23: PSALM 30 -
will extol you, O Lord, for you have lifted me up"
THE BOOK OF TEHILLIM, PSALM 30, AND THE IMPRISONMENT OF NATAN
Natan Sharansky's unforgettable book, "Fear No Evil,"
the book of Tehilim plays an important role in the account of the
difficult years of his imprisonment until his release. This is already evident in the title of
the book and in the citation from Tehilim 23 appearing at the very
beginning: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear
no evil, for You are with me."
I speak of "the book of Tehilim," I refer not only to the book's
contents, i.e., the psalms themselves, but to a real miniature edition of
Tehilim that accompanied Sharansky throughout those nine hard
is the story of the book: Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky requested permission to
leave the Soviet Union and immigrate to Israel in 1973. About a year later he married Avital,
who already had an exit visa that was valid until the day after their
wedding. Avital took advantage of
the opportunity and left for Israel, the young couple hoping that Natan would
speedily be granted a visa and that they would soon be reunited in Israel. For three years Natan fought for his
right to leave the Soviet Union, and during that period he became a major
activist in the refusenik and human rights movements in the Soviet Union.
three years of open and public struggle, Sharansky was arrested by the KGB,
found guilty of espionage and treason, and sentenced to 13 years of
imprisonment. Several days prior to
his arrest, Natan received a letter from his wife Avital (the letter was
delivered by way of a tourist), which contained a small book of Tehilim:
"I've had this little book a long time,” she wrote, “I feel it's time to send it
book of Tehilim was confiscated by the KGB at the time of his
interrogation, and afterwards it was kept in a storeroom in the prison in which
he was incarcerated. Three years
following his arrest, and after repeated requests to receive his "collection of
Jewish folk songs,"
the book was returned to Sharansky.
A day after receiving it, Sharanksy was informed by way of a telegram
sent to his prison that his father had died, and he was overcome by shock and
didn't want to do anything on the day I received the telegram, nor on the
following day, but then I remembered the psalm book. I opened it and immediately decided that
I must read all 150 of the Psalms – not sometime in the future, but starting
print was very tiny and my eyes began to hurt…
I began to copy the Psalms in large letters onto a sheet of paper, which took at
least an hour for each one. After
giving my eyes a long rest, I began translating.
he lacked systematic knowledge of the Hebrew language,
Sharansky managed with great effort to decipher the meaning of the psalms of
can't say that I understood the Psalms completely, but I sensed their spirit and
felt both the joy and the suffering of King David, their author… I especially
liked Psalm 23: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will
fear no evil, for You are with me…." And Psalm 27 was a particular comfort to
me: "Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God, my deliverer. Though my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord will take me in…"
forty days I copied the Psalms and read them. For one thing, it was intense work,
which left me almost no time for sad thoughts and painful recollections. For another, the project helped me study
Hebrew and fill one of the many gaps in my Jewish education. Finally, through reading these Psalms, I
thought continually about Papa, Mama, and Avital, about the past and the future,
and about the fate of our family… My feelings of grief and loss were gradually
replaced by sweet sorrow and fond hopes.
few months later Mama wrote to seek my advice about the inscription on Papa's
gravestone. Not surprisingly, I
turned to the Psalms – in particular, to Psalm 25, with its prophetic reference
to Israel, to my father, and to his
imprisoned but hopeful son. The
verse read, "His soul will rest in peace, for his seed shall inherit the
that same year, Sharansky was transferred from his prison to a work camp, but
owing to his unwillingness to cooperate with the KGB, he was moved to the camp's
prison. About a year after the book
of Tehilim that he had received from his wife Avital had been returned to
him, it was once again taken away while he was in the work camp's prison.
reply to my protests a representative appeared… who said, "It is the duty of the
state to guard you in prison from harmful influences, so your religious
literature has been confiscated with our consent."
proclaimed a work strike until his book of Tehilim would be returned to
him. As punishment, he was sent to
a punishment cell in exceedingly difficult conditions for fifteen days, and
every time that he refused to go back to work before his book of Tehilim
was returned to him, he was sent back for another fifteen days. In this way his time in the punishment
cell continued for about 100 consecutive days, and his health deteriorated to
such an extent that his jailers were forced to admit him into the
infirmary. When his health showed a
slight improvement, he was returned to the punishment cell, where he stayed for
another 86 days. He was then judged
for his "crimes" in the work camp, and sentenced to three years of incarceration
in the prison from which he had been taken to the camp, and there his book of
Tehilim was finally returned to him.
he was back in prison, he embarked on a hunger strike, because the prison
authorities refused to allow him to send and receive letters to and from his
After 110 days on his hunger strike, during which Sharansky was forcibly fed by
the prison authorities, and after he had put his life in danger, the prison
authorities gave in and renewed the mail connection between him and his
mother. When he finally received a
letter from his mother, Sharansky read it and knew that he was not to
the realization that I would live took possession of me – my head, my heart, my
entire body. The weight of
impending death was leaving me… I took my Psalm book and for days on end, with
the photographs of my dear ones in front of me, I recited all one hundred and
fifty of King David's Psalms, syllable by syllable.
enormous importance of the book of Tehilim for the courageous stand taken
by Sharansky during the difficult years of his imprisonment and the great impact
that the book had upon him, are described in other places in his book as well.
Let us move now to the amazing chapter in which he recounts his surprise release
from prison, nine years after his arrest, and his expulsion from the Soviet Union.
during the course of his release, Sharansky feared that his book of Tehilim
had been taken away from him, not to be returned. Owing to these concerns he refused to
cooperate with his escorts and continue on the path to freedom before his book
was returned to him. And of course,
he "won" on these occasions as well.
the flight from Moscow that was to bring
Sharansky to East Berlin, the person in charge
of the flight appeared suddenly from behind a curtain and announced in a solemn
Anatoly Borisovich. I am authorized
to declare to you that by order of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the
USSR, for conduct unworthy of
a Soviet citizen, you have been stripped of Soviet citizenship and as an
American spy you are being expelled from the Soviet
responded with a counter-declaration, in which he denied being an American spy,
sat down with the sound of fanfare in my ears. I knew all along that this day had to
come. And now I took the Psalm
book and turned to Psalm 30, which I had long ago decided to recite at the
moment of my release. "A song
of David at the dedication of a house," it began. Now I was reading these words en route
to my own house in Jerusalem!
this point in the book, Psalm 30 appears, transcribed in short lines as a poem
of thanksgiving, the psalm that Sharansky deemed most appropriate for this
by David Strauss)