Elie Wiesel

Where is God?

If I have problems with God, why should I blame the Sabbath?
— Eli Wiesel

In One Generation After, Elie Wiesel – of blessed memory - tells a short story that is long on meaning. Every morning, the beadle of a synagogue rushed to the bimah – the reader’s platform – and shouted with pride and anger: “I have come to inform you, Master of the Universe, that we are here.” Massacre after massacre hit the village, but the beadle survived and kept up his daily pounding on the lectern: “You see, Lord, we are still here.” The last massacre left the beadle alone in the deserted synagogue. He came up to the Ark and “whispered in infinite gentleness: ‘You see? I am still here.’ He stopped briefly before continuing in his sad, almost toneless voice: ‘But You, where are You?’” 

As we collectively mourn the loss of a great contemporary hero, much ink has been spilled on Elie Wiesel’s concern for humanity and memory, how he masterfully bore witness to tragedy and dignified the survivor, forcing the world into an uncomfortable look in the mirror at its complacency.  Challenging us, he demanded that memory not only preserve and shape the past but that it also set a moral agenda for the future. Less has been written, however, about Wiesel’s theology, how despite anger at God, he maintained his own observance and his own wrestling with God, a continuous if not tormenting presence.

In answer to the question of his faith leaving him during the Holocaust, he deflected in a fictive conversation. “I said I refuse to speak about God, here in this place. To say yes would be to lie. To say no – also. If need be, I would confront Him with an angry shout, a gesture, a murmur. But to make of Him – here – a theological topic, that I won’t do! God – here – is the extra bowl of soup pushed at you or stolen from you, simply because the man ahead of you is either stronger or quicker than you. God – here – cannot be found in humble or grandiloquent phrases, but in a crust of bread…Which you have had or are about to have?...which you will never have (Dialogues I).

Wiesel found God guilty in his literary court but and still went to the synagogue to pray. He loved old Jewish melodies, and his own melodious speaking voice was hypnotizing whenever I heard him lecture. As I looked at the string of his books in our personal library, I noticed so many more were about Hasidic tales than about survivor fears, as if nostalgia gripped him and made him a storyteller for magical sects that he was not a part of after the war. The Hasidic tale also provides a framework for lived theology; it may have allowed him permission to fight God without walking away from God.

Wiesel has been likened to an ancient prophet and inspired me to open A. J. Heschel’s book, The Prophets, to seek in its pages something descriptive of this man. Heschel did not disappoint, with this description of a prophet’s worldview: “It is a divine attentiveness to humanity, an involvement in history, a divine vision of the world in which the prophet shares and which he tries to convey. And it’s God’s concern for man that is at the root of the prophet’s work to save the people.” 

Today, many people valorize heresy as a sort of intellectual status symbol, suggesting that sophisticated people are beyond faith. Elie Wiesel helped us grieve the past with immense pride as a moral ambassador who was unabashedly Jewish. He also left a legacy of complicated faith that challenges us to reinvestigate what it means to live in relationship to God, not only through the tragedy of Auschwitz but also through the abundance of Jewish life after that horrible chapter closed.

Shabbat Shalom

A Special Seventy

Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time.
How long can we go on being angry?
— Elie Wiesel

"In my childhood, I did not expect much from human beings. But I expected everything from You," Elie Wiesel writes in a prayer to God. Over the years, through the darkest of suffering, Wiesel confesses his anger at God, at writing harsh words against God and wondering what was worse: God's silence or God's absence. Over time, Wiesel questions if he has been fair to put so much expectation on God's shoulders and so little on his fellow human beings, "...Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men." Wiesel ends his powerful prayer by requesting renewed intimacy with God. It is time to make up.

Wiesel's prayer is contained in a potent small book of essays, 70 Days for 70 Years, created for exactly this season. This week we started the project, a collaborative effort of England's United Synagogue and other organizations to provide a book with 70 essays to mark the 70 years it has been since the Holocaust. In 1985, 40 years after its liberation, a man named Rabbi Shapira went to a commemorative event at Thereisenstadt Concentration Camp. Rabbi Shapira worried, as an orphan of the Holocaust, how his own family in the future would hold on to these dark and formative memories. He asked Yad Vashem for 30 names of children who died in the war to give to 30 children in his town to perpetuate their memories more personally. 

In 1995, 50 years after liberation, Rabbi Andrew Shaw gave 5,000 English students 5000 names of those who died in the Shoah and asked that they study in their memory for 50 days. These are small acts we do to redeem those who died; they live on in our memory, our learning and in our acts of kindness. It's an inspiring global Jewish project, and you can get involved and take your next steps to living memory. It's just one click away.

Avner Shalev, chairmen of Yad Vashem, opens his remarks in the book with this line from David Berger, originally from Poland, who was shot and died in Vilna in 1941. "I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger." David had a keen sense of his mortality and the danger that lurked everywhere about him. This is the kind of sentiment we expect from someone old and wise, who had lived fully and had much to share. But David Berger was only 22 when he died. He had so much more to do on this planet. He left us one wish: that someone remember that he once existed.

Seventy is a special number is Jewish tradition. Seventy people, we read in Exodus 1, went down to Egypt and became our fledging Jewish nation. Later, Moses gathered 70 elders to assist him with the running our the Israelite community. There were seventy men in the Sanhedrin, our great ancient court, and we have a tradition that there are 70 faces of interpretation. In the Talmud we speak of 70 languages as the plethora of languages spoken in the universe. On Sukkot we offer 70 sacrifices on behalf of all the nations. We like to think of seventy as a number of true globalism. 

As a global Jewish community, there could not be a better time to reflect on Jewish suffering and pain; the world is larger than ever and sometimes more frightening than ever. We sometimes forget about the alarming rhetoric that stirred the pot of anti-Jewish hatred then, even though the world offers up its reminders from time to time. Perhaps we can take on Elie Wiesel's approach - using this time to renew old relationships through earning every day for these 70 days in honor of the people we've become in these remarkable 70 years since then. 

And maybe through this daily study and reflection, we can strengthen our relationship to faith and God as a way of redeeming the darkness. "Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time."

Shabbat Shalom