‘Reb Eliezer, Reb Eliezer, v’Torah ma teeh aleah” (what will become of the Torah if we stop learning it?) – this is the message Elie Wiesel found on his answering machine one evening as he returned home from an important mission that caused him to miss a learning session with Rabbi Shoul Lieberman. For 17 years, Elie would come three times a week to Rabbi Lieberman’s study room and learn Talmud under the guidance of the one he would refer to as “my master,” “my Talmudist master.”
“What did you accomplish in these 17 years, Rav Eliezer,” I asked him during our meeting in his Manhattan apartment during the intermediate days of Passover 1999.
“We covered the whole Babylonian Talmud” was his answer.
Wiesel had mesmerizing memories of his teachers, memories that accompanied him throughout his life. First “my master of mysticism” in his hometown of Sighet, Romania who dared to introduce three young adolescents into the mysteries of Kabbala. Two suffered serious mental consequences. Elie emerged unharmed.
In Auschwitz, as he was doing slave labor, a fellow inmate inquired about the exact Talmudic passage he had been at on the day he was deported, saying, “So let’s proceed from that point,” and from then on, the talmid chacham would recite the Talmud text by heart, explain it, and Elie would repeat it.
One day the sage did not appear, and never returned.
The war ends, Wiesel survives in the hell of Buchenwald, after the inferno of Auschwitz. He is sent to France to a kinderheim, and eventually goes to Paris, and to the Sorbonne – but learns more from a mysterious personage that appears from nowhere than from the university.
Shushani was his nickname.
“Baki b’kol haTorah kulah,” knowledgeable in the whole Torah, all by heart. At home in all sciences and many languages. And this mysterious personage would teach young people without revealing anything about himself. Elie became his chosen pupil and he learned from this strange master for a couple of years.
One day Shushani disappeared, never to return.
Wiesel summed up his experience with Shushani: “What I know is that I would not be the man I am, the Jew I am, had not an astonishing, disconcerting vagabond accosted me one day to inform me that I understood nothing.”
And then, New York, Manhattan and Rabbi Shoul Lieberman, the world famous talmudic genius, who took Elie under his wings, learns with him, proceeds where Shushani had left off. When Elie and Marion decide to get married, Rabbi Lieberman travels with them to Jerusalem, and presides over the ceremony. Wiesel sends all his manuscripts to his rabbi and receives from him careful feedback.
Another authority Wiesel referred to was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with whom he entertained a very strong theological relationship and to whom he would send the original French manuscripts of his books.
“Rebbe, how can you believe in God after Auschwitz?” Wiesel put to the Rebbe.
“How can you not believe in God after Auschwitz?” replied Rabbi Schneerson.
“Rebbe, if what you say is meant as an answer to my question, I reject it. But if it is a question – one more question – I accept it.”
That was an honest dialogue.
During Wiesel’s 48-hour visit to Brazil in May 1999, as a guest of the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro that bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate, I had the honor of greeting him in front of a magnificent audience of professors and students. The real privilege was spending those two days in the sole company of this great Jewish prince and world famous personality.
He confided to me a few moments of his life. We spoke about Primo Levi, his guilt at having survived Auschwitz when most of the camp inmates perished, which apparently led him to commit suicide. Wiesel looked at me and said, “I understand him,” and added, “I know what he felt as sometimes I had the same inclination, the same urge.”
And then we turned to Rabbi Lieberman and he told me how the rabbi wanted to adopt him, which would eventually have benefited him via the copyrights of all the books Rabbi Lieberman had published.
“But I could not accept it. I had a father and could not conceive someone taking his place.”
We all know about Wiesel’s enormous efforts to help persecuted people worldwide, of his extraordinary fight for human rights, his wonderful speeches and lectures, the extraordinary collection of books he published, but it is important to pay great attention to another side of this hero that we just lost – a man who for his entire life maintained the greatest respect and deepest love for his teachers, never forgot their lessons, was eternally grateful to them and – with that enormous intellectual and moral baggage – became himself the great teacher, the respected master, in accordance with the millennia-old Jewish tradition of the messora – the transmission of knowledge and moral principles from generation to generation.
Today this wonderful disciple of the greatest masters is our teacher, our leader, our master, our hero, and will continue to be so for generations to come.The author is a professor (ret.) of international law at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, having made aliya in 2011.