Elie Wiesel passed away this week. We also saw the tragic deaths of too many Americans and neighbors abroad. In their memory, we recall the power of memory itself--a central theme in Professor Wiesel's life's work.
Meditation Before Silent Prayer
This has been a week of intense emotion – of grief, of anger, of disbelief.
On Saturday night, the world mourned the loss of Professor Elie Wiesel, zichrono livrachah.
Wiesel endured and survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and in 1956 published Night, his memoir of those dark years. This was the first of nearly 60 books ranging from novels to memoirs to works of scholarship. In addition to writing and teaching, Wiesel worked tirelessly for the cause of safeguarding human life and human rights around the world and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. A beloved teacher, a gifted writer, and a clarion voice of conscience, Elie Wiesel will be painfully missed.
Also this week, far too many others were killed much too soon. Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Philando Castile of St. Paul, Minnesota. Police officers Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Patrick Zamarripa of Dallas, Texas.
Terrorists murdered 292 people in Baghdad, Iraq; 22 in Dhaka, Bangladesh; and 4 in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
What are we to do in the face of such violence? What does it mean to turn to the God of our ancestors and pray for healing when we know that so many are beyond repair?
There are some questions we cannot answer. At its heart, I believe evil is something that we cannot understand. But, we can withstand evil, especially when God stands with us.
And with God by our side, we have the capacity to lift up the divine spark we see in others.
This was the message of Elie Wiesel, who was a firsthand witness to unspeakable horror. And yet, fifty years after the Holocaust ended, Wiesel continued to affirm:
I still believe that to be Jewish today means what it meant yesterday and a thousand years ago. It means for the Jew in me to seek fulfilment both as a Jew and as a human being. For a Jew, Judaism and humanity must go together. To be Jewish today is to recognize that every person is created in the image of God and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God. …
To be Jewish is, above all, to safeguard memory and open its gates to the celebration of life as well as the suffering, to the song of ecstasy as well as the tears of distress that are our legacy as Jews. …
A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. … The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.
May this be our resolution this Shabbat. May we commit ourselves to our mission to protect and affirm every human life, content not only to watch from the sidelines but to move out of our own comfort zones and make a difference in the world.
Chazak v’nitchazek – in these troubling times, let us find strength and courage in one another.
We continue with a moment of silence.
This week's sermon
Zecher Tzaddik: In Elie Wiesel’s Memory
A Chasidic tale, retold by Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom.
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”
And it was sufficient.
God made man because he loves stories.
“God made man because he loves stories.” Because man loves stories? Because God loves stories? Surely both. Telling stories is a sacred act, a simple and powerful way that we human beings can imitate God.
For some, the word “story” evokes something frivolous or whimsical, reserved for bedtime and beach reading. But not for Elie Wiesel. Wiesel taught us that stories breathe life into facts. They give meaning to history. They are the conveyors of memory.
And it is memory to which Wiesel devoted his life. When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he declared, “I have tried to keep memory alive.” Why? “Because,” he said, “if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”
For Wiesel, and indeed, for Jewish writers and teachers throughout the ages, memory is redemptive. Memory is not a recitation of facts. Indeed, memory may even contradict “the facts.” No, memory is, in the words of Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, a “mythic imagination” that “bind[s] the stuff of the past with the stuff of destiny.” Memory is the process by which we review, relive, and redeem the past for in order to pave the way to a brighter future. And on weeks like this one, we see ever so clearly the urgent need for that higher path.
In his lengthy statement following the announcement of Wiesel’s death, President Obama highlighted Wiesel’s affirmation of the power of memory. The President wrote:
Elie was not just the world’s most prominent Holocaust survivor, he was a living memorial. After we walked together among the barbed wire and guard towers of Buchenwald where he was held as a teenager and where his father perished, Elie spoke words I’ve never forgotten — “Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of goodwill.” Upholding that sacred duty was the purpose of Elie’s life. Along with his beloved wife Marion and the foundation that bears his name, he raised his voice, not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms. He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings, to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that pledge of “never again.”
In honor of Elie Wiesel—and in his memory—I’d like to share with you a recording of Wiesel reading a short essay, entitled “A God Who Remembers.” Wiesel wrote it in 2008 for the National Public Radio program All Things Considered.
