Turning Achad HaAm’s title around we can also speak of Cherut B’toch Avdut – “Freedom in the Midst of Slavery”. The body can be constrained by slavery, imprisonment, severe illness or other circumstances that prevent free movement, yet the mind and heart can rise above the constraints and soar free.
Victor Frankl’s concept of logotherapy, emerging from the suffering of the Holocaust, testifies that when a great cause or idea impels a person, they can never be broken by pain, persecution or prejudice. “Facts are not fate,” says Frankl in his book, “The Will to Meaning”; “what matters is the stand (one) takes towards his predicament, the attitude he chooses towards his suffering.”
Holocaust literature records the moral resistance of k’doshim who refused to give way in their thoughts and feelings to the blackness of the physical moment. Natan Scharansky and all the Prisoners of Zion said they understood what freedom was and that enabled them to survive.
The sages knew of Cherut B’toch Avdut when they said that the slaves in Egypt maintained their language, their moral standards and their faith in God despite the cruelty of the taskmasters. There is even a Talmudic passage that says the Israelites were already redeemed in Egypt, not only when they left (Pes. 116b). Once their mindset was that of free people, the remaining period of slavery was unable to defeat them.
Franz Rosenzweig, centuries later in the 1920s, suffered from an illness that almost totally incapacitated him in a physical sense, but he never gave up his philosopher’s mind or his determination to think, write and teach. However thick the walls are, a person can still soar free.