Elie Wiesel’s Challenge

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She was very casual about it, as if it were common knowledge. At a meeting of Jews and Christian evangelicals working in support of Israel, I found myself speaking to a woman who was clearly proud of how much love her church offered the Jewish people.

“We have an entire network of safe-houses for you,” she offered. I didn’t quite get it. “You know – the next time they come for the Jews, we are going to be ready. We’ve put together lists of people who will open their homes and hide you, if necessary. All over the country.”

Despite my deep appreciation, I was more disquieted by this revelation than relieved. Somehow, my sense of security was not particularly enhanced by the knowledge that an entire denomination out there was taking the contingency of an American Holocaust quite seriously.

I was more discomfited by the question that had occurred to me so often before. What would I do if the tables were turned, and it was a different group that faced imminent death, unless I reached out to them?

In my youth, friends would whisper this question, always ending the sentence with ellipses. There was no clear answer. If you left the question languish long enough, it would silently disappear without a struggle.

Elie Wiesel broke the silence this week, in an article in the Forward. His concluding challenge won’t let go:

If we Jews remain indifferent to the plight of the oppressed, what right do we have to criticize the leaders of the free world for having abandoned us during the Holocaust?

The essay is moving and compelling, and worthwhile reading in its entirety. Wiesel knows where he is going. He will not be satisfied with stirring up guilt – he wants to change attitudes and actions.

We should show compassion for and solidarity with all those who need our sympathy and generosity, be they near or far, prisoners of fate, or victims of society or of nature. Not to assist those in need today would, for me, be unworthy of what I have learned from my teachers, my ancestors and my friends — namely, that G-d alone is alone; his creatures must not be.

He does not deny the need to take care of one’s own first, but he argues that after the first, there ought to be a second, then a third.

Wiesel’s standing as the Jewish ombudsman for morality insures that reasoned responses are on the way. Some Jews will agree; some will not. Within traditional circles, whose members must support the weight of a far greater number of community institutions, the argument that there is nothing left for second and third will have greater cogency – at least insofar as direct financial support. What, though, about the original gnawing question? How much responsibility are we to take when we become aware that thousands of human beings are being brutalized and slaughtered each week in a half-dozen trouble spots around the globe? Can we continue to point a finger at the silence of an unfeeling world during the Holocaust, when the world can point back at us?

I leave it to greater lights to suggest how involved we are to be. I am fairly confident, however, that a minimum expectation is that we be involved in mind and heart. Our guide in this is none other than our forefathers, as elaborated upon by the Netziv in his introduction to Genesis.

A nickname for the first book of the Bible is Sefer Yesharim, the Book of the Upright. It takes that name from Bilam’s expressed wish to “die the death of the upright (Numbers 23:10),” a clear reference, according to the Talmud, to our Biblical patriarchs.

Why would Bilam call them “upright,” asks the Netziv, rather than righteous or holy? Simply because righteousness and holiness were out of his league, but there was no good reason why he could not be yashar, upright. Here was an aspect of their lives that he could still aspire to.

Uprightness, explains the Netziv, vests itself in conduct towards all other people, including detested idolaters. The Avos were “with them in love, and concerned themselves with their well-being.” We see how far Abraham went to pray for the inhabitants of Sodom, whose evil he hated in the extreme, but for whom he still “wished their continued existence.” (This contrasts with Jews who saw the destruction of the second Temple. They were otherwise righteous in their observance, but they were not always upright in their relationship with others. “Because of the sinas chinam/ groundless enmity in their hearts to each other, they suspected those who acted differently from their expectation in their service of G-d. They called them heretics, leading – in the broader sense – to a kind of bloodshed…and to the destruction of the Temple. Hashem is a Yashar and cannot tolerate tzadikim as these. Rather, He desires those who use uprightness in their general manner, not crookedness, even for the sake of Heaven.”)

The Book of Genesis, then, is called Sefer HaYashar because it celebrates a dimension of goodness demonstrated in the lives of the Avos – a genuine desire for the well-being of Mankind.

