Tag Archives: Elie Wiesel

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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Remembering one hurricane while preparing for another

28 Aug

 

Elie Wiesel tells a story that takes place in the small town where he grew up in the Carpathian Mountains. A father used to tell his son that he must get up early every day. The son, however, was lazy, and he couldn’t get up. One winter day though, the son couldn’t resist his father’s urging, and he joined his father to go to the Bet Midrash for early morning services and study. It’s early in the morning with snow everywhere. As they were walking, the father noticed a silver coin in the snow. The son picked it up. The father said, you see, my son, if you go to the Bet Midrash early enough then God rewards you.  But the son said, the man who lost it got up even earlier.

One lesson of this story is that we never know when we are going to find a treasure, and we never know when we are going to lose it. One moment we may have what we need, the next moment we may lose it.

Today’s Torah portion, so rich in laws that help create a civil society, contains a law pertaining to lost objects. If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; but hashev t’shivem, you must surely return it to your fellow (Deut. 22:1). The double emphasis of the verb “to return” in the Torah verse teaches us the obligation to repeatedly and diligently return lost property. The Talmud elaborates upon the laws of returning lost property, hashavat aveidah, in the second chapter of tractate Baba Metzia. It is interesting to note that for generations, this chapter has often served as a young student’s introduction to Talmud study, including in many yeshivot and day schools today. Children, after all, are constantly losing things and finding things, and it makes sense that their teachers would want them to inculcate Jewish values in respecting the property of others.

The Talmud teaches us that we are only responsible for returning a lost article which has some form of identifying mark. Therefore, the rabbis taught: One who finds coins…in any place in which large numbers of people are commonly found, these belong to the finder, because the owner despairs of recovering them (Baba Metzia 21b). In other words, if one finds a dollar bill on a busy street, it is not necessary to search for the original owner. The owner has no hope of finding the dollar.

However, the Talmud also explains that if one finds something that has a siman, a “sign” which demonstrates the owner’s identity, then the finder is obligated to return it. Since the object has an identification mark, the original owner has not despaired of ever finding it again. We must, therefore, do everything in our power to return the object to its hopeful owner. Sometimes these signs are easily apparent – a person’s name engraved on the watch you find – and sometimes the signs are more subtle, such as the location where the object was found or the manner in which the object was placed down.

The Mishnah further underscores the value of restoration: If one returned [an animal] and it ran away, and he returned it again and it ran away, even [if this happens] four or five times, he is still obligated to return it [yet again], for it is stated [in the Torah]: hashev t’shiveim, “return, you shall return them…”

The rabbis, whose own experience was not always so different from ours, compared their experience to what to them was the idealized time of the Holy Temple. The Talmud teaches that during the Temple Period, the Temple served as a national lost and found. All outstanding lost property was returned in Jerusalem during the Festival seasons, when the entire community of Israel gathered to celebrate at the Temple. The rabbis taught: There was an אבן טוען, a “stone of claims” in Jerusalem. Anyone who lost something would turn there, and anyone who found a lost object would turn there. The finder would stand [by the stone] and announce [his find] and the owner would stand [by the stone] and give the [evidence of] identifying marks and take the object (Baba Metzia 28b). Thus, according to the rabbis, in an ideal and just society, people would return lost objects to their rightful owner.

The rabbis did not live in an ideal world, and neither do we. Some of the difficult aspects of our existence are beyond our control, while others are more in our control. This weekend our community is bracing for a strong tropical storm, perhaps a hurricane. This is the season of this natural wonder. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is a glaring example of the fragility of life–how overnight one may suffer the loss of their home and the entire world that they know. As a result of the Hurricane, millions of people lost their homes and businesses. The hurricane was beyond anyone’s control. However, with the lack of a speedy, coordinated government response at the federal, state and local levels, New Orleans degenerated into anarchy with rampant looting and lawlessness. People were walking into abandoned stores, loading up shopping carts and walking out in full view of police who were powerless to stop them. Clearly, this breakdown of society is precisely what Deuteronomy sought to prevent through laws protecting people’s personal property.

In contrast to the lawlessness of New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, it is of some consolation that the aftermath of the hurricane  also brought out the best in people. Millions of people across our country mobilized to fulfill the mitzvah, as it were, of hashavat aveidah, returning a lost object. Americans opened up their hearts, their wallets and their homes to give people shelter, food and hope for rebuilding their future.

The city of Houston hosted thousands of New Orleans residents who fled there for refuge while their homes were underwater. In a disaster, we might not be able to restore lost homes, at least not instantly, but we can help restore lost hope. I would like to conclude by noting that we are now in the month of Elul and have begun the spiritual preparations for the High Holidays. In this light, there is a clear connection between the laws of lost property and teshuvah, the process of repentance that defines this season. Our Torah portion teaches, hashev t’shiveim, “you shall surely return [lost property].” This month we focus on another word with the same Hebrew root, teshuvah, meaning “turning back” or “returning” to God. The awe of the hurricane as a wonder of nature also bids us to reflect on both senses of return. This season is an opportunity for our country to do genuine teshuvah and examine how we can do better to care for the most vulnerable people in our society who do not have adequate shelter or the means to care for themselves. The memory of Katrina serves as an opportunity to heal racial and class divisions in our society. It is an opportunity to remind all branches of government to coordinate with one another to protect the citizens they serve. Ten years ago hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens stood at the even toen, the claimant’s stone, and America responded. God forbid there should ever be another disaster like Katrina. In coming days I pray for the safety of our community, and I pray that God will grant us the strength to tap into our better angels of courage, generosity, patience, compassion and kindness.

