Free Within

On Erev Pesach, 1978, Yosef Mendelovich sat in a Soviet prison cell. His face was gaunt with starvation, his body clothed in rags. For months, he had been preparing for this moment, and now, it was time to perform the mitzvah of Bedikas Chometz, the search for chometz. He had saved slivers of wax, drops of oil, and bits of string to make the tiny candle he would now light in order to conduct his search. He had also found a way to provide himself with karpas, by salvaging an old onion and allowing it to sprout. For maror, he had taken the mustard from a mustard plaster the infirmary had given him. He knew that mustard wasn’t the best form of maror, but it was the best he could do. For wine, he had managed to find some raisins that he left soaking, hoping they would ferment. (“Raisin wine” is an acceptable form of wine when made properly.)

Oddly, though he was confined behind the walls of a prison, he did not feel any irony in celebrating the festival of freedom, even in his limited way. His freedom was real, for he knew his identity and he knew his obligation. He knew it without fear or doubt. That, to him, was real freedom, for one could have the whole wide world open before him and be paralyzed by the bondage of doubt, unable to find a direction in which to go.

Take and Give

The Skulener Rebbe was a great leader of Chassidim, before and after World War II. His devotion to his people was a rare source of light in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As Pesach approached, he busied himself preparing matzos for the surviving rabbis in Bucharest, Romania, where he resided. With a great effort, he hoped he could ensure that each could have one matzah for his community. One day, the son of another great leader, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, arrived for his father’s matzah.

“My father wants two matzos,” the son reported.

The Skulener Rebbe did not refrain from giving him two matzos. Even though he did not understand why the Vizhnitzer Rebbe would ask for two matzos in such dire times, he had full trust that the Vizhnitzer Rebbe had a sound reason for doing so.

At the last possible moment on Erev Pesach, the boy returned, bringing with him one of the two matzos. The Skulener Rebbe was perplexed. “I thought your father needed two,” he said.

“He did. One for my father, and one for the Skulener Rebbe. He was afraid you would give them all away and save nothing for yourself.”

Indeed, the Skulener Rebber had given away all the matzos, leaving absolutely nothing for himself.

“Now you will definitely have a matzah for Pesach,” the boy concluded.

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