In the communities of Eastern Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and even beyond, there were certain people who would make their way from community to community, weaving stories and teaching lessons. They were itinerant preachers, who, in some cases, rose in stature to become folk heroes. Such a person was called a Maggid. This past Shabbat, not only the Jewish world, but all of humanity, lost a great man with the death of Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom, who liked to describe himself as a “wandering Maggid.” Writing on Saturday night in The Forward shortly after Professor Wiesel’s death, Rabbi Professor Michael Beranbaum wrote of this giant:
More than any other human being I know, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victims and refugees to witnesses with a moral mission not only to remember the past but to transform the future. . . . A wandering Maggid going from community to community, from venue to venue, from synagogues and universities, gatherings, demonstrations, national capitals and political forums, speaking to an ever-changing global audience. His message was: “Remember the Holocaust. Remembrance must shape our character and has the capacity to transform the future.”
There have been many tributes and eulogies since Elie Wiesel’s death on Saturday, both in conventional publications and on social media. I think we would all do well to read as many as we can. I did not have the pleasure of knowing Professor Wiesel personally, though a number of my colleagues did. Yet, I feel as though he spoke to me, and indeed, to each of us, in an extremely personal and searing way. Those of us from Union Temple who went down to Washington together in May of 2006 heard him speak at the rally that he cosponsored with numerous Jewish organizations, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, prominently among them. The rally was in support of the victims of genocide and brutality in Darfur. Professor Wiesel spoke to us calmly, and with dead seriousness. His mission, of course, was “Never Forget,” specifically with regard to the Holocaust. But he then reminded us soberly that “Never Forget” is meaningless unless we made it our business to stand up in the face of the genocide that was happening at that moment, and of all genocides wherever they happened. More than an author, a teacher, indeed, a “wandering Maggid,” he became one of the most tireless and outspoken human rights advocates of the modern era, and he touched the souls of all who ever heard him speak, or read his writing. “I’ve gone everywhere,” he said, “trying to stop so many atrocities: Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. The least I can do is show the victims that they are not alone. When I went to Cambodia, journalists asked me, “What are you doing here? This is not a Jewish tragedy.” I answered, “When I needed people to come, they didn’t. That’s why I am here.” When asked what was the most important commandment in the Bible, he responded, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”
Some years ago I became acquainted with a rabbi from The Netherlands who was a visiting professor for a year at Adelphi University. Both the rabbi and his wife survived the Holocaust as hidden children. They had chillingly similar stories to tell, each having been hidden in a suitcase, and transported to different families. One afternoon I had the pleasure of driving the rabbi home after a conference. When he told me he knew Elie Wiesel quite well, I asked him what Wiesel was really like. I said that Wiesel seemed to me to have a rather depressive affect, and I asked the rabbi if he thought that Wiesel actually had the capacity to live a happy life. He told me that he understood my reaction to Wiesel’s affect, but that Wiesel did, indeed, enjoy great fulfillment from his wife and family, his writing, his teaching, and his work in the world.
In this light, I was particularly struck by a portion of an interview that Oprah Winfrey did with Elie Wiesel a few years ago, after Wiesel took her to Auschwitz. . . .
“You can’t hear Elie’s story without wondering: ‘Can he live through that kind of hate and not become a hater? Can he still be capable of love? Can he find any reason to be grateful?’ When I talk with Elie about these things, he tells me that he has few answers and many, many questions – yet even in his questions I hear hope that the human spirit can survive anything. Anything.”
Of all that Elie Wiesel taught us in his words and in his deeds, perhaps it was his bearing witness to the human capacity to love, and to hope, that was the most important of all. Zecher Tzaddik Liv’rachah – may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.
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