Seeing Elie Wiesel At The 92 Street Y

When Dr. Weisel speaks, you listen.

Not only if you are Jewish, either. The auditorium was packed–plenty of Jews came to hear him talk, yes, but plenty of non-Jews were there, too. The place was rapt from the first word he spoke; and when ten minutes after starting time he paused to let latecomers troop sheepishly in, you could have heard a pin drop.

Dr. Weisel wanted to talk about the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah, he said, was special. He was the only prophet to foresee a catastrophe, to live through it, and to remember that catastrophe at the end of his life. Why was Jeremiah so compelling? He was not known for being able to bring hope. Jeremiah the prophet was remembered almost exclusively for his despair and agony. Dr. Weisel related the time when he himself had gone to Poland on the Ninth of Av, to the Great Synagogue, where a minyan of fifty men were still praying in that place where the benches were overturned for mourning. He was asked to recite the Megillat Eicha—

And here the man on the stage paused and began to lein the opening passages of the megillah. Then he stopped, as he had stopped in the Great Synagogue that night, because he could not bring himself to talk of the destruction of Jerusalem, when Jerusalem was bright and alive. “I said to myself,” said Dr. Weisel, “that I could not continue.”

Then he told a Hassidic story.

When God saw the Sanctuary being burned, He wept. Jeremiah did not weep. God called Jeremiah and said, “How do you not cry, Jeremiah, for the destruction of the Temple? Go and wake your ancestors so they may weep in your place. Go down to the river and call for Moses.”   So Jeremiah went down to the river and called for Moses, and surely enough he rose from the river at Jeremiah’s call.  “Why are you calling for me?” asked Moses, but Jeremiah was too afraid to tell Moses that the Temple had been destroyed for fear that he himself would be blamed. He told Moses he did not know.  The angels descended and told Moses that the Temple had been destroyed. “Why did the sky not grow dark,” cried Moses, “Before such a thing should have happened?”  He went up to Heaven and asked God why the destruction had been allowed to occur.  “Israel sinned,” replied God, “And therefore I had to punish them.”

Jeremiah is the only prophet, said Dr. Weisel, who has ever accused God. Other prophets have asked God why He did not prevent tragedies from occurring; but Jeremiah went further. “Ratzachta v’lo chamalta,” says Jeremiah to God. You have murdered Your people. You killed them. You had no pity. No prophet before him or after him had ever dared to implicate God for the evils that man has done. Some have questioned His silence; His justice; His very existence; but only Jeremiah ever called God a murderer. Jeremiah was emotional. He was afraid, despairing, and sometimes his despair gave way into anger.

Why, then, did Jeremiah – the Jeremiah of the Hassidic story, the Jeremiah of our tradition – not prevent God’s wrath? Why was he afraid to tell the truth about the Destruction to the elders? Why was he powerless?  If a prophet is powerless, why is he then a prophet?

Jeremiah spent his life as an outsider. He was torn between God and Israel, between Israel and the nations. He was a witness. He was a weak man who cried through his entire life. But his simplicity is deceptive.

Of all the prophets, Jeremiah touches us the most. We use his words to describe our pains. His writing is vivid and prosaic; he writes powerfully about everything he encounters, from the politics of the realm to the unending despair he felt throughout his life.

Jeremiah was an unwilling prophet. He was forced by God to take up the mantle; he is afraid of death, he is afraid of his fellow Israelites, he is afraid of the other nations and of God. He was thrown in prison for many years for prophesizing evil; even after his predictions were proven right, he was still hated. The Midrash states that he died in Egypt, stoned by his fellow Jews. To them, he represented the God who had hurt them. He had warned them, and they had ignored him, and whenever they looked at him they were reminded of their own faults. He spent his entire life alone.

More than any other prophet, Jeremiah is our companion. He understands us and stirs us and disturbs us. He is a solemn man who never laughs.

Here Dr. Weisel laughed. He said, “If anyone said about Israel now what Jeremiah said, he would be called an anti-Semite – and certainly anti-Israel!” He went on – about how Jeremiah demoralized his nation. He was a true pacifist, advocating unconditional surrender to the enemies of Israel. Even if one agreed with such a position, and believed his prophecies, surely one must resent such a defeatist, demoralizing tone.

Jeremiah believed in the Diaspora. He wrote to the king-in-exile, Joachim: Plant many orchards in Babylon. Have many children. Seek peace in the land in which you live.

Jeremiah insisted that Nevuchadnezzar was sent by God. Over and over again, he told the people – told God – that their suffering was deserved and inevitable. He needed to tell them it had meaning. The only thing more terrible than suffering is suffering without meaning.

Jeremiah told the Jews in exile to cling to life. He told them to buy land, to teach, to not be overwhelmed by one of the first painful steps in a history that would be soaked in tragedy. In the midst of that tragedy, he told them to rebuild. He told them to marry, to have children, as the men and women of the Ghettos married and had children, waiting for the day they would be deported.

The other prophets predicted tragedy; but Jeremiah lived within tragedy. He taught the Jews how to live within tragedy, surviving their lot. Even though he tried at first to reject his prophecy, to run like Jonah did, he was drawn back. Jeremiah lived. He was a weak man who spent his life crying, who lived and died alone, but his strength lied in his tenacious clinging to life, in teaching others also to live, even though they hated him. When his scrolls were thrown by the king into the fire, he began again to write them from nothing. He spent his life consoling the people who hated them. And in his teachings, he stopped being only a Jewish prophet. He became a prophet for all nations, because all nations will eventually meet the same fate. He is universal. “I look at the skies and the light has gone,” said Jeremiah. He is the most quoted of all prophets.

But the time of Jeremiah is past. “The world then was not worthy,” said Elie Weisel, looking down from the stage. “We have seen wonders. We have seen the end of the war, the rebirth of the Jewish state and of Jerusalem. Let the joy remain.”