When I was in college a friend went to dinner on a cold and rainy night. We ate somewhere on the campus of The University of Pennsylvania’s and then set out on a quest to find a certain lecture hall. That night in the late 1980’s Eli Wiesel was speaking and we managed to find a seat in a nosebleed section of the lecture hall.
That night I can’t say that I remember what Wiesel said, but after that evening his presence grew in my life. Through his books and his activism he brought a face to both being a victim of oppression as well as calling Jews and others to account for our responsibility in the suffering of others. As Wiesel once said:
We must remember the suffering of my people, as we must remember that of the Ethiopians, the Cambodians, the boat people, Palestinians, the Mesquite Indians, the Argentinian “desaparecidos” – the list seems endless. (1986)
Wiesel reminded us that as Jews we have suffered and as Jews we have the responsibility for the suffering of other regardless of who they are.
As we live in a world that increasingly tends to justify the oppressions of others to reduce our feelings of vulnerability and insecurity, let us remember that these are not reasons to hurt others. If we say they are, then how do we stand for trying to end suffering if we can justify it for ourselves? And when we can justify the oppression of others how far are we away from the passage in Exodus:
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’ (Ex. 2:8-9)
Our Torah teaches that when the powerful use their power to exclude and oppress for their safety, this is not what God wants. Worse, it is the beginning of the undoing of the powerful because the strength and energy is wasted on trying to get rid of our fears. There is a big secret, life is not without fear and no Pharaoh can remove it or rule in such a way to eliminate uncertainty. Rather Wiesel invited us to see ourselves as both victim and oppressor so that we might grow our ability to have empathy with all people.
May Eli Wiesel rest in peace and may his writing and life’s work continue to inspire and move us to act.