The Fear and Awe of Elie Wiesel
When I was a child I discovered the holocaust at about 8. By perhaps 10 I remember video images of tractors moving mounds of bodies into mass graves. I started learning about gas chambers and crematoria. I was struck by the monstrous, unspeakable injustice. Why did the world hate the Jews so much? More important, where was God?
The holocaust never shook my faith for I do not believe in God. Rather, I know there is a God. What it did do is make me confused about God. Does He just watch as these things happen? Was he silent as children cried out to him? Did he watch these bodies being moved by tractors the way I watched it in black-and-white documentaries? Is God a passive spectator?
I thought about this as I prayed to Him. And yet, I was told to remain silent. I had no right to question. God is good. God is just.
But this religious submission just seemed to reinforce the sense of injustice. You mean, I could not even question? It left me with a deep sense of unease.
It was then that I discovered Elie Wiesel.
Here was a man who had survived the holocaust. But he survived as someone who challenged. He raised his fists to the heavens. He dared to know why.
No, not why was there a holocaust. There can be no answer to a question that big because any answer would rationalize the crime. Rather, why was God silent. How could he have watched the children? Did He not shed tears with the mothers who begged the Germans for scraps of bread with which to feed their starving babies? Did He at least cry along with them?
In Elie Wiesel’s defiance I found a deeper faith. Reb Eliezer, as I affectionately call him, restored to me my place in God’s universe. I was not mere cosmic chaff. I was not worthless. I was a creature endowed with a divine spark who was of limitless value. I was a human being bequeathed with infinite worth. I was a child of God with unqualified dignity. And I had a right to feel righteous indignation and shake the foundations of the heavens in the face of seeming divine miscarriages of justice.
How could this happen, Oh Lord, how could You have allowed it?
You are compassionate. So where was your compassion. You are merciful. So where was your mercy. You are long-suffering. So how could you have allowed so much suffering.
Wiesel restored to Judaism its defining characteristic of struggling spirituality, of human beings wrestling with the divine, of humanity engaged in a cosmic struggle with the Creator to reveal His attributes of justice.
Abraham thundered at the Divine, “Shall the Judge of the entire earth not Himself practice justice?” Moses spoke back to God, “Why have You behaved wickedly with this people, and why have you sent me?” And in the most searing divine confrontation recorded in the Bible Moses says to God that should He not grant the children of Israel clemency, “Erase me from the Torah that you have written.”
By restoring to the Jewish people their voice Elie Wiesel restored to the Jewish people their faith. For children must be respectful but not silent. Offspring must be obedient but not submissive.
The haunting challenge to the divine and the validation of human audacity comes in the most powerful words in Night: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed…. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
Some believe that religion is about having all the right answers. Wiesel reminds us it is about something else entirely. “I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.”
This Monday night, Nov. 17, marks another time I have been honored to host Reb Eliezer in a public discussion, this time joined with U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Professor Noah Feldman of Harvard. The topic: Genocide and the Jews: A Never-Ending Problem.
It is now 25 years that I have been hosting Prof. Wiesel at public events. It is a quarter of a century that I have had the privilege of sitting in his office and asking him questions about his experiences as a teenager in Auschwitz, as a young Jewish survivor in Europe, and as a man who would grow to be a Jewish light to all the nations.
Sitting with a living legend is something that transcends time. Hearing the moving, evocative voice of the very face of the six million is an experience that cannot be captured in words. And knowing the things that he witnessed and how it made him feel is both humbling and awe-inspiring. For who among us can truly comprehend experiences so powerful that even reading about them sends chills down our spines. And who among us can fully appreciate being in the presence of someone so powerfully in command of language that he can transform words into haunting disembodied spirits.
“Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…'”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” founded the world-renowned Oxford University L’Chaim Society which grew to be one of Oxford’s largest student organizations. He won the London Times Preacher of the Year Competition and the Millennium and has just published Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. Tickets for “Genocide and the Jews: A Never-Ending Problem” on Nov. 17 at the Great Hall of Cooper Union are available at www.shmuley.com and www.thisworld.us.