The tributes for the late Elie Wiesel have been coming fast and furiously. I am not surprised in the least. His imprint on so many is immeasurable, and I am no different.
I am pretty certain that my first “encounter” was, as it was for so many, through reading his haunting memoir Night as a teenager. The book was an awakening, and it led to a period in which my thirst for learning about the Shoah/Holocaust was hard to quench.
In my last semester of senior year in college, as I was already preparing to begin my rabbinic studies, I took a course in post-Holocaust literature and theology. Our professor had us read nearly everything Elie Wiesel had written at the time (1973), along with the writings of a number of Jewish and Christian theologians. It was a heavy-duty course, both in terms of the work-load and the subject matter. I still recall our final class session, in which we sat together sharing how the course had impacted us. Several classmates queried me, “Are you going to continue with your plans to study for the rabbinate in the wake of what we have studied?” While I had certainly found my faith shaken in the intensity of our learning, I responded that I was wrestling, and believed I would continue to do so, even as I set out on my journey.
Some years later, as I served my first congregation I had the opportunity to meet Elie Wiesel as he came to our building to utilize one of our libraries as a setting for the recording of a series of videos on Biblical figures. I was daunted by being in the presence of this man who had seen so much, and wrestled with some of the darkest of what we humans are capable of doing to one another. It’s not that he was the first survivor I’d met. Perhaps it was a feeling of intimacy from having read nearly everything he’d written and felt his pain and suffering. He was quiet and gentle. His simple presence was an inspiration.
At the time, I had not really put it together, but Elie Wiesel’s presence in our building for the recordings marked his transition away from an almost exclusive Holocaust-focus towards writing and teaching about great figures from our Biblical, rabbinic, and Hasidic traditions. His journey continued to whet my appetite. Realizing that my time in New York City would likely soon end, I hastened to take one of his acclaimed 92nd-Street YMHA courses. The man was a masterful teacher. Still quiet and gentle on the stage of the Y, he held me, and everyone around me spellbound.
There were a few other chance encounters over the years. The last was, perhaps, one of the most important to me. A number of years ago, the Youth Educator at my current congregation was taking our high school students to Boston University Hillel for an informal evening with Elie Wiesel. Seth had worked at the Hillel before joining our staff and had been invited to bring our students. Almost four decades had passed since I’d first encountered Elie Wiesel through Night. I recalled something another survivor had told my youth group at that first congregation in the early 1980’s. He said, “I want you to remember this evening. I want you to remember that you met me. Even if you don’t remember all of my story, you will recall that we have met. A day will come when there will be no more survivors to tell our stories. You will have to be our witnesses to the next generation.” As our students prepared to go to BU, and me with them, I urged one if my sons to join us. He was younger than the other students, but I wanted him to hear what Elie Wiesel would say. I wanted him not only to hear a survivor, but to hear this survivor. He was resistant, but compliant. As we left the Hillel gathering that night, he thanked me for urging him to come.
Elie Wiesel has taught generations about the importance of speaking up and speaking out. May his message continue to be heard and felt – through us. It must be heard, for we still live in a world wherein for too many people, it is still night!
Elie Wiesel – Your memory will be for a blessing, especially if we hear your call and heed your message. Rest in peace, our conscience and teacher.