Sermon for Erev Shabbat, July 8, 2016

Our rabbis teach us that only a tsaddik, a righteous one, dies on Shabbat.  So it should be no surprise to us that Elie Wiesel died on a Shabbat.  This great man, sage, teacher, and defender of human dignity was, in the words of Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, “a hero of the Jewish people and a giant of all humanity.”  Elie Wiesel’s humanity touched us and all peoples.  He stood for truth and fought against evil his entire life.  He reminded us that “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference.  The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference…To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”  Elie Wiesel was a living witness to the greatest horror human beings inflicted upon one another- the Shoah.  He protested against genocide everywhere and would not allow us to forget the most vulnerable among us.

Elie Wiesel was the author of over sixty books and countless articles. Central to his work was reconciling the concept of a benevolent God with the evil of the Shoah. Even so, he never abandoned Judaism and became even more fervent as he aged.  He often davened in Chasidic shuls in Brooklyn and Israel. “If I have problems with God,” he once said, “why should I blame Shabbat?”  He was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.  In his acceptance speech he said, “Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, we must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor; never the victim.”  He courted controversy when, in 1985 at a White House ceremony at which he accepted the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, “he tried to dissuade President Reagan from taking time from a planned trip to West Germany to visit a military cemetery in Bitburg, where members of Hitler’s elite SS were buried.  ‘That place, Mr. President, is not your place.  Your place is with victims of the SS.”[i]  Elie Wiesel became known for “speaking truth to power.”

The first chairman of the United States Holocaust Commission, he dedicated the United States Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D. C.  His words are carved at the entrance, “For the dead and living, we must bear witness.”  Elie Wiesel was a witness to and a victim of the systematic slaughter of over six million Jewish people, including his mother, father, and two sisters.

Born in Sighet, Rumania in 1928, his father encouraged him to learn Modern Hebrew and to read the works of Freud.  His mother taught him the stories of the Chasidic masters.  In the spring of 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary and put the 15,000 Jews of Sighet in cattle cars.  The young Wiesel spent the next year in Auschwitz and Buchenwald until he was finally liberated by American G.I.s on April 11, 1945.  The now 16 year old was orphaned and, with 400 other Jewish orphans, was sent to a home in Normandy where he was cared for by a Jewish organization.  He mastered French, enrolled in the Sorbonne and became a journalist, writing for a French newspaper, L’Arche.  In 1948, the paper sent him to Israel to cover the War of Independence.  He also became the Paris correspondent for the Israeli daily, Yediot Achronot.  He wrote “Night” in 1956.  The publishers, Hill and Wang, offered him a mere $100 for the rights to the book.  It was only after the Eichmann trial in 1960 that the world was ready to hear about the Shoah.  Wiesel began to personify the Holocaust survivor and spoke for so many who were silent.  For the last forty five years he served first as a professor at City College in New York and then at Boston University.  He still was not personally immune to suffering.  He was struck by a car in New York and spent a year in a wheel chair.  He was attacked several times by unstable people and Holocaust deniers.  Mr. Wiesel invested his foundation’s endowment as well as his family’s personal savings with a fellow congregant at a New York Orthodox synagogue.  He and his wife lost millions and his Foundation for Humanity lost $15 million when Bernard Madoff’s investment strategy turned out to be a Ponzi scheme.

I first met Elie Wiesel through his writings.  As a college sophomore in 1970, I remember reading Night in just one sitting.  I was not able to put it down.  Almost two decades later, I received a gift from one of my congregants who was then on the United States Holocaust Commission.  Arthur Davis shared my Rosh Hashanah sermon with Elie Wiesel who wrote this note to him (read note).  I had it framed and it still hangs in my study.  It is one of my most prized possessions.

Most people think of Elie Wiesel as a universalist, a person concerned about all of humanity and the human condition.  Like many Jews, he was concerned with the weak, poor and oppressed.  He was an advocate for justice and decency for all peoples.  Yet, and this we sometimes forget, he came to his universalism through his Jewish identity.  My favorite quotation of his is “The more Jewish the poet, the more universal his message.  The more Jewish his soul, the more human his concerns.  A Jew who does not feel for his fellow Jews, who does not share in their sorrows and joys, cannot feel for other people.  And a Jew who is concerned with his fellow Jews is inevitably concerned with the fate of other people as well.”  There are so many secular Jews whom we know who deride our concern for the Jewish people as mere parochial sentiment. They believe we should be concerned about all humanity, not just one small group of people.  What our friends forget is that “the effort to embrace humanity in general is as foolhardy as the attempt to speak in general without using any language in particular.  Judaism is the particular language through which Jews address humanity.  Although our Bible originates out of the needs, intuitions, and revelations of a particular people, its wisdom and ethics burst into the domain of humanity.”[ii]

While in the gulag of the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky became aware that the struggle for Jewish freedom was linked to the freedom of Pentecostals, Catholics, Tatars, and Ukrainians.  He wrote “Only he who understands his own identity and already has become a free person can work effectively for the rights of others.”[iii]  When Elie Wiesel became a leading advocate for the Soviet Jewry, he also embraced concern for the needs of other oppressed people.  “If you try to start everywhere at once, you get nowhere, but if you start with a single person, someone near to you, you can come nearer to the other.” With these words he echoes Hillel who wrote these well-known words (Pirke Avot 1:14), “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”  “Like charity, compassion begins at home, but does not end there.”[iv]

Elie Wiesel was a model of what it means to be a Jewish human being.  He was intensely Jewish and saw the world through Jewish eyes.  Those sad eyes made him constantly aware of the dangers of indifference and the need to speak out on behalf of the silent.  Through his Jewish particularism, he became a prophet for all of humanity.

Rav Kook, the late chief rabbi of Israel, captured this paradigm of identity when he wrote what could have been a eulogy for Elie Wiesel, “There is one who sings the songs of his own self, and in himself finds everything.  Then there is the one who sings the song of his people and cleaves with a tender love to Israel.  And there is one whose spirit is in all worlds and with all of them does he join in his song- the song of the self, the song of one’s people, the song of man, the song of the world- they all merge within him continually.  And this song, in its completeness and its fullness, is to become the song of holiness.”

 

Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] N Y Times, July 3, 2016

[ii] Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Jewish Journal, December 19, 2014.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid

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