Elie Wiesel: A Last Message
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.