Remembering Elie Wiesel

You will not be surprised to hear that over the past few weeks the various rabbinic listserves and Facebook groups that I belong to have been full of discussions of the Holidays. There have been questions, requests for advice, suggestions, and more than a few ways for a rabbi to get distracted in the middle of preparations.

One thing that appeared frequently was a rabbi announcing what he or she was planning on discussion in a d’var, and a request for help with material. Something to the effect of: “I am going to talk about how you deal with your brother-in-law when he asks to borrow your vacuum cleaner on the Thursday night before the mayor comes to Shabbat dinner…does anyone have a good Hassidic tale on this?” Ok, most requests were less esoteric than that. Several rabbis shared that they were planning on incorporating Elie Wiesel’s writing or his story into the Martyrology service, and were in sear of appropriate quotes and stories.

Something about this rubbed me the wrong way, but it took me some time before I worked out what it was. I had known since July 2nd, when Elie Wiesel died that I would talk about him now, before Yizkor. Was there a difference between this and talking about him as part of the Martyrology? I felt in my gut that the answer was “yes.”

The Martyrology, which we will turn to later today, recounts many of the tragedies that have befallen our people. It focuses primarily on the communal nature of the events – how the entire Jewish people suffered. It traces these tragedies from the Roman oppression after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt through to the First Crusade, to the Destruction of Spanish Jewry, concluding with the Holocaust. It would not seem to be out of place, therefore, to share a bit of Wiesel’s story at that point. And while the Martyrology focuses primarily on the communal nature of these disasters, it opens with the individual deaths of ten rabbis, including Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva; so the individual focus on Wiesel would fit in that way.

But in spite of all of this, including Elie Wiesel, or his writings, in the Martyrology feels out of place to me. That is a time that we focus on the tragedies that have befallen our people. We focus on what OTHERS have done to US. When we read about the death of Rabbi Akiva, we read only about how he died, not how he became a rabbi, or what he taught his students, or the insights that he had into the Torah. We focus only on his death – because it was tragic, and needs to be remembered.

If we were to include Wiesel there, it would reduce his life to that period. We would be, in effect, saying that the only important part of his life was what the Nazis did to him. We would be treating him as if he had died more than seventy years ago, rather than just this summer.

And so much of what Wiesel did over the past seventy years deserves to be remembered. Elie Wiesel wrote more than 60 books over his lifetime, both fiction and non-fiction in three languages. Most of his writing dealt with the Holocaust in one fashion or another – even his novels. As Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote “Wiesel…writes in order to summon us, rather than entertain; he…places little trust in the self-sufficiency of reason, having seen the role played by science and philosophy in serving the Nazi death machine.” This purpose can be understood in the original title of Wiesel’s most famous work, Night. It was originally called “And the World was Silent” a clear statement of condemnation of the world’s lack of response to the Holocaust, and an attempt to prevent such silence from ever repeating. His books are on school reading lists across the country, and have influenced generations – Jews and non-Jews alike.

But Wiesel did not focus his attention solely on the past, he did not only make it his mission to ensure that the Holocaust would be remembered. He also worked to right the wrongs that he saw happening in the world every day. Drawn to the plight of Soviet Jews, Weisel wrote The Jews of Silence, in which he recorded his impressions of Soviet Jews in 1965. He described their defiant celebration of Simchat Torah, and their illegal distribution of his own book, Night. Helping Soviet Jews was so important to Wiesel that he once said that if he could choose to be remembered for one thing it would not be Night, but that he helped to free Soviet Jews.

In 1978, Elie Wiesel was appointed the chair of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, and was given the mission to create a fitting memorial. The Commission came back with the recommendation that a museum be established. Wiesel’s vision for the museum was simple, he believed that “for the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Fifteen years later, that museum was finally dedicated with those very words inscribed at its entrance. Elie Wiesel spoke at the ceremonies.

You would think, that at the ceremony celebrating the successful completion of this museum with the full support of the United States government, that he would say only positive things. That he would express his gratitude, and sit down. After all, not only did the United States create this museum, but it was the American army that liberated him from Buchenwald in 1945. But that was not Wiesel, and that was not what he did.

In front of the President of the United States and members of Congress, Wiesel called attention to the fact that the American government knew about the Holocaust, and did not act to stop it, or even slow it down. And at the end of his speech, he did something even more powerful, more impressive. He took the moral failure of our government during the Holocaust, and connected it to the ethnic conflicts that were accompanying the breakup of Yugoslavia. He ended his speech by calling for action on behalf of the people of Bosnia who were suffering and dying.

That was what Elie Wiesel did. He told his story, and the story of the Jews of Europe. He did it so that the story would always be remembered. And he also did this to try and save people around the world who were suffering. Throughout his life, Wiesel was an ardent defender of Jews and of Israel. He also spoke out against Apartheid in South Africa, and on behalf of the people of Bosnia, the Kurds, the Cambodian Boat People, the desaparecidos of Argentina, Rwandan Tutsis the people of Darfur, and many more.

One of the lesson that Wiesel proclaimed again and again was the danger of indifference. He said that “the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” Upon accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, he famously said “Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

As he once said, “life is not made of years, but of moments, Great moments, dark moments, triumphant moments.” All of these many moments in Wiesel’s life matter, in addition to his experiences during the Holocaust.

This is why it is appropriate to recall him during the Yizkor service. While both Yizkor and the Martyrology ask us to bring to mind those who have died, they do so with vastly different intentions. The Martyrology’s claim is that it is the death itself that makes the person worthy of remembrance, or at least, it is one more reason to keep them in our minds. Yizkor’s claim is different – those that we will call to mind in a few minutes are important not because of the way that they died, but because of the way that they lived. Not who they were in death, but who they were in life.

Yizkor is a reminder that there was a life that preceded death, a life that is not negated by death. Yizkor demands that we remember the values and passions of those that we have loved, even if it has been years or decades since they were able to express them. This reminder is all the more important in our world of modern medicine, a world in which life can be prolonged for months or even years beyond what used to be possible. This prolonging of life can be a gift, an opportunity to create more memories, to have more moments together that we can cherish and hold on to after they are gone.

But modern medicine can also prolong dying. It can draw out the pain that sometimes precedes death, and it can make it hard to remember the person that we knew before the pain appeared. Yizkor is an opportunity to break through that barrier, and to remember our loved ones as they once were, passionate about certain causes, uninterested to others. When, as part of the service, we pledge our support to help perpetuate ideals, we remember the complete person that once was, and try to bring some of their values into the world.

On the first page of his book, Souls on Fire, Wiesel discussed his father and grandfather. He wrote: “My father, an enlightened spirit, believed in man. My grandfather, a fervent Hasid, believed in God. The one taught me to speak, the other to sing. Both loved stories. And when I tell mine, I hear their voices. Whispering from beyond the silenced storm, they are what links the survivor to their memory.” This was true for Elie Wiesel, the survivor of the Holocaust, who carried forward the stories of his father, his grandfather, and so many others. This is also true for us. Our stories are what define us, and our stories of the past are what keep it alive.

As we tell stories that perpetuate the memories of those we love, may we also remember the words of Ronald Reagan after a particularly famous – and infamous – meeting with Elie Wiesel. He said “He teaches about death, but in the end he teaches about life.”

May the memory of Elie Wiesel, and of all those that we have loved and lost continue to teach us for many years to come.

As we begin to try and step away from our grief, we can be guided by the words of Elie Wiesel himself: “God gave Adam a secret—and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.”