As we enter the month of August we are in the midst of the three weeks that lead up to one of the saddest days in Jewish History – Tisha B’Av. On the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av we mourn the destruction of both Biblical Temples in Jerusalem (587 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.) along with other tragedies throughout the centuries, including our expulsion from Spain in 1492. The solemnity of the weeks that precede this day of fasting signify how important it is for us as Jews to remember tragedies and suffering in our past.
We are a people who are known for being persistent in memory. In the words of Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, “We Jews have many afflictions, but amnesia is not one of them.” While it is important to remember both the good and the bad, more important is what we do with those memories. There are people who remember their own suffering with a sense of anger and seek revenge; that has never been the Jewish response. Instead, when we remember what is was like to be a slave, what it felt like to lose our land and way of life, how hard it is to be uprooted and lose so much of what we cherish, we have always chosen a much higher road. Our memories are meant to inspire us to work for a better world, so that others should never have to suffer as we did. Our memories should help us empathize with others and motivate us to engage in tikkun olam – repair of our imperfect world.
Last month the world lost a great teacher, philosopher, author and activist who understood that message so well. Elie Wiesel experienced firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust. After surviving he reflected silently for a while on his life. Once he broke his silence he spoke with a voice that touched so many of us. Not only did Wiesel touch us as Jews, his message became one for all of humanity. In so many ways, Wiesel became the voice of conscience for a world struggling to make sense of what is truly right and what is wrong.
I was privileged to meet Elie Wiesel twice. The first was when he was a guest speaker at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. In addition to his speech to a larger audience, many of us were privileged to attend a midrash class that he taught. About a decade later I had the privilege of introducing Mr. Wiesel at a dinner that preceded his speech at Kent State University. Following the speech he came to a reception we sponsored for students at Kent and other nearby universities. Wiesel stayed a lot longer than we expected, not leaving until he had spoken with every student who wanted to meet him. He told us that his greatest pleasures were the time he spent with young people, teaching them. Indeed Elie Wiesel has been one of the best teachers of Jewish values to this generation.
Elie Wiesel’s life and survival was a miracle and he never took that for granted. He dedicated that life to an effort of trying to make sure others will not suffer as he and other Holocaust victims and survivors had. He spoke out against injustices with clarity. He shared the Jewish lessons of survival with the world, giving us all hope for a better future. He saw right and wrong with a clarity that is lacking in our world today, and he understood that the greatest crime of all is silence.
Wiesel did not automatically support the underdog and condemn those in power. Instead he viewed all in terms of their actions. He reminded us that all need to live up to high ideals. One could not hide behind authority nor use being a victim as an excuse. It is that clarity that allowed him to never waiver in his support for Israel, never follow the crowd in its support for one side over the other. He simply addressed reality in a way that seems so lacking today.
What we have lost most with the death of Wiesel is his voice as conscience. Nevertheless he left a wealth of wisdom through his writings, a true legacy of what it means to remember the past and learn from its lessons.
As we approach Tisha B’Av, may we never forget our own suffering, nor forget that others still are suffering today. May we be blessed to find the words necessary to be a voice in our world for good and blessing, inspired by Elie Wiesel’s life and teachings. May we find the strength to keep Wiesel’s legacy alive, a legacy that is synonymous with our basic values as Jews – belief in a better future and commitment to making it happen.
Rabbi Steven Adams is the director of pastoral care for the Jewish Home & Care Center, Sarah Chudnow Community and Chai Point, all located in the Milwaukee area.