On December 10, 1986, Eli Wiesel accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. His acceptance speech exemplifies so much of his character, his grace, his fearlessness, his greatness. As the speech called to the people of that day, it can call us, too, if only we listen.
He begins: “Words of gratitude. First to our common Creator. This is what the Jewish tradition commands us to do. At special occasions, one is duty-bound to recite the following prayer: “Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melech haOlam shehekhyanu vekiymanu vehigianu lazman hazeh” — “Blessed be Thou, Lord our God, sovereign of the Universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this day.”
Imagine that. A man whose soup once tasted of corpses, the author and protagonist of the horror filled Night – giving gratitude, acknowledging our creator, affirming life and blessing. Let this be our first lesson from Elie Weisel, and perhaps our last. Without an affirmation of life and its goodness the evil that we must fight matters little. Without the possibility of goodness, what use is a battle against tyranny? Blessings and goodness and peace surround us. When Elie Wiesel blesses, we too must “bless, praise, honor, exalt, extoll, glorify, adore and laud.”
Later in the speech he gives voice to the boy from Night, gives voice to his childhood self: “And now the boy is turning to me. ‘Tell me,’ he asks, ‘what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?’ And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive…”
It is nearly an accusation and answered with a near apology. Could any of us answer the pure potential of our childhood selves; could anyone look back at pure possibility and say we have done all that we could? How much harder when the question echos forth from the Kingdom of Night! How impossible to rise above the horrors and build a life. How miraculous to live a life which filled the world with light as only Elie Weisel did! Ma Rabu Maasecha, Hashem! How great are your works, God! If Elie could try, we must try. Elie gave voice to the hopes and dreams of so many who died. Certainly we can learn to live those hopes and dreams in our day-to-day. It is not too much to ask.
In Stockholm, Adult Elie asked the King of Norway, asked the Norwegians and us all, “How can one not be sensitive to [the plight of all who suffer? Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”
Though nearly destroyed for his tribe, Elie Wiesel sees his particularity in the universal. In spite of Soviet oppression, in spite of threats to Israel, in spite of anti-Semitism, he does not close ranks. He does not focus on Jew alone but on the suffering of the world; on each of the world’s sufferers. He embodies Isaiah’s call. We should become an or l’goyim, a light unto the nations. But living brightly was not enough for Elie Wiesel. He went to the dark places. He illuminated the hidden corners no one wanted to see. Do we? He tells us we must.
“We must take sides,” he implored. Then continued, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
We are all so polite. We do not take public sides in controversy. We allow our need for civility to dim the light we ought shine on injustice. We avoid discussions of race, refugees, women’s rights, gay rights. We worry about offending a few degrees of the political arch, the left or the right. And so we speak in platitudes and look inwards blinding ourselves to the injustices of our world. We place ourselves at the center of the universe — as individuals, as Jews, as Americans — we look at our interests and our needs. “NO!” calls Elie Wiesel from this speech 30 years ago, the center of the universe can only be where persecution brings darkness to anyone. Humanity first. But how? We have our problems. We cannot solve it all. We cannot take on too much. Elie Wiesel hears this challenge and responds:
“I have faith. Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.”
As indifference and cynicism can atrophy the soul, faith can rejuvenate it. Faith that we can work on ourselves as we help others. Faith that we can make a difference in distant places and in our own land. Faith that light can banish the night and that memory bestows eternity. Faith that we can carry on the legacy of those who died in the Shoah through the blessings in our own lives. Faith that we can give those legacies meaning in our work to rid the world of persecution and injustice and hate. Faith in the particular and the universal. Let the memory of Elie Wiesel inspire in us this kind of faith, this kind of resolve, this kind of meaning.
As Elie Wiesel finished his remarks in Norway, he shone the light of the Jewish people out to the world, commanding us with his singular moral voice: “Our lives no longer belong to us alone, they belong to all those who need us desperately… Thank you, people of Norway, for declaring on this singular occasion that our survival has meaning for mankind.”
May each of us merit this meaning and may we be the spreaders of light we are called to be both by our ancient prophet Isaiah and our latter day prophet Elie Wiesel.