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July 12, 2016 7:19 am

Elie Wiesel: A Last Message

avatar by Stanley Tiger

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The late Elie Wiesel. Photo Google.

The late Elie Wiesel. Photo Google.

How does one mourn the passing of a prophet?

Elie Wiesel was as close to a prophet as we can get in the modern world.

It was not so much the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize that impressed me. It certainly put him on the map and made him a well-known public figure. Nor was it the tragic account of his despicable and undeserved abuse in the Nazi death camps described in his 1955 book, Night — a book still widely read and since translated into 30 languages. What impressed me most was his burning passion for Judaism — which he understood with as deep a heart and inspired a mind as could be attained by any Jewish soul.

My first major literary encounter with Wiesel came as a result of some thoughtful individual who gave to my son (as a Bar Mitzvah gift), Wiesel’s book, Souls on Fire, which presents in great detail the tales of the lost Jewish civilizations of Europe — the stories of the Chassidic masters. He had learned these stories through his family, which included rabbis. Wiesel’s ability to remember so much of what he was taught, combined with his impassioned retelling of these stories of profundity are, to my mind, a feat of exceptional personal brilliance, which marked a life of exceptional thoughtfulness.

I will express my personal opinion that I cannot see how any person can consider himself educated in Judaism without having read and contemplated Wiesel’s Souls on Fire. Besides being a masterwork, it is part of an array of wisdom distributed through his writings. I recall in an introduction that he wrote for another author’s book on the Holocaust his describing how the poorest of Jews were rounded up, what little they had was confiscated, even to the forfeiture of their eyeglasses. Of this he said,“[T]hey were robbed even of their poverty.”

In his great appreciation of the lost world of the Chassidic masters, he wrote, “[A]ll would live and perish in a world that did not deserve them.”

His love of Judaism was profound. I remember reading a collection of essays by Jewish writers concerning the books of Tanach (aka the Hebrew Bible). Wiesel was one of the only writers of the t37 who provided his own translations from the original Hebrew. Having been born in Romania, his first language was Yiddish, but he wrote and spoke several languages. Of his passion for Judaism, he wrote, “Being Jewish means fulfilling oneself in more than one dimension; It’s like living a forty-eight-hour day, intensely and to the full.”

A professor at Boston University, he also felt the need to put his beliefs into action, as Jewish teachings advocated him to do. His words are often quoted by Armenian activists protesting the attempted genocide by the Muslim rulers of Turkey against the Armenian Orthodox Christian population dating from 1915 to 1923. Wiesel is quoted by the activists seeking recognition of their “night”: “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

Wiesel was also a great lover of the state of Israel. Among the more memorable phrases he penned was a description of the old city of Jerusalem: “….where the stones themselves tell the story of the only people of antiquity to have outlived antiquity.”

It pains me to imagine his moral outrage when, in a full-page ad he published in the New York Times in 2013, he wrote, “Our nation is morally compromised when it contemplates allowing a country calling for the destruction of the State of Israel to remain within reach of nuclear weapons.” To see a nation (Iran) that denies the Holocaust, a nation pathologically driven to destroy Israel and, like Hitler, the Jews, must have been an incredible source of crushing disappointment. He had even gone to Congress to hear Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, warning against the $150 billion release of funds to Iran and the easing of sanctions against its nuclear ambitions.

I wonder about Wiesel — having been a masterfully eloquent witness to the Holocaust, a witness and a victim of the unspeakable barbarism of the Nazis, and a man who celebrated the founding of the state of Israel — if the heartbreak on the day of his passing, July 2, 2016, the Saturday before the Fourth of July celebration, might have contained a last message. Perhaps he just did not have the strength left in him to witness the annual celebration of his adopted nation. He made this Shabbat a day of final rest. Perhaps the prophet in him left this last message where his powerful words failed.

Elie Wiesel was a writer, a scholar, a thinker, a playwright, an essayist, a teacher, a human rights activist, an international VIP. Most of all, he was a soul on fire.

Stanley Tiger is president of Jewish Universe Media, an educational 501(c)(3). He is currently writing a book on the interaction of Judaism and modern science.

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  • Yoel Nitzarim

    By his own admission, Elie Wiesel was not a prophet. On April 15, 1998, at Loyola University, in Chicago, Illinois, he received an honorary doctorate for humane letters. I witnessed this from the stands in their immense gymnasium with 4,000 other bystanders in the audience. When the president of the university referred to him as a prophet on stage, I honestly felt the same conviction. Notwithstanding, when Elie Wiesel’s turn came to accept the honorary degree, he faced the president and declared that “only a fool would be declared a prophet in our times because the prophets all met horrible deaths.” And he added, “You didn’t mean that,” with a chuckle I can still hear in my mind’s eye as I write this. Red Eliezer then went on to explain why those times in the late 90s were times of difficulty for thinker to live in, why the modern era has forgotten and to some extent abandoned the average citizen in a land of plenty due to the emphasis on acquisition versus the acquisition of ideas and words, the loss or weakening in society connections, affiliations, and the scant occurrences of the “messianic moment,” that cosmically charged, magnificent exchange of ideas that elevated the interlocutors and helped them transcend the people they brought to the meeting of their souls. Yes, Souls on Fire was the work of a master storyteller. Red Eliezer was, indeed, that. That particular day when he was blessed with this honour that as he stated his grandfather would have been utterly amazed that his grandson would received in a Catholic university was a cold, rainy affair. I remember driving to Loyola after teaching my classes at East-est University in downtown Chicago. The chill in the air had remained with me until Reb Eliezer adorned the stage with a picture of the famed Chicago skyscrapers as a backdrop. I showed a videotape of that event to my students over the years not only to acquaint them to a living Elie Wiesel who had been in their midst, but to allow them to listen to his recollections of losing his admiration for Rabbi Elisha ben-Abouya, along with the innocence of Reb Eliezer’s childhood in a kind of admission of the reality which comes when a childhood hero’s true identity is revealed for the first time as a heretic. That story still haunts my mind and is a memory I truly hold dear of my beloved mentor and friend.

    • Stanley Tiger

      Thank you for this interesting account. I do not believe that Prof. Wiesel was a prophet. If you examine the first two sentences of this essay, I identify him as close to a prophet – a near prophet. I am aware of the distinction. Thank you again.

  • In Judaism, “prophet” has a very specific meaning.

    Elie Wiesel was NOT a prophet!

    • Stanley Tiger

      Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I explained my opening sentences to Mr. Nitzarim (see above comment). A more interesting thought is: Has there ever been a perfect prophet?

  • Qwensul Cunningham

    I became Curious after reading on Twitter a message written by the president I looked up his name to see who he was and I begin to read the article as I read this article I begin to feel so muchIn my heart many different emotions most of all love it made me want to know more about Christ more about the Jewish way of life today I feel as if I’ve wasted so much of my life Miss so many opportunities of knowledge I wish I could have met this prophet this wonderful man may his soul rest in peace