I remember, May 1944: I was 15-and-a-half, and I was thrown into a haunted universe where the story of the human adventure seemed to swing irrevocably between horror and malediction. I remember, I remember because I was there with my father. I was still living with him there. We worked together. We returned to the camp together. We stayed in the same block. We slept in the same box. We shared bread and soup. Never were we so close to one another.
We talked a lot to each other, especially in the evenings, but never of death. I believed — I hoped — that I would not survive him, not even for one day. Without saying it to him, I thought I was the last of our line. With him, our past would die; with me, our future.
The moment the war ended, I believed — we all did — that anyone who survived death must bear witness. Some of us even believed that they survived in order to become witnesses. But then I knew deep down that it would be impossible to communicate the entire story. Nobody can. I personally decided to wait, to see during 10 years if I would be capable to find the proper words, the proper pace, the proper melody or maybe even the proper silence to describe the ineffable.
For in my tradition, as a Jew, I believe that whatever we receive we must share. When we endure an experience, the experience cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering, it must be deepened and given and shared. And of course I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways – disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.
Granted, our task is to inform. But information must be transformed into knowledge, knowledge into sensitivity and sensitivity into commitment.
How can we therefore speak, unless we believe that our words have meaning, that our words will help others to prevent my past from becoming another person’s—another peoples’—future. Yes, our stories are essential – essential to memory. I believe that the witnesses, especially the survivors, have the most important role. They can simply say, in the words of the prophet, “I was there.”
What is a witness if not someone who has a tale to tell and lives only with one haunting desire: to tell it. Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.
After all, God is God because he remembers.
Elie Wiesel urged each of us to remember.
This was not a lesson about history. History concerns itself with what can be proven; it is an expression of science. Memory, in contrast, is an expression of morality. Wiesel once wrote, “Auschwitz signifies … the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning—with a capital M—in history.” Instead of history, we need memory—personal, motivational, and inspiring—to renew the past and reshape it into a more perfect future.
Thus, while the champions of history tend to turn away from the story of God, we as a human community cannot afford to do so. Rabbi Shai Held writes:
Elie Wiesel never could give up on the God who had broken his heart. … He insisted that a Jew could be angry at God, but that he or she just could not be without God. … And so we grope for faith—ever aware that the skies can seem utterly empty; and we wait for God—only too keenly aware that God may never come. Try as we might at times, we cannot let the covenant with, and the search for, God die.
For many of us, this may be the most challenging message that Elie Wiesel bequeaths to us.
When faced with clashes of society fueled by fear and aggression, we often look for a person or process that needs fixing. We want to find the technical solution that will bypass the human error that leads us down the path of violence, and we array all the forces of scientific study and historical argumentation to assert that our solution is the correct one. We think we know the way forward if only others would see it our way.
But Wiesel forcefully asserts that salvation is to be found with God and memory, not with science and history. The ancient truths of our still-breathing religious tradition open the gate to redemption. To think of it another way: If we care about others because we see God in them, then it is only fitting we should look to God—whatever God may be—to bring nearer the day when all the world will be at peace.
I will conclude tonight where Professor Wiesel himself concluded his Nobel lecture, which he called “Hope, Despair and Memory.” Wiesel meditates on the biblical figure of Job, who kept faith with God when every shred of evidence suggested he should turn his back. While some might read the story of Job as one of tragedy, Wiesel sees it as an inspiration motivating his life’s work.
Let us remember Job who, having lost everything - his children, his friends, his possessions, and even his argument with God - still found the strength to begin again, to rebuild his life. Job was determined not to repudiate the creation, however imperfect, that God had entrusted to him.
Job, our ancestor. Job, our contemporary. His ordeal concerns all humanity. Did he ever lose his faith? If so, he rediscovered it within his rebellion. He demonstrated that faith is essential to rebellion, and that hope is possible beyond despair. The source of his hope was memory, as it must be ours. Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair. I remember the killers, I remember the victims, even as I struggle to invent a thousand and one reasons to hope.
Zichron tzaddik livrachah – may the memory of this righteous one ever be a blessing.
 Introduction to The Gates of the Forest.
 Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (2012), p. 2.
 Legends of Our Time (1968) p. 183.
 Posted to Facebook on July 3, 2016.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”