I did find the adjustment from dissident prisoner to party politician frustrating.
Most recently, as the head of the Jewish Agency, the Jewish world’s largest nongovernmental organization, I switched perspectives again. I looked to Israel not only as the center of the Jewish world but as a tool for strengthening Jews across the globe.
When things worked well — or when we were under attack — we saw how much we had in common. But I did spend a lot of time defending Israel to Diaspora Jews and defending Diaspora Jewry to Israelis. These days, I often find myself defending the very idea of the need for the dialogue itself.
Dialogue is easy to call for but hard to pull off. To start listening and talking to one another, we don’t all need a full-blown, three-dimensional perspective. But we do need to see that the sum of our common concerns is greater than the sum of our many divisions.
Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik who spent nine years in prison, spent a decade as an Israeli minister and member of the Knesset and another as chairman of the Jewish Agency; he is now chairman of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism. Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University. This essay is adapted from their new book, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People.”