|I stood staring in silence in front of a tiny prison cell in the maximum security prison on Robben Island, nestled quietly in the harbor of Cape Town, South Africa. I stared at its three rough wool blankets, its one lonely wooden stool and small, hard, metal bed that stood abandoned in the corner.
I stared in awe knowing that for eighteen years this tiny, oppressive space had been the “home” of Nelson Mandela. It was here that he suffered the indignities of physical torture and mental anguish. It was here that he wrote notes in secret, hiding them in the nooks and crannies of his cell, smuggling them to the outside world to call attention to his on-going struggle against the vicious Apartheid regime of his homeland.
I was startled from my deep concentration by the quiet voice of my “guide,” Charles Mboto and brought back to the present. Charles is one of several black men who serve as guides for those who come to Robben Island to see this prison and remember what it represents. Like the others, Charles was once himself a political prisoner in this prison.
He points out the yard where he was hit by guards on a regular basis for trying to speak with another prisoner; the lime pit where they were forced to work all day in the hot sun with no water; and the flat, desolate sand where they would be buried up to their heads in the mid-day sun for hours as “discipline,” merely to keep them broken and in line.
Charles had been arrested as a young man for joining an anti-apartheid group and was sentenced to five years on Robben Island. When the five, tortuous years were up, the authorities simply announced that he was still a danger to the state and added another seven years to his sentence. So there he stayed, with Nelson Mandela and so many others – imprisoned for the dream of freedom.
His story would have been a powerful one in any season and on any day. But it was particularly powerful that day – for just a few hours later, I was sitting down to a seder on the first night of Passover.
I sat there reciting the all-to-familiar words, “This year we are slaves, next year we will be free,” and instead of Egypt my mind’s eye was filled with images of that dark prison on Robben Island. As I read those words tears filled my eyes.
I cried not only for those who had been imprisoned and beaten, robbed of their dignity or killed simply for their passion for freedom. I cried as well for the sorrow, the pain, the loss, the feeling of abandonment and betrayal, the despair that every one of us feels at dark moments of our lives when dreams are shattered, hearts are broken, hope gives way to hopelessness.
The most powerful lesson I learned that day came from the quiet dignity and grace of Charles Mboto. For as our time at the prison came to an end I felt compelled to ask him how he did it. How did he come back to this place of such personal pain and degradation, this symbol of his own powerlessness and imprisonment? His simple, eloquent answer taught me one of the most important lessons about healing in all my years as a rabbi. For he said, “Every day I come to to stare my demons directly in the face without blinking. And every day as I am walking away from this scene of past horror I say a prayer of gratitude for the simple blessing of that day’s freedom, and cherish it all over again.” Sometimes the simple power of gratitude is the most healing power of all.