(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes about the dynamics of different types of souls. Some souls sing the song of the self – inspiring the individual to grow and do. Others go beyond. These are the souls that sing songs of their people. And finally, there are those that go one step further – singing the song of all humankind. Those souls come along once in many generations. Such is the soul of Natan Sharansky.
When most of us think of Natan, we think of the attributes classically associated with him – tenacity, faith, humor, courage, optimism, brilliance and chutzpa. But there are more foundational characteristics to Natan from which these characteristics emanate.
First and foremost is the constancy of family. Even as Natan was sentenced in that “dark” Soviet courtroom back in 1978, he concluded his courageous remarks with the words, “Now, when I am further than ever from our people, from Avital, facing many arduous years of imprisonment, I say, turning to my Avital, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem.’”
It was at that time, when some in Israel’s high places suggested to Avital that she separate from Natan as the years apart would be too long to tolerate – Avital’s love remained steadfast: unflinching, overflowing and boundless.
Yes, it was Natan’s family and their love that carried him through. I saw that the day after Natan’s release. Sitting in his Jerusalem apartment, a newspaper with his mother’s picture on the front page was placed before him. Natan softly touched the photo, and the eyes of the great hero who had overcome the KGB welled with tears.
Another foundational element to Natan’s character is his continued striving to do more. After successfully overcoming the Soviet tyrants, what could there be left for Natan to do? Most people would fold up their tents, rest on their laurels, retire to a less stressful life. Not Natan. His victory was not only liberation from, but liberation to: he was now free to serve his people, his nation, the world.
He displayed this renewed commitment to service of his people by changing his name immediately upon his arrival in Israel. No longer was he Anatoly. He was Natan. In our tradition, names are not simply names; they reflect who we are, our essence. By changing his name, Natan was declaring, I will continue to give, and give more, to my people, my Israel.
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Under his daughter Rachel’s marriage canopy, on a brisk Friday morning in January 2008, almost 22 years after his release, Natan articulated his new mission in one of his most eloquent talks. He pointed out that at his and Avital’s wedding, the struggle was to defend the lower, earthly Jerusalem. Today, he said, the struggle is greater, as it revolves around the higher, spiritual Jerusalem: the meaning, ideals and values of Jerusalem. This was Natan – mustering the full force of his formidable personality to reach higher and higher.
The final characteristic that stands out for me is Natan’s integrity – a small word with big meaning. Natan, through the years, never compromised on who and what he is. That’s why, I believe, he was uncomfortable within the constraints of politics. He needed to work from outside the Knesset, from where, it could be argued, one could have the greatest influence. His life is living the words of the Psalmist: “Truth and peace are most beloved.”
Say the name Sharansky and it evokes the imagery of freedom, redemption, human courage and human rights. But now, as Natan receives the 2018 Israel Prize, I propose that the word not remain a proper noun, but be reborn as a verb – “to Sharansky.” “To Sharansky” means to stand up and dedicate oneself to better the world, to improve the lot of the oppressed and to dispel darkness with light.
May Natan continue to teach and inspire our people and the world “to Sharansky.”
The author is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – the Bayit, Bronx, New York, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. His book on the Soviet Jewry movement, Open Up The Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist, was published by Toby Press.
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