On the eve of Passover, we consider the blessing of freedom. This week, we draw inspiration from within the halls of prison to frame the deeper meaning of freedom.
Learning of Freedom from Prison
Our Festival of Redemption is hours away. Many of us will spend tomorrow preparing to connect with family and friends—in person or online—to celebrate the freedom we say we have but yearn to fully feel. The meals we share mark the specialness of the occasion, bringing us together to literally break bread as we commit ourselves once again to spiritual liberation.
In the spirit of Passover, I share a short essay on the themes of family, food, and freedom. It was published in the non-profit literary magazine The Sun with the title “What Really Matters.”
AS A CHILD I frequently watched my mother prepare dinner. I would stand on tiptoe at her side, eyes at the counter’s edge, and watch her work at the cutting board. It wasn’t long before she invited me to help. I started with simple tasks like fetching the ingredients from the fridge and cupboard. Under her direction I learned to read a measuring cup. She taught me the fundamentals of cooking in the oven, the slow cooker, and the skillet. I remember stirring everything with wooden spoons.
The food ready, we’d sit down to eat at a perfectly set table with plates on top of place mats, glasses filled with water and ice, and knives, forks, and spoons laid over napkins.
When I had a family of my own, I followed my mother’s example. I found that I enjoyed cooking for others. There’s something about watching people take their first bite of a dish I’ve prepared — the way their eyes shut and they sigh and smile.
These days I cook mostly for myself, because I’m in prison. I have to measure everything by eye. My ingredients are pulled from a locker and cooked in a microwave. No glasses, no silverware. If I invite guests, they show up with their own plastic bowl, “spork,” and cup. The space quickly grows crowded: a few men on the bed, one on the locker, another on the toilet.
In a room smaller than most bathrooms, five men sit elbow to elbow, mouths full and heads nodding in approval. When I first came to prison, I felt that the tradition of sharing a meal had disappeared from my life. But I’ve found it again.
Buena Vista, Colorado
It may seem jarring to turn to this week’s Torah portion--Tzav, from the book of Leviticus—which serves as the capstone of seven chapters of details about ancient Israelite sacrifices. But the connection is real. Known as korbanot, these offerings were meant to draw near--l’hakriv—the Children of Israel and their God. In many instances, the occasion for this drawing near was correcting for the commission of a sin.
Leviticus contains the ritual of the hatat offering, which is given when one sins unintentionally. “If any person unwittingly incurs guilt … the offerer shall lay a hand upon the head of the hatat offering and shall slaughter it. … The priest shall turn it into smoke on the altar, … and he shall thus make expiation for that person. They are forgiven” (Lev. 4:27-31).
Leviticus also contains the procedure of reparation for harm committed intentionally. “When a person sins and commits a trespass against the Eternal—by dealing deceitfully with another in the matter of a deposit or a pledge, or through robbery, or by defrauding another, or by finding something lost and lying about it; if one swears falsely regarding any one of the various things that someone may do and sin thereby—when one has thus sinned … that person shall repay the principal amount and add a fifth part to it. … Then that person shall bring to the priest … a reparation offering. The priest shall make expiation before the Eternal on behalf of that person, and they shall be forgiven” (Lev. 5:20-26).
And Leviticus, in this week’s reading, tells us how the priests must atone before their ordination and that the very place where all people—priests and paupers alike—come to make themselves right with God is called הַקּוֹדֶשׁ, “the holy place” (Lev. 6:23).
The Torah is clear: When a person does wrong, they have to make it right. And then, they are forgiven. The relationship is restored, and they resume their proper place in society. Freedom is not a privilege that can be stripped away on account of bad behavior. The priestly system is based on restorative rituals, and the later rabbinic models—which we practice still today—emphasize the centrality of compensation, repentance, and forgiveness.
America’s so-called justice system is far from this biblical ideal. We seek to punish rather than restore. We hold the guilty accountable for their crimes long after their repayment to society is done. And this doesn’t begin to address the injustices levied against the innocent, caught up through no fault of their own in a system designed to ensnare and exploit them.
You will hear more from Rabbi Weiss and me in the coming weeks and months about Jewish efforts to advance criminal justice reform in our nation and our state. For now, as we prepare to signal once again our commitment to the principles of justice and freedom, let us consider how our society at large restricts the liberty of far too many of our neighbors and how our own actions might make a difference for the better.
I conclude tonight with the words of Elvis Alves. His poem “Parchman Prison” gives voice to the inmates housed there, drawing from his own experiences in the Mississippi Delta.
by Elvis Alves
Nine miles from Tutwiler, MS, 2017
Built to last, hold bodies as a hole that runs
to infinity and back. Black gold never sold.
Time was never enough until time stops in here and you
are surrounded by selves without direction to go beyond
a state of degeneration. Authorized penetration of body, mind,
and soul. Nothing has ever been good to the person
behind your doors. Nothing comes out alive. A refuse that society
does not want back. A thing unlike other things. The bottom of a
swamp built beneath a swamp. You get what you want
except for freedom because it comes with a price. Your body, mind,
and soul. All that is glued together, the mind breaks from. All that the
mind breaks from is glued together. We stick together like glue. We fight
for breath. A taste of air. A taste of anything that does not remind us
of the years a judge wrote on paper, sealed our destiny, and shut us up here.
May this indeed be our season of redemption. This year we are slaves; next year, may we be free.
 April 2018, thesunmagazine.org/issues/508/what-really-matters.
 In Poetry, February 2021.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”