Free John Bates

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“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who bestows kindness upon the vulnerable, and who has bestowed goodness on me.” —Traditional Jewish blessing

Those of us who are avid Downton Abbey fans have been waiting patiently to know whether or not John Bates will ever be released from jail, exonerated of his alleged crime, and returned to his loving wife Anna. The dramatic “Masterpiece Theater” scenes take us to the squalid and dangerous insides of a Victorian prison. The scenes help us understand the terrible conditions that awaited prisoners and did not always reflect well on our judicial system, here or across the pond, as they say.

If Bates is released from prison, and we find out that the rumor is true that he is Jewish (his real name is Harry Lifshitz), he would make the special blessing above, which many believe should only be said by prisoners accused of murder and other very serious charges. There is a debate as to whether or not one would say this blessing after imprisonment for financial crimes. According to one source, it is best to check with your local rabbi if you find yourself in this situation (honestly, that’s the least of your problems).

This blessing is familiar to some because the Talmud records that it should also be said upon several occasions: after you have crossed an ocean, after you have crossed a desert, after recovering from a serious illness and for a woman after childbirth. Many say this blessing after any life-threatening situation.

All of these instances present situations of potential danger where we aware of our vulnerability and rely on God’s grace, even when we may not always feel we deserve it. Each of these situations also involves a significant transition in either time, space or across the life cycle. It is at these worrying times that we are in greatest need of divine support and human kindness. The thrill of prison release must, no doubt, be tempered by the anxiety of being reunited with one's family, being accepted in community and finding employment. I find this blessing deeply moving because the word “G-M-L” in Hebrew is more than an act of kindness; it is a spillover of abundance, a shower of grace.

One of the most moving prison-based pieces of Jewish text appears in the 16th century. Many centuries ago, a man named Reuben was incarcerated, and he asked to be released from jail for Yom Kippur. His request was denied but he was granted another day, of his choice, to be freed from prison to go to the synagogue. Which day or holiday should he request? The question was posed to Rabbi David Ibn Zimra, a 16th-century rabbi who authored more than 3,000 responsa. Legend has it that he died at 110. Scholars believe he probably died in his mid-90s.

The rabbi considered the possibilities and also reviewed the legal literature where he had first encountered a similar question. The answer given by another scholar was Yom Kippur, as it is the holiest day of the year and a time for profound repentance. Reuben’s second choice should be Purim because it is a time of rejoicing in the reading of the scroll of Esther and a time to display God’s great kindness on Jews in history through miracles.

But Rabbi Zimra says, “do not rely upon his words.” He was unhappy with the answer. Instead, Rabbi Zimra bases his answer on the principle that you never skip over the possibility or opportunity for a mitzvah. Every day presents us with various choices. Never put off goodness when given the chance. Since Reuben is in prison and does not know if this offer will be sustained, he must leave prison on his first opportunity: the next day.

This is the Jewish version of carpe diem. But it is more than that. Freedom and autonomy are such powerful and primal needs that we should never wait for some future time if we can access them now.

Most of us are not in prison, and we will have to wait and see if Bates ever makes it out. But there are many metaphoric prisons that trap people today: painful relationships, bad jobs, and addictive habits. When we have the chance for freedom we must take it at the very first opportunity. This does not mean running away from a situation; this often leads to later entrapment, like a prisoner who tries to escape and gets more years in prison when he’s caught. Freedom involves the personal maturity to control our lives by making good choices and sustaining them and blessing the chance to do so. Seize today. 

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at

Posted on January 31, 2013 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.