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The Alcatraz Syndrome

By Tzvi Fishman
7/26/2010, 12:00 AM

In the old days when I watched movies, before I became a baal tshuva, I used to like prison films. A different twist on the old prison movie came to me the other day while I was reading the Torah portion.


What if there was a film about a convict who had a life sentence. One day, unexpectedly, he discovers the door to his prison cell unlocked. All of the corridor doors are unlocked as well. And the main prison gate is also wide open, without a prison guard in sight. Suddenly, he freezes. He gazes outside at the freedom before him, at the buses, the birds overhead, the pedestrians walking freely on the street. For a long moment, he stares at the beckoning yet frightening world before him. Then he does an about face, retraces his tracks, and returns to the familiar comfort of his prison cell, where all of his needs are taken care of for him - his food, lodging, daily exercise, even prayer.

The parable is clear. Whether it’s Moscow, Boca Raton, Monsey, or Melbourne, the exile is a prison. In most of the lands of the exile today, there aren’t any bars preventing the incarcerated from escaping, but they remain in exile all the same, even though the gates are wide open.

Boca Raton

Perhaps that’s what makes it so difficult to leave - the fact that there aren’t any visible bars and barbwire fences. But it is a prison all the same, more difficult to escape from than Soviet Russia, where the iron curtain was a constant reminder of the harsh imprisonment, inspiring the inmates with a constant yearning for freedom.

Make no mistake, my friends, exile is a prison. Being outcast from the Land of Israel is no different than sending a convict to St. Helena or Alcatraz. A Jew living in someone else’s land is not a free man. His mind and values are always exposed to the foreign culture around him. He is always dependent on the gentiles who lord over him. He has no national existence as a Jew. He is always a defenseless minority, waiting for the next whack on his head.

"I'm not in prison."


Why was I reminded of this as I studied this week’s Torah portion? Because it repeats, again and again, that a Jew is meant to live in the Land of Israel:

“Now therefore hearken, O Israel, to the statutes and to the laws which I teach you to do, that you may live and go in to POSSESS THE LAND….” (Devarim, 4:1).

“I have taught you statutes and laws that you should act accordingly IN THE LAND whither you go to possess,” (Idid, 4:5).

“And the L-rd commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and laws that you may do them IN THE LAND into which you go over to possess,” (Ibid, 4:14).

“But you shall go over and possess the GOOD LAND,” (Ibid, 4:22).

“Thou shall therefore keep His statutes… that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, that you may prolong thy days ON THE LAND which the L-rd your G-d gives thee” (Ibid, 4:40).

“I will speak to thee all the commandments… which thou shall teach them that they may do them IN THE LAND which I gave them to possess” (Ibid, 5:28).

“That you may prolong your days IN THE LAND which you shall possess,” (Ibid, 5:30).

“Now this is the commandment… that you may do them IN THE LAND which you go in to possess,” (Ibid, 6:1).

“That you may increase mightily IN THE LAND that flows with milk and honey,” (Ibid, 6:3).

“And thou shall do what is good and right in the sight of the L-rd, that it may be well with thee, and you will go in and possess THE GOOD LAND,” (Ibid, 6:18).

“He brought us out of Egypt that He might bring us in, to give us THE LAND which He swore to our fathers,” (Ibid, 6:22).

Because of our sins, we were exiled from our Land to the many St. Helenas and Alcatrazes around the world. For nearly 2000 years, we were imprisoned. But now, the doors of the prison are open.  People have money for airplane tickets to Israel. There is a Jewish airline that serves kosher food. Apartments and villas are waiting, including beautiful cities with modern industrial parks. For those who prefer a more rural environment, there are lovely and vibrant religious settlements and moshavim all over the country. The Israel economy is strong. No place in the world has more Torah learning, yeshivot, heders, and ulpanot for girls. Not to mention Jerusalem, the Holy City of our prayers, resplendent with beauty and rebirth, the most spiritual place on earth. And there even are agencies like Nefesh B’Nefesh that help people make aliyah. Yes, freedom and change can be challenging indeed, but millions of former prisoners have escaped their former exiles and found a wonderful new life in Israel.     

The gates are open. In a wink of an eye, with a little courage and faith, you too can be here, a free man in the Jewish homeland.  See you soon!