In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, the Plagues of Egypt reach their climax with the death of the firstborn, and for the first time the Israelites are called upon to actively participate in their own deliverance. To be spared, they have to slaughter lambs, the very animals their oppressors revere as deities, and display the blood over their doors. Only by thus defying Egypt in the most public way possible could they attain their freedom. And only by individually declaring their independence could they become part of the national Exodus.
Millennia later, Soviet Jews had to make the same choice. People often associate the Refusnik movement with a small group of famous activists and Prisoners of Zion. But in reality, every single Jew who wished to make aliyah had to go through his or her own heroic ordeal of defiance. The Soviet Union ruled millions of people by threatening and isolating them. To apply for an emigration visa, each man and woman had to overcome this crippling fear and publicly forsake the Soviet credo.
First, applicants had to request an invitation from (real or fake) relatives in Israel. The KGB, monitoring the Soviet mail system, knew about these invitation letters even before their recipients saw them, and summoned the latter for interrogations. Shaken, the would-be applicants then had to declare, repeatedly and in public, their intention to leave for Israel.
They had to ask their bosses and neighborhood committees to verify their occupations and residences in documents stating their desire to emigrate. If they were members of the Komsomol, the Soviet youth organization, they had to notify their superiors and be expelled in a public condemnation ceremony. Last but not least, they had to receive their parents’ signed permission to leave, which the parents in turn had to submit to their superiors, thereby risking their own livelihoods and careers.
In short, every applicant had to stand in the metaphoric public square and repudiate the Soviet gods in the name of the “imperialist Zionist” enemy. Why did Soviet Jews choose such defiance, knowing full well how severe the consequences would be? How did they, like the Israelites before them, overcome their fear?
Perhaps the answer lies in the second set of instructions that God delivered before the tenth plague in this week’s parasha:
And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to God; throughout your generations … and it shall come to pass, when ye come to the land which God will give you … when your children shall say unto you: What mean ye by this service? that ye shall say: It is the sacrifice of God’s passover, for that He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt.
In these commandments, God offered the Israelites something better than comfort. As they prepared to defy their masters, God offered them the promise of a national future, complete with a land, children, and the memory of the Exodus. Not only will you survive this night, His orders implied: You will thrive. Your defiance will mean more than a moment of personal bravery. It will be the cornerstone of your national future, something for your descendants to look back on with pride.
By smearing their defiance on their doors, then, the Israelites transcended both their personal concerns and their particular historical moment. The act that declared their inner freedom from Egyptian tyranny was also the act that bound them together as a nation with a noble past and a hopeful future.
The Soviet Jews saw the same promise before them. The Six Day War altered them. It changed the way they were perceived by their gentile neighbors and thus also the way they saw themselves. Suddenly, due to Israel’s victory, they were no longer seen as “these weak dirty Jews” but rather as a force to be reckoned with. And they realized that somewhere out there, there is a state whose fate is tied with theirs. After being almost completely assimilated, they now belonged to a nation with a glorious history, forging its way to a promising future.
In publicly applying for their emigration visas, Soviet Jews joined the next chapter of the Jewish national story. Although they had to defy the regime and win inner freedom as individuals, after that point they no longer struggled alone World Jewry fought with them. Similarly, every Jew in the free world had to choose to support his Soviet brethren. Through our individual choices, we all became part of a bigger story. We were all marching out of Egypt together.
In a way, the Jews behind the Iron Curtain, like their forefathers and foremothers in Egypt, were lucky. They had to make one tremendously difficult choice, but once they did, they were “in.” By defying their Pharaohs, they became both connected and free.
Today’s young generation doesn’t have a Pharaoh to defy. They are the children from God’s promise to the Israelites, the children who will remember the past from the relative comfort of their own land. But the very normalcy of their lives creates a new kind of challenge: Will the ease of freedom and the comfort of normalcy lure them away from the national bond?
Without a Pharaoh to defy and a dramatic rebirth to experience, we can easily forget that we are more than individuals. We don’t have a 10th plague to participate in. We don’t have one dramatic decision to make. Instead, if we want to remain both connected and free, we have to infuse our normal lives with our abnormal national identity. Our ancestors transcended individuality by leaping into a grand, tangible Exodus. We are left with the challenge of bringing this grand national identity into our normal daily lives.
This essay is based on Natan’s and Rachel’s speeches during Natan’s belated bar mitzvah celebration at the age of 65.
Natan Sharansky is Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Rachel Sharansky Danziger, Natan’s daughter, lives in Jerusalem.