I Barely Slept That
I Barely Slept That Night
I barely slept that night. Emotions of anxiety, happiness, euphoria, and excitement flowed through my body like a tornado as my release from six years in prison was imminent. It was finally today.
I thought about the day I came to prison. Worry and fear of what will happen to the 21-year-old kid from Las Vegas were almost too much to bare. I was a sheep entering a jungle. A jungle filled with lions, tigers, and snakes. If a sheep entered a wilderness, is it possible to escape alive? Is it possible for it to come out unharmed?
I was filled with so much gratitude towards H-shem, knowing that not a hair on my head was harmed. I entered the jungle, and H-shem led me through it. There was violence, hatred, and many things that could have happened to a Jewish kid in this dark place that he should never have been in. But without any protection, except for the shield of H-shem, I was coming out of prison 26 years old, wiser, humbler, healthier, and religious. Most of all, my soul was infused with a true emmunah and bitachon.
I saw mamash nissim, miracles, with the sudden release of many Jews who were, lo alenu, serving the rest of their lives in prison. I saw the hand of H-shem in this dark place. I’ll never forget the day Rabbi Mordechai Samet told me sternly, “H-shem is here in Otisville.”
I woke up from my daydream from a knock at my cell door.
“Balva! You ready?” The officer asked as it was time for my release. But the ready that he was referring to was entirely different than what was on my mind. He was prepared to release me from prison. But I knew those words were from H-shem, meant to penetrate my soul entirely differently. It was H-shem asking me, I know you’re ready to physically leave, but are you prepared to deal with the yetzer hara in the free world? Can you still serve Me wholeheartedly in a world where the yetzer hara exists on every street corner?
And my answer was the only answer I saw fit. You bet I was ready, and I had no other choice. After everything I’d been through, there was no way I would let the opportunity of having a second chance at life and freedom slip out of my hand. Two things could have happened to me while I was on the street, engaging in criminal activity and doing drugs. In my mother’s words, “You are going to die or end up in prison.” And from the ultimate loving-kindness from H-shem, through prison, I was given that second chance at life. And not only a second chance, but I was blessed to have so many doors open.
I was blessed to have the spark to go after H-shem, and then be transferred to a New York prison with 15 orthodox Jews. I learned with Rabbi Rubashkin, Rabbi Goldstein, and Rabbi Samet, who taught me the halachot, the proper way to be, and showed me what it is to be a true man. They taught me how to wake up in the morning despite the suffering and pain, despite knowing that their days ahead looked grim. Despite all this, they had the emmunah and bitachon to see that we are precisely where H-shem wants us to be. They realized we should study, be happy, and follow the ways of H-shem no matter what.
As the doors to the prison were opened, my heart almost left my chest, but Baruch H-shem, I caught it as I walked towards my family for the long-awaited embrace. We have waited for this moment for the past six years, and my family and close friends spent this time with me. Every day that we woke up, we were in prison. We were all inside Otisville. And it was finally over. We were all finally free.
We got in the car, and my mom handed me this strange device. An iPhone. She also gave me some strange-looking green paper. Money. And a few other odd things that I was so happy to receive.
After speaking to maybe 20 people on the phone, and hearing how happy they were about my release, I went to a shul, prayed Shacharit for the first time as a free man, and said birchat Hagomel. I was on such a high of life. There are no words to explain what the transition from darkness to light in the blink of an eye is like. It makes you think how much joy and happiness will come during the times of Mashiach.
After praying Shacharit, I was blessed to hear words from a person I hold very dear to me. Words that always came short but direct and always gave me emmunah and bitachon. It was from Rabbi Samet.
“You know what came out with you from prison, right,” he asked.
I knew exactly what he was talking about, so I answered, “The yetzer hara.”
He nodded and went on to explain to me what it was like for himself to be a free man after spending almost 20 years in prison. And that, as a soldier of H-shem, there are challenges and spiritual wars everywhere. Whether we are in prison or the free world, we must be aware of that. I take his words with me everywhere I go.
Gift From H-shem
Months went by, and I cannot express how grateful I am to H-shem for releasing me from physical prison and breaking my spiritual shackles. He allows me to be inspired to live a life of Judaism every day. I go three times a day to a minyan, I have study partners, I work, and I am in the process of trying to edit and publish a book that I wrote while in prison. It’s beautiful to wake up every day and smell the fresh air. Through the challenging and painful prison times, H-shem gifted me with genuine happiness, positivity, and a love for life.
As I look back to everything I’ve been through and where I’m at now, I beg anyone reading this to take my story as a lesson that we must do everything we can to do the right thing in life. It’s never worth it to get in trouble. Before you decide to do something, think to yourself, am I doing something that brings honor to H-shem, my family, and myself? And am I doing something that could land me in trouble? Because if I am, I need to run the other way. From firsthand experience, it’s not worth it.
May we all merit seeing our salvation and the salvation of Mashiach. May our salvation come only through our logic to go after H-shem and chas v’shalom, not through suffering and pain. And if chas v’shalom, suffering, and despair come upon us, may we have the strength to understand that it is all for our good from our Father in Heaven, who loves us and only wants the best for us. This suffering is an atonement on our precious souls and a wake-up call to unburden ourselves of the material world and the world of sheker. And to only go after H-shem with our whole essence is our purpose here on earth.
Rest In Heaven
I would like to conclude on what I perceive to be a positive note. My grandmother, zichrona livracha, just passed away two nights ago at a ripe old age, 91, and without pain. A big fear of mine while I was in prison, was that I wouldn’t get to look my grandmother in the eyes, tell her I love her, and hug her. But Baruch H-shem, my prayers were answered, and I could do all these things. I got to experience the twinkle in her eyes as she enjoyed seeing her grandson sober and healthy.
I’ll never forget the day I was released, I went to see her, and she was in utter shock. She said over and over, “Shawn, it’s really you? I can’t believe it’s you!” And two nights ago, right before her passing, she was confused about her situation. She wasn’t with it at all. She was heavily medicated, and her organs were failing. I came to her bed, smiling, as I was sad but happy for her that her soul would ascend to a much better place. Her confused eyes caught mine for a second, and she said, “Shawn is that you?” I nodded.
“I love you,” she said. And a few hours later, she passed. Baruch Dayan Ha-emet. All I could think is H-shem is entirely good. Only good. May we never forget.