Over the past few months sadly officiating at a number of Holocaust survivors’ funerals, I’ve become concerned. Each and every story I learn touches me deeply, shocks me when I think no more about the Shoah can, and leaves me with this awareness. We are losing more than the generation who survived. We are losing more than their memories and eyewitness accounts.
We are losing the survivor generation’s courage and resilience, their commitment to life and goodness. We are losing individuals from so many different walks of life whose life stories tell us about the power and promise of redemption. We cannot afford these loses. Ours is a time when we require people of character around us. We need people who knowing the truth about human nature’s horror and beauty can teach the rest of us how to build personal lives of love, hope, and achievement.
Though each life is precious and every death is significant, the passing of Elie Wiesel amplifies my concern. His life as a child survivor and the moral clarity of his voice as an adult bear witness to questions we must all ask.
Where do the character and resilience demonstrated by Elie Wiesel and so many survivors come from? How do we give children today, raised and living in a completely different circumstance, the gift of identifying and promoting goodness in their lives?
For many of the survivors I know, certainly for Elie Wiesel who lived as their ambassador to the world at large, their response to unspeakable evil, consciously or sub-consciously, is to urge us to do good. To want to build the world they didn’t know in their youth because their adult lives are more intensely filled with awareness of life’s gift and blessings than most of us can possibly hope to demonstrate. That’s why with the passing of each Holocaust survivor our world is diminished in courage and character.
About the rest of us, I’m not so sure. Living in relative comfort and somewhat self-absorbed, what gives our children and us the perspective and insight to reach deep within ourselves and strive to live toward goodness and dignity?
Maybe it comes from our faith in God, from the lessons we learn in God’s name to be good and just and remember we were once strangers. Maybe it comes from within, it’s somehow intrinsic to who we are and how we grow into life. Maybe it’s modeled for us. We learn to be good from the good examples set by others. Maybe goodness itself has a hold over us. When we see and experience it we yearn for more.
God created we human beings with two impulses, teach the ancient rabbis. The impulse to good (Yetzer haTov) and the impulse to evil (Yetzer haRa). Everyday life is choosing which impulse to follow, which instinct to act out. Goodness is a choice. A choice we must make repeatedly, constantly, and consciously moving from moment to moment.
A few years ago here in Baltimore at the Convention Center some of us were witness to a conversation with Elie Wiesel. During the course of his musings and recollections, he thought out loud about the meaning of life.
“Life is not made of years, but of moments,” he declared. “Some are great moments. Others are sad moments. But in the end, the weight of those moments is a reflection of what you have done with your life, of what has been done to you.”
In his famous book “Night,” Elie Wiesel describes his first moment as a 15 year old imprisoned in the horror that was Auschwitz. “Never shall I forget that first night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night.”
About the terror of that night I can only react with sorrow, compassion, and respect. About the meaning of life, I can agree with Elie Wiesel. Life matters in the moments, and afterward in the memory of those moments.
I believe this explains why Elie Wiesel and so many other survivors made and make choices for goodness every day of their lives. Moment by moment, they choose to leave behind a better world than the one they met when they were younger.
We can do the same. We can wallow in the depths of human cruelty and shake our heads in despair as we monitor world events that continually demonstrate inhumanity and sow fear. We can decide there’s nothing we can do.
Or, like the survivors we cherish, we can reject history’s pattern and at every possible moment affirm the possibility and necessity of goodness for ourselves, for our families, and for our world. For in life, truly, that’s the only way any one of us survives.
Through his choices and instincts, by his words and wisdom, in response to his earliest moments and memories, Elie Wiesel taught us to withstand cynicism, despair, and meaninglessness. He urged us to create moments and memories of goodness instead.
The Talmud teaches us, as well. “The righteous are called living even in their death.” How true as we remember Elie Wiesel and all those survivors whose legacies endure. May their righteous spirits live on through us all.