The Void Elie Wiesel Leaves Behind

8 Jul
Elie Wiesel spoke at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago in May, 1987, his first appearance in Chicago after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Ed Bernstein (left) was then the youth group president of the synagogue and his mother, Roberta (right), was the synagogue's executive director.

Elie Wiesel spoke at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago in May, 1987, his first appearance in Chicago after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Ed Bernstein (left) was then the youth group president of the synagogue and his mother, Roberta (right), was the synagogue’s executive director.

It has been a week since we learned the devastating news about the passing of Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, last Shabbat. He was the Hebrew prophet of our time. He bore witness to the Shoah, as he wrote in 1978:

“The only role I sought was that of witness. I believed that having survived by chance, I was duty-bound to give meaning to my survival, to justify each moment of my life.” (from “Why I Write,” 1978).

The very week that Wiesel passed, we need his prophetic voice and conscience more than ever. Our nation is reeling from a spat of horrific violence in recent days and weeks. Our hearts grieve for the police force of Dallas that lost five of its officers in a vicious attack at which the police were protecting a peaceful rally protesting the senseless killings in Baton Rouge and St. Paul where young African American men were shot dead by white police officers.

The very week we lose Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and prophet of peace, our society explodes in hatred and bloodshed.

Our Torah portion this week, Korah, depicts the breakdown of civility and order in the Israelite camp thousands of years ago.

The portion begins: Vayikach Korach ben Yitzhar ben Kehat ben Levi, Now Korach, a Levite, a cousin of Moses, betook himself, along with Dathan and Aviram of the tribe of Reuven, to rise up against Moses.

The text continues:
וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וַֽאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד אַנְשֵׁי־שֵֽׁם:

And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the people of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown (Num. 16:1-2).

In other words, these rebels were prominent people. They were anshei shem, men whose names were known in the community.

The Hasidic master R. Neftali Tzvi of Ropshitz, notes the following: Logically, a person who is a descendant of distinguished ancestors—“who has yichus”—should be modest and humble. He should always think: “When will my deeds be as great as those of my ancestors?” In reality, we see that the opposite tends to be true. Such people are likely to be proud and arrogant. Perhaps they take their cue from Korah and his assembly. Because they were anshei shem, men of renown, they were arrogant and quarrelsome—and so it has always been.

Elie Wiesel not only bore witness to the Shoah, he bore witness to the Hasidic civilization of the Carpathian Mountains in Hungary where he was reared. The wisdom and stories of Hasidic masters such as R. Naftali of Ropshitz, sustained Wiesel who helped ensure that their wisdom was not lost to humanity. As Wiesel grew in confidence and stature in the years since the Shoah, he became an ish shem, a man of renown. He could have easily succumbed to arrogance and conceit. And yet, his humility and love for humanity made him one of the truly great anshei shem of our time.

Wiesel once said in an interview, “If I survived, it must be for some reason. I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person. On the other hand, I know I cannot.”

Wiesel channeled his voice of conscience to speak truth to power. In 1985, he addressed President Reagan and implored him on live television not to attend a ceremony with German Chancellor Kohl at Bitburg where Waffen SS were buried. Wiesel said, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS. . . The issue here is not politics, but good and evil.” Wiesel later addressed President Clinton on the genocide in the former Yugoslavia and President Obama on the nuclear arms deal with Iran.

Wiesel was first and foremost concerned with the well-being of the Jewish people. However, as a Jew, he was pained by suffering around the world. As noted by Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, “Though he thought the Holocaust “singularly” unique, he was shattered that in its wake the world seemed to have learned nothing from it. Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, and the Sudan all suggested that rather than ‘Never Again,’ it was far more accurate to say, “Again and Again and Again.” Deeply troubled by these events, he spoke out about them again and again.”

Indeed, Wiesel’s enduring legacy as a humanitarian is his rejection of indifference towards suffering. He said in an interview: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.” (Interview with U.S. media, 1986)

He also said: “Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.”

And, “Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.”

And, “Look, if I were alone in the world, I would have the right to choose despair, solitude and self-fulfillment. But I am not alone.”
Wiesel exemplified the fullness of the name of our people Yisrael—the people who wrestle with God. He writes in his book The Trial of God: “For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But simply to ignore God–that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference? No. You can be a Jew with God. You can be a Jew against God. But not without God.”

When Jacob the Patriarch was renamed Yisrael, it was because he wrestled not only with God but also with man and prevailed. More than Wiesel wrestled with God he wrestled with humanity and the brutality of which we are capable.

He said in a New York Times interview: “I am pessimistic because I don’t trust history. But at the same time, I am optimistic. Out of despair, one creates. What else can one do? There is no good reason to go on living, but you must go on living. There is no good reason to bring a child into this world but you must have children to give the world a new innocence, a new reason to aspire towards innocence. As Camus said, in a world of unhappiness, you must create happiness.”

In light of recent events, I am on the verge of despair. I reflect on this past week and the bloodshed in Dallas, Baton Rouge and St. Paul. I reflect on other recent massacres in Orlando, Tel Aviv and Istanbul and wonder how this world has simply gone mad. At a moment in history that needs the conscience of Elie Wiesel more than ever, he is no longer with us. The void is incomprehensible. Our solace is the wisdom that he left behind. Out of our despair, we must not be indifferent. We must not despair. We must create a world that ends the cult of violence that engulfs us.
Parashat Korah warns us of the consequences of anshei shem, people of renown, who are indifferent to and even complicit with evil. If we are the anshei shem, people of renown of our generation, it is our task to continue the work of Elie Wiesel. Let us honor his memory through our fervent efforts to bring about healing in our society.

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