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Freedom and Self Awareness

May 9, 2009 | by Shimon Apisdorf

Humans can sometimes get stuck in a trap of self-delusion that is as confining as any prison. The good news is there's a way out.

"I can do anything in the world I want. There's just one problem -- I don't know what I want."

Is this person free?

Yes and no.

Yes, she possesses the freedom to do whatever she wants. But then again, she is trapped by the stifling parameters of limited self-awareness. Though totally unrestrained to go any place at all, she is unable to take even the smallest step for lack of knowing where she wants to go.

"Sometimes I get so frustrated. I know exactly what I want, but I still can't seem to achieve my goals. Halfway through one project my motivation wanes and I'm on to something else. I get distracted and just can't seem to stay focused."

Is this person free?

Yes and no.

Yes, because he knows what he wants to accomplish and possesses the resources necessary for success. But then again, he has become paralyzed by forces he seems unable to control. Is he afraid to take risks, or is there an underlying lack of self-confidence? Is he still waiting for someone to take care of him, or is he just plain lazy?


Now, let us look into the mirror of irony. The year is 1978 and the man's name is Yosef Mendelovich. The setting: a dank cell, deep within the bowels of the Christopol prison in the Soviet Union. The date is April 12. On the Jewish calendar it is the 14th of Nissan, one day before the start of Passover.

Yosef is a prisoner. He is a gaunt human shell, and he is about to light a candle. The candle, fashioned by Yosef's own hands, is made from hoarded bits of string, pitiful droplets of oil, and stray slivers of wax. The candle is lit -- the search for chametz begins.

Sometime earlier Yosef had complained of back problems. The infirmary in hell provided him with mustard to serve as a therapeutic plaster. Unused then, this mustard would later reappear as marror -- bitter herbs -- at Yosef's seder table. A long-saved onion bulb in water has produced a humble bit of greenery. This would be his Karpas. And the wine? Raisins were left to soak in an old jelly jar, water occasionally added, and fermentation was prayed for. This was wine.

The Haggadah which Yosef transcribed into a small notebook before being imprisoned had now been set to memory. The original copy was secretly passed on to another "dangerous enemy of the state," Natan Sharansky.

Yosef is not free. He cannot come and go as he pleases. He has been denied even the liberty to know when the sun shines and the stars twinkle. For Yosef, the world of free men doesn't even begin to exist.

Yet, Yosef, perhaps, is more free even than his captors. He knows exactly who he is, what he wants, and is prepared to pay any price to have it.

Today, Yosef Mendelovich walks the streets of Israel, studies Torah, and buys box after box of matzah to serve at his Seder. He is a free man now, just as he was even behind those lifeless prison walls.


Self-awareness means that we are able to stand outside of ourselves. In so doing, we are able to look within and, to a degree, to assess our own inner workings.


  • How do I react to people and situations, and why?



  • When am I at ease, when am I tense, and when do I feel a sense of balance?



  • What are my goals and priorities, and what are the values reflected in those goals?



  • Are those values mine, or are they someone else's?



  • Where am I strong and where do I need to grow?



  • What comes naturally and what requires great effort?



  • Who do I love, what is it I love in them, and am I able to express that love?



  • Am I being honest with myself, with others, and with God?



  • Am I headed in the right direction? If not, why not? If yes, to what do I attribute my success?


Self-awareness means that we are able to stand outside of ourselves; to look within and assess our goals, values, priorities, direction and truthfulness. Unaware of these things, we remain mired in a dense fog of confusion and doubt.

Can we ever be fully self-aware? Probably not. But aware enough to set ourselves free? Yes, and this is one of life's most pivotal challenges.

Achievement and maintenance of freedom is available only through the ongoing struggle for self-awareness. This process of clarification, coupled with the conviction to follow wherever it may lead, is the only way to achieve a spiritually sensitive, value-driven life of liberty. Ironically, this kind of freedom can land you in a prison -- where you are the captor and your guards are the prisoners.

Just ask Yosef Mendelovich -- one of the freest men to ever walk the earth.

(From the "Passover Survival Kit Haggadah" --

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