This month, on the 26th of Sivan, will be the first yahrzeit of Elie Wiesel.
Almost no one in my life has touched and inspired me quite like the great man.
It began the early ‘90s, when my wife and I served as rabbi to the students of Oxford University. We were developing what we hoped would become an international speaker program. We started small, but with just a bit of time, the crowds began to grow, and we felt that we could reach out to personalities of the highest caliber, men and women who occupied the highest realms of respect and influence. I wanted to show these students a man of true wisdom and grace, a man who sanctified the name of our people and our God. And so, I put in a call to Elie Wiesel.
I had been an avid student of Elie’s works for years.
His books took me back to a time where my people were searching desperately for any trace of the God within whom they’d laid their faith.
Elie accepted our invitation and delivered a characteristically mesmerizing speech. The audience was transfixed – a phenomenon familiar to anyone who had the privilege of hearing an address from Elie.
From there, Elie and I would embark on a relationship of nearly 30 years: Elie the mentor, I, the student.
Nearly three decades later I was rushing back to New York from the American Hebrew Academy in North Carolina where my son Yosef goes to school. Elie had fallen seriously ill and his son, my dear friend Elisha, extended to me the kindness of inviting me to visit with his father.
I arrived at his home on what would turn out to be the last night of his life. Two weeks ago, our organization, The World Values Network, had the immense honor of hosting Elisha as he recited the last Kaddish for his father in the first year of mourning.
The Kaddish prayer is among the holiest of the Jewish canon. It contains multitudes of mystical secrets, and much of its meaning is a mystery. It has the power, claim the Jewish texts, to uplift the soul to the highest levels of its newfound heavenly abode. It is a chance for the children of those who’ve departed to impart yet more love, to bestow yet more honor, upon those whom they adore and dearly miss.
Six million Jews died without having anyone to recite Kaddish for them. Many left no children, or were killed along with their children, or died at a time not known to their children, thus precluding their ability to say the prayer on their behalf. So, as Elisha recited the prayer, he was saying it for all of those six million, and we all answered “Amen” in unison.
But Elie represented even more than those lost to us in the Holocaust. He represented those lost in every genocide since, and there have been far too many, and also those threatened by genocide – who we still have a chance at saving. If only we give a damn.
But the world has never stopped genocide. We simply don’t care enough. The tragedy doesn’t touch us enough.
It’s across an endless sea, or beyond some impossibly high mountain, or maybe contained within the confines of a periodical front-page, the ink simply unable to rise off the paper and penetrate the flesh of a deadened heart.
This was, in my understanding, the great challenge in the life of Elie Wiesel. How could he get people to care? And his answer was to tear through that disconnect, to write a book that could pluck us from the comforts of our lives, to take us out of our offices and beyond our living rooms, far away from our provincial, self-centered lives, and draw us down into the depths of his world. A world ravaged by evil and demanding the most urgent repairs.
Elie’s power lay in his ability to make us all feel something of what he was feeling. To tell the story that wouldn’t just be scanned by its readers but would pull them inside it.
With a book, Elie could take us all to the hell of Auschwitz.
His works moved a generation. He sparked something in the global consciousness, a wave of righteous indignation, of human beings beginning to bear responsibility for other human beings, a wave of ceasing to tolerate atrocities, a wave that we must all ride until humanity surmounts the shores of indifference.
Now, the torch has been passed to his son Elisha, who gave the keynote speech at our gala tribute to his father which featured as honored guests President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who stopped the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi, Jose Maria Aznar, the former prime minister of Spain, and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel.
Elisha is the inheritor of his father’s legacy and is his father’s grandest achievement, a young man of deep conviction, moral clarity and total commitment. Elisha electrified our audience in New York with his clarion call for the world to intercede in the genocide of Arabs in Syria, the slaughter of Christian and gays throughout the Middle East, and honor killings of women. He spoke of the need for America and the Western powers to open their doors to those fleeing oppression and persecution.
Being the son of a great man carries with it great responsibility.
Elisha is rising to the occasion with a courageous call to the Jewish community to serve as the conscience of the world and the foremost opponents of human right abuses.
Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, would do well to answer the call by deciding immediately to bomb the Syrian crematoria which was revealed by the US State Department with satellite imagery of bodies being burned at Bashar Assad’s Saydnaya Prison, where tens of thousands are said to have been murdered. Functioning crematoria, just 225 km. from the Jewish state, 70 years after the Holocaust, is an abomination.
Franklin Roosevelt defeated Hitler. Yet his moral legacy is severely tarnished today for refusing to bomb the crematoria at Auschwitz. History will judge all of us who turn a blind eye to functioning crematoria after six million Jews were incinerated.
US President Donald Trump already showed his commitment to protecting Arab and Muslim life when he retaliated against Assad for his use of poison gas against innocent men, women, and especially children. Israel should follow suit by bombing the crematoria and demonstrate that moral nations will never again turn a blind eye to poison gas and crematoria, words which should make every Jew and every person of conscience shudder with horror.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.