Israel’s aid to wounded Syrians shines light in world of indifference

9 Aug
The Israel-Syrian border

The Israeli-Syrian border

 

One of Elie Wiesel’s most eloquent, prophetic statements is: “The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.”

In following current events, there is a hardly any place on earth where the world as a whole has shown more indifference than Syria. The tragedy of the civil war there is beyond measure. The brutality of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad knows no bounds. According to estimates he has slaughtered over 100,000 of his own people over the last two years in his desperate effort to cling to power. The only tragedy greater than the loss of life in this conflict is the world’s indifference to it. I say this with great sensitivity to the fragile situation. It’s easy to blame our government and others for not intervening more than it has on behalf of the uprising, though I understand the caution on their part. The United States fought two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were costly in both blood and treasure, and our nation is understandably war-weary. Our economy is weak, and we have a lot of nation-building to do at home. Furthermore, it’s hard to know exactly who the rebels are and what connections they might have to anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists. The presence of American boots on the ground in Syria could spark a direct war between the US and Assad’s chief patron, Iran, and Israel would face certain danger. What is happening in Syria, therefore, is a humanitarian and geo-political nightmare. Yes, there are all of these grave concerns. And yes, the world has still been indifferent.

In the midst of this impossible situation in Syria, the New York Times published a report this week that provides a glimmer of hope. Scores of Syrians injured in the fighting have been discreetly spirited across the border into Israel for advanced medical treatment. This story is remarkable given the official state of war between Israel and Syria and the tight security around the border. According to the report, the first patients were young men in their 20’s and 30’s who were suffering from gunshot wounds. More and more, women and children are also being treated for injuries sustained in explosions.

While Israel is careful not to open its borders to refugees as Turkey and Jordan have done, the Israeli government has authorized and is picking up the bill for the treatment of these wounded Syrians. They are careful to protect their identity out of fear that when they return to Syria they will face abuse for accepting treatment in Israel.  Details as to how the Syrians are crossing into and out of Israel are not entirely known, except that this humanitarian operation is coordinated by the Israeli military.

It would be easy for Israel to seal its border completely and not allow anyone in. Israel has an official policy of non-intervention in the Syrian conflict. And yet, with the background of the Syrian cauldron of hatred and war, we find Israel bringing a semblance of peace, compassion and healing.  When it would be politically expedient for Israel to be indifferent to Arabs in surrounding countries slaughtering each other, Israel is not indifferent.

Indeed, the Torah instructs us not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16: 18-21: 9), a portion dedicated to establishing a just society, expands on this theme and concludes with a peculiar ritual surrounding an unsolved murder. The text reads:

“If…someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled a yoke and…they shall break the heifer’s neck….Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken….And they shall declare: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people Israel’” (Deut. 21: 1-9).

In the context in which this text was written, the spilling of innocent blood pollutes the Land of Israel and causes the Divine Presence to leave the community’s midst. In the absence of prosecuting the murderer, the ritual of the eglah arufah (broken-necked heifer) fills the void created by the murder in the community’s pursuit of justice. In modern terminology, the ritual is intended to provide a sense of closure following a senseless act. It also forces the community to bear the burden of responsibility for the breach of justice among their neighbors. The town elders ask for forgiveness that they may have caused in some way the death of a single human being.

Regarding the elders’ statement, “Our hands have not shed this blood,” R. Yitzhak Meir Bunim, a Hasidic sage comments:

“If a murdered person is found, the elders of the city have to make confession, as stated in this verse. They are to an extent to blame, for if they had led the people better such a tragedy would not have occurred. While the word in Hebrew for “have shed” is read as shaf’khu, in the plural, it is written in the traditional Hebrew text as shaf’kha, in the singular. This is because the elders are never able to say that “we did everything possible with our two hands to prevent such an event.” Whatever we did was with only one hand, and we will always be to blame for not having done enough” (A. Greenberg, Ed., Torah Gems, Vol. 3, p. 268).

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz writes on this portion in Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion: “The Torah instructs us not to be bystanders. It teaches us not to profess indifference. If there is any way for us to make a difference in the world, then we must act immediately. If there is a life to be saved, a person to be fed, a sojourner to be housed, a solitary individual needing hospitality, we must be there. While the elders were not suspected of actual murder, they could not even profess indifference to the plight of another human being.”

As the world looks upon the Syrian blood bath with indifference, the Israeli medical response is an inspiration that the world does not have to accept the status quo. It’s my sincere hope that Israel’s modest but significant action will remind the world not to be bystanders, not to be indifferent.

As Wiesel states: “Indifference is never an option. It is not the beginning of a process; it is the end of a process. The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference. The opposite of education is not ignorance; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference. The opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.”