Elie Wiesel, a gentle giant

Elie Wiesel speaks at a World War II tribute (photo credit: REUTERS)
Elie Wiesel speaks at a World War II tribute
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Presidents and princes revered him, and when he wasn’t taking them to task, they adored him.
Elie Wiesel operated on a global stage; his writings stirred the consciences of people everywhere. He engaged the world’s most powerful people, and he often found himself in places of opulence, with beautiful, famous people fawning over him.
The horrors to which he was the world’s most eloquent witness bequeathed to him the rarest of clarity in all matters moral, and this clarity made him a fearless and peerless defender of human rights.
There was another Wiesel, though – the private one. Wiesel was the most gentle and sensitive man I have ever known. Though there was never anything I could offer him in return, he showered me with undeserved respect and kindness for the last 13 years of his life.
Sharing with you a few scattered recollections is my way of grieving, and honoring his memory. I have no illusions that my experiences were unique; I have come to learn that many were similarly touched by his capacious heart.
A number of years ago, Wiesel tricked me, and I fell right into his trap. A couple of weeks before one of his celebrated lectures at the 92nd Street Y, he called me up to invite me to attend. I accepted, and he told me that a ticket would be waiting for me at the box office. The day before the lecture, he called me again to make sure I was coming.
Strange, I thought. Elie’s much-anticipated presentations at the Y always sell out. Why is he so concerned about my attendance? My question was answered at the outset of his lecture. “I would like to thank my rabbi, Yaakov Kermaier, who is here tonight and taught me so much about tonight’s lecture topic, Akedat Yitzhak [the Binding of Isaac].”
Lord knows that I had precious little to teach Wiesel regarding a biblical passage about which he had written and spoken extensively. No matter. He planned, over the course of two weeks, to lure me into a crowded arena to publicly honor and uplift me.
On the first Sunday evening of November 2012, Wiesel was scheduled to appear with another Nobel laureate for a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y. As it happens, we were celebrating my son Binyamin’s bar mitzva at Fifth Avenue Synagogue that evening. Wiesel attended the bar mitzva. He didn’t rush. He sat down next to Binyamin, talked to him, placed his hands softly on Binyamin’s head and gave him a blessing. Wiesel stayed for the speeches, and he wrote a letter in the Torah that we dedicated for the occasion.
I told him how much his presence meant to my family and me, especially knowing that he would now need to rush to his own program. Wiesel responded, “Binyamin’s happiness is more important to me.” (See attached photos.) “Rabbi, how can I help you? Just ask, and I will always say ‘yes.’” Wiesel repeated this offer many times. Once, while bedridden and recovering from major, open-heart surgery, Wiesel called me, having heard about a community matter that was causing me stress. He asked, “Who should I call and tell to leave my rabbi alone?” Each year, for the past decade, in the lead-up to the High Holy Days, I had a havruta (study session) with Wiesel. I would test my sermon ideas on him (he was always my best sermon critic) and ask him to share with me his insights into the greatest challenges facing the Jewish people and the world. I would sit next to him, mesmerized.
This past summer, I made aliya with my family, but I returned to New York to officiate one final time at Fifth Avenue Synagogue’s High Holy Day services.
Of course, I scheduled a meeting to study with Wiesel.
Though he rallied afterward, he was very sick at this point, so I tried to make our meeting short. His assistant entered a few times to remind him of his next appointment. But Wiesel continued to talk. He wanted to know how he could help me with my plans to set up an organization in Jerusalem.
“Rabbi, just call me and I will come to Jerusalem. I will speak or meet people or introduce you to individuals who can help you,” he said.
I thanked him, but apparently he could sense from my tone or facial expression that I didn’t believe he would actually fly to Jerusalem. And so he repeated his offer. “Rabbi, you have my word; I will be there for you.”
He was in no physical position at that point to fly overseas. And yet I believe to this day that if I would have asked, he would have defied doctors’ orders and traveled to Jerusalem.
In 2014, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Nazi deportation of Hungarian Jewry, I invited Wiesel to share his personal experiences at the synagogue’s Holocaust Remembrance Day program. The ceremony, which included prayers and songs, concluded with the singing of “Ani Ma’amin.”
Knowing how much this song resonated with him, I asked him if he would lead the community in singing this passage. Without hesitation, he responded: “No, that is Cantor Malavony’s role. I cannot intrude on his territory.” This was classic Wiesel.
I responded that, of course, I had already asked the cantor, and he agreed that it would be very special.
And so, Wiesel sang “Ani Ma’amin” to a hassidic melody from his childhood.
The hundreds gathered were whisked away to a heavenly place, as he poured his heart and soul into the words: “Ani ma’amin... I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he tarries, I anticipate his arrival every day.”
Elie Wiesel waited a lifetime for the redeemer, but not a day for the redemption to begin. Like no one else in his generation, he fought for the redemption of mankind. He was a global superstar, but he was also incredibly kind and gentle. If the Messiah does come tomorrow, he will discover that Wiesel has already started his work.
His memory is a blessing.
The writer is president of Yakir: Community, Diversity, Unity and rabbi emeritus of Fifth Avenue Synagogue.