“There is divine beauty in learning...”
When Elie Wiesel tells us that there is divine beauty in learning, we intially sense the larger spiritual and transcendant purpose of study. It creates a powerful ladder to God, our history and ourselves. But the context in which Wiesel made this remark makes study a way to see the divine in others.
This week Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel celebrated his 85th birthday, and it is a special occasion to revisit some of the central aspects of his teachings. In an article “Have You Learned the Most Important Lesson of All?” in Parade magazine in 1992, Wiesel explained the principle that governed his life: “It is the realization that what I receive I must pass on to others. The knowledge that I have acquired must not remain imprisoned in my brain. I owe it to many men and women to do something with it. I feel the need to pay back what was given to me. Call it gratitude.”
In this address to the general public he talked about the centrality of study and education as a means to share knowledge, shape thinking and reduce fanaticism. It is this that generated his own obligation to bear witness and to pass down what he has learned. “I speak to you,” he remarked, “as a teacher and a student - one is both, always. I also speak to you as a witness. I speak to you, for I do not want my past to become your future.” The notion of being both teacher and student as a Jewish value is rooted in the Hebrew language – to teach and to learn share the same Hebrew root letters.
Learning is not only to elevate our minds; it is also a way of expanding our worlds so that we reduce suspicion of the other and the violence that can result. As Wiesel says, “The world outside is not waiting to welcome you with open arms.” Although this was written many years ago, he mentions the troubled economy, the radical forces that govern much of our world and a psychological climate that can foment hostility. In such a challenging environment, Wiesel warns us about how we react to these global threats and local problems:
“But should you encounter temporary disappointments, I also pray: Do not make someone else pay the price for your pain. Do not see in someone else a scapegoat for your difficulties. Only a fanatic does that not you, for you have learned to reject fanaticism. You know that fanaticism leads to hatred, and hatred is both destructive and self-destructive.”
To learn is to reduce ignorance so that you do not make others the scapegoat for your own problems. In this equation learning becomes a global tool of outreach. Finally, Wiesel offers the way in which education contributes to humility:
“To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.”
Our very existence demands that we learn about and from those who live beside us horizontally and share the world with us. And it also demands that we study vertically, inheriting the legacy of those who came before us and bearing witness as we transmit our truths to the generation to come.
To honor this milestone in Elie Wiesel’s life, perhaps we can all take a moment to identify a quote or a text that has helped create greater tolerance and love and – because learning and teaching are so closely interwoven – share it with others.