As I write, Tisha b’Av approaches, and one month has elapsed since Elie Wiesel passed away in early July – the traditional marker referred to in Hebrew simply by the number 30 – shloshim – connoting closure to the first month of mourning.
It is both fitting and jarring to write about the late Wiesel as Tisha b’Av approaches. Fitting, because the ninth of Av, of course, marks the great Jewish catastrophe of the ancient world – the destruction of the ancient Temples of Jerusalem, and in the Jewish imagination, all subsequent disasters are encompassed under its rubric.
The Holocaust, or Shoah, or Churban – the great Jewish catastrophe of the 20th century – underwrites all of Wiesel’s stories. The issues his writing raises, and the manner in which it discusses them, trace an unbroken line back to traditional Jewish sources. The echoes of prophets, commentators and mystics hover over his descriptions of the horrors of the Shoah, and the Shoah, in turn, hovers over his readings of the Bible, Talmud, Chassidism and Jewish culture.
But it’s jarring, too, because at the same time, Wiesel’s writing consistently rejects the traditional ways of mediating catastrophe and suffering that are enfolded into Tisha b’Av observances. Instead, whether focused on the Holocaust, or on personas in the Bible, or on the rabbis of the Talmud, or on chassidic rabbis, Wiesel’s writing challenges God’s injustice and refuses to justify what is consistently portrayed as God’s abandonment of humanity and humane values.
In this moral vacuum, the two alternatives are to plunge into cosmic despair or to shoulder oneself the burden of moral accountability. Struggling against the former, Wiesel left a legacy that tracks his engagement with the latter.
As a public figure, Wiesel’s moral engagement is part of the public record, from his insistence on Holocaust commemoration to his broader battle against genocide. Less known, more private, is his generosity of spirit as a teacher and as a mentor. Many of his former students at Boston University, where he taught for decades, note his profound influence on their values, their sense of purpose in the world. They remember that even as he commuted between his professorship in Boston and his home in New York, and continued his career as a novelist and public speaker, Wiesel conveyed to his students a sense of intense interest in their education and well-being, and served as an important mentor.
While I never studied formally with him, I, too, benefited from his graciousness and generosity of spirit. When I was a graduate student in the Boston area, he met with me several times, and I learned from our encounters. Later, he happened upon some reviews that I had written of several of his books. Each time, he tracked me down and wrote to thank me, saying he was “touched” by my “sensitivity” or that I understood his book in precisely the way he had hoped a reader would grasp it. Later still, he would comment on my own writing, on what particularly resonated for him.
At his 80th birthday celebration, several of his former students played guitar and sang his favourite niggunim (traditional melodies) and zmirot (Sabbath songs), as the rest of us danced in a circle around him.
Although it was not Shabbat, we sang the traditional Friday night poem composed by the 17th-century kabbalist Israel Najara, Yah Ribbon Olam, which proclaims God’s mastery over the world. In between the Aramaic lines of the song came Wiesel’s voice with the refrain, “Oy tateh zisser meylech” – “Oh, sweet father king.” Merging the lofty sublime vision with an intimate, familial language, Wiesel for a moment bridged in song what continued to elude him in his writing: a reconnection to Divine sweetness, even after – especially after – the catastrophe.