Elie Wiesel was my teacher and friend. Among his teachings that endure for me are the following: Evil exists and grows when otherwise good people ignore it. The most painful moment in the Bible is when Joseph’s brothers throw him into a pit, and then sit and eat a meal. Indifference to suffering sadly persists in our world.
Antisemitism endures. It already appears in the Biblical story of Exodus, when Pharaoh announces, “The Israelites are becoming too numerous and mighty for us… they will join our enemies and fight against us.” Wiesel said that anti-Semitism is essentially irrational. And yet, the Jewish response to suffering is not victimhood, but the drawing forth of core, universal values to share with others.
G-d is a mystery. I once spoke with Elie about the loss of a young family member to an undiagnosed illness, and asked what he thought of the image of a limited G-d. “G-d,” he replied, “is a question mark. I cannot say what G-d chooses to do or not to do.” And yet, his faith after the Holocaust was more complex and elusive than that of his Hasidic youth.
Humility is linked with greatness. In the Bible, humble is the only virtue used to describe Moses. Elie Wiesel too saw himself as a servant teacher. He remained personable and genuine in speaking with any other individual.
“And yet,” was among Elie’s favorite expressions, because context matters. Paradox describes reality. In that light, some examples of his paradoxes:
• Like a Biblical prophet, publicly challenged Presidents to act justly and yet, in private was gentle, relaxed and humorous.
• Declined the offer of his Talmud teacher, Sol Lieberman, to receive rabbinic ordination, and yet, became the face of Judaism.
• Spent four hours a day writing, and yet, taught that silence is the truest response to the Holocaust, knowledge of G-d, and all that really matters in life.
• Often pictured as bearing the weight of traumatic memory on hunched shoulders, and yet, after the birth of the first of his two grandchildren, instructed his publicist to only use smiling photos.
Elie Wiesel was a prophet for justice and the context of his life gave truth to his goading words. He was our collective “Elie.” He spoke for us and to us. He was our witness and Biblical voice. He taught us that our Jewish heritage is a treasure worth studying and living. He showed us that words matter profoundly and are limited. He was only a man and yet his deeds model that each of us can be more fully human, more fully a dedicated spouse and parent and friend, duty bound to community, and dedicated as a humble servant of the Holy Blessed One.
Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz has faithfully and dilligently served as the senior rabbi at Congregation Bnai Israel in Tustin California since the mid 1980’s.