The final answer to Elie Wiesel’s question awaits fuller consideration and treatment. But a beginning can and should be found in these powerful words of the Netziv. We must recognize that G-d sees goodness, empathy and genuine concern for all of His creatures not as a sign of saintliness, but as His expectation of each of us. We will figure out the details later.

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7 Responses

  1. Ben Halberstam says:

    My view, for what it is worth, is that the criticism at the world’s response to the Holocaust is not directed towards those that were disconnected to the events that occurred. We criticize the peoples of the Eastern Europe that turned in a Jew for 2 packs of cigarettes, the nations that the Germans understood would not object to having the camps there, and the active aiding of the implementation of the final solution by the Polish, French, Lithuanian, Latvian and Croatian peoples (the list could go on quite a bit, but I think the point is made). We find fault that a ship, filled with people fleeing for their lives, was turned away by so-called civilized countries. We condemn that a nation at war, that was bombing the hell out of the enemy, could not spare a few bombs to bomb the train-tracks leading to the concentration camps. We, more accurately, I do not condemn the people of New Zealand for not sending packages to the Jews trapped in Europe. It is the active participation in the extermination of our people, or the active indifference to their slaughter, by those who were engaged in the European theatre that is reprehensible.

    I commend the sentiment of those that feel the suffering of others the world over; but don’t call me a hypocrite for saying that you can condemn much of the world’s reaction to the Holocaust, but still not feel morally obligated to insert oneself in every humanitarian catastrophe the world over.

    Binyamin

  2. nonchareidi says:

    David Brand: Government confiscate money and redistribute as …sees fit. The only practical way to take care of poor people is from a government. Even Israel-check the books of organizations that are doing good-the vast majority of the money comes from government. The American donors get the publicity but the money is government money.

    Who says Yiddishkeit is synonymous with right wing American political ideas-I don’t believe it is synonymous with the left either. But do you believe that Avraham Aveinu and the Avot were believers in a winner take all society? I don’t – but certainly the excellent group of writers this website could address the issue. I am not asking for a discussion on particulars of various political parties-but a Hashkafic analysis.

  3. David Brand says:

    I’m not sure that the Netziv meant that feeling empathy for those suffering is enough. His proof was Avrohom who actually did something (ie, davened) for those suffering. In other words, it’s the actions that count, rather than just the feelings. I did not read all of what Weisel wrote, but if his suggestions amount to “feeling their pain”, then it’s just a bunch of 90’s feel-good rhetoric. But, if he suggests even nominal financial donations or actions like davening or saying Tehillim, then I would tend to agree.

    As for Barry, I will never understand how people look at Torah obligations that are placed on individuals and turn them into excuses for the government to confiscate our money and redistribute it as the government sees fit. It’s not controversial for us to discuss giving tzedakah, but let us be the ones who decide where it goes. After all, the government is not at all capable of caring. Only individuals have that capacity.

  4. Barry says:

    Of coursed Wiesel is correct.
    And your beginning is correct, too.
    But, for citizens of the United States, it also applies to how the United States treats its citizens, obviously not in situations as dire as those mentioned by Wiesel, but deserving of some minimum level of support. Whether health care or retirement, to name two “controversial” political topics that shouldn’t be.
    Alas, we haven’t been doing that well, lately.

  5. nonchareidi says:

    I apologize you did quote the Netziv on why the 2nd Beis Hamikdash was destroyed. I would have put more emphasis on the fact that God does not like your chumras if it leads to attacking other people. Frankly, the Agudah in the R. Shafran i
    era has made a good faith attempt tp be much more polite to other “Orthodox Jews” -even those who don’t follow the Rabbis of the Moetzet Gdolei Hatorah-absent a Sanhedrin no one can tell you not to follow your Rebbe.

  6. nonchareidi says:

    Very good post-especially from a chareidi blog. I wish people would discuss from the Neziv’s same introduction that you quote why Churban Bayeis Sheni occurred.

  7. JS says:

    When your friends whispered this question did they also refer to the Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 158? There is a strong spice to add to the broth, and one which many of my friends take quite seriously. This only amplifies Wiesel’s challange.