I would like to begin with a Chasidic story. It takes place in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century, in a time when the great Rabbis could transport themselves through prayer in ways we can only dream of.
It came to pass that the great Reb Yitzhak Vurka passed away. His son, Mendel, waited patiently for his father to visit him in a dream, to send word from the afterworld and to let him know he was okay. Days went by, then weeks, finally a month. There was no dream, no appearance. So Mendele paid a visit to Reb Yitzhak Vurka’s best friend, the Kotzker Rebbe. Now a word on their friendship – Reb Yitzhak Vurka and the Kotzker Rebbe were the best of friends, but they served God in different ways. The Kotzker Rebbe treasured Truth above all else, but the late Reb Yitzhak Vurka was devoted to Love.
“Rebbe,” Mendele asked, “have you heard from my father? I have heard nothing from him all this time”. “Ah yes Mendele,” responded the Kotzker Rebbe, “I too had not heard from him from beyond the grave, and was concerned.”
“And so”, the Rebbe continued, “I went up to Heaven and looked for him. I looked in the palaces of the greatest of our sages. I went to the palace of Rashi, of the Ramban, of Moshe Rabeinu, of Avraham – and in each place I looked, I was told ‘yes, he was here, but he has moved on’. In desperation I went to the angels and said ‘where is he, where is my best friend?’ and was told to search for him in a dark forest at the farthest end of Heaven. And after much searching I found the forest, a terrible, dark forest. I gathered my strength, and entered it. Finally I came to the end of the forest and heard a great sound of crashing and of voices weeping. And at the end of the forest was a huge ocean. And there, leaning on a walking stick, staring out over the vast sea, was Reb Yitzhak.”
“I ran to him and embraced him and said ‘Reb Yitzhak, my best friend, what is happening here?’. ‘Don’t you recognize this ocean, do you not hear it?’ your father asked me. ‘No, what is it?’. And he said: ‘This is the ocean of tears; in it are all the tears shed over the centuries by my brothers and sisters, by the Jewish people, the people of Israel. And I cannot leave the shore. When I died I came straight here and I vowed to God that I would not leave this place until he has dried all the tears of our people!’”
And the story ends there. Abruptly. Leaving more questions than answers. Would it seem fitting to you if I had four questions in particular to ask tonight?
Question number one. Does this figure of Reb Yitzhak Vurka seem familiar to you?
My father’s arguing with God is part of a rich history that goes back thousands of years. But unlike Reb Vurka in this story, he went further – he was concerned with all human suffering, not just that of his people. And that too is part of a rich history that goes back thousands of years. This Shabbat in synagogue we will read Parshat Vayera, the story in the Old Testament of Avraham Avinu – our patriarch Abraham – arguing and negotiating with God over the fate of the wickedest of cities, Sodom and Gomorrah.
23 And Abraham approached and said, “Will You destroy the righteous with the wicked?
כג וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע:
24 Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the city; will You even destroy and not forgive the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst?
כד אוּלַ֥י יֵ֛שׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים צַדִּיקִ֖ם בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעִ֑יר הַאַ֤ף תִּסְפֶּה֙ וְלֹֽא־תִשָּׂ֣א לַמָּק֔וֹם לְמַ֛עַן חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים הַצַּדִּיקִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבָּֽהּ:
And God agrees. Avraham pushes onward – if there are forty-five righteous men, will you still destroy Sodom? And God agrees. And then God agrees to forty. Thirty. Twenty. Ten. Avraham has looked God in the eye and extracted a promise that if there are ten righteous men in Sodom, it will be saved.
Avraham lived in an era of wickedness. But he had compassion. He had hope.
And how should we describe my father? Did he live in an era any less wicked?
In his lifetime, as a fifteen year old boy, my father saw the worst evil human beings could do to each other. His family, my family, up in smoke, along with six million others including one million children – among them his little sister Tziporah for whom Beit Tzipora and my own daughter are named.
And my father survived. And after the war, he put one foot after the other, day after day, and clung to life and to learning and fought the darkness that had been left within. He wrote his books, he gave speeches, he dared the universe to speak a single word in protest while he did the unthinkable and raised a child in this world despite the Night he had endured. A child. Me. And he held up to the world a mirror that showed absolute darkness but he also shared with the world a message of absolute hope. He told young German children: your parents sins are not your sins. He told young Jewish children: do not be the last of your faith. And he told us all: We as a human race can learn – do not repeat the mistakes of what I have seen. Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur – wherever he could, my father spoke up against genocide and demanded the immediate and urgent attention of world leaders. My father believed that to be a good Jew was to be a good human being first – and that meant playing a significant role in repairing the world. His message was universal.
And now my father is gone. His spirit is somewhere else now, staring at God and daring him to make his next move, reminding us of what a difference one soul can make.
And do we live in wicked times now?
I don’t need to tell you about it. You read the headlines. And even as my father’s memory still seeks to inspire us, even as he negotiates on our behalf with God and with our own weaker natures – we face all manner of wickedness around us.
Holocaust denial in Iran. A far-right party winning Parliamentary seats in Germany. Thirteen countries in the EU still closing its borders to Syrian refugees. Eight innocent New Yorkers killed in a vehicle terror attack just steps from my office yesterday. A Jewish father and his two children stabbed to death by a terrorist during a family meal in Israel. Marchers in Charlottesville with burning torches declaring “Jews will not replace us!”
It hasn’t even been eighteen months since my father passed away and in that time our world has come closer to the edge. If there was anyone who was not convinced that my father’s books need to be required reading in the world’s school systems – have we ever needed his reminder of mistakes made, needed his message of hope more? (pause)
Question number two about our story. We have spoken about Rev Yitzhak Vurka and what he represents, but what should we make of this character, the Kotzker Rebbe, the best friend who makes the journey to heaven – the Kotzker Rebbe who brings back the message and reminds the living what Rev Yitzhak Vurka stood for?
And I will answer the question with a question: Has anyone done more to remind us all of my father’s teachings than my mother? Is anyone closer to his spirit than her, even as she serves God in a profoundly different way than him?
My mother knows the work is not done and she continues it.
My mother is a hero in her own right, she moved to this country in the 1950s and in one of her first acts as a young adult became a card-carrying member of the NAACP and marched in the South for racial justice in this country. In the 1980s, she saw the dangers that might result if Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel were to encounter racism or apathy, and she threw herself single-handedly into making sure that regardless of the color of their skin or their previous level of education, they would be treated with humanity and dignity. She was fully committed to giving Ethiopian children a chance in Israel to avoid the racial inequalities she had seen in the United States.
And through her hard work the Beit Tzipora centers have flourished and through her hard work over the past year we have secured the long-term future of those centers. Under her watch, the Elie Wiesel Foundation is launching new conferences for young leaders in Africa, and the Foundation will be forming partnerships to spread my father’s name and message through professorships at schools around the country. I am sure she is not at all pleased that I have compared her with a 19th century Rabbi but she is the reason we are all here tonight, will you please rise and give my mother a warm hand? (pause)
I’m almost done. But there are two questions I have left in the wake of this story of Reb Yitzhak Vurka and the Kotzker Rebbe. And perhaps they are the most obvious, burning questions.
Question three: What happens to Mendele, the son, after the story? Is his world changed? Does he go back to being a shopkeeper, or whatever his trade is? Or is his life forever transformed? What does the son do with the message that his father is up in Heaven, caught in a battle of wills with the Kadosh-Baruch-Hu, with God?
I remember growing up not wanting to share my father. But what I choose to do now with the message is to share my father with you as I remember him. And to tell you that there is no contradiction between the particular and universal. No contradiction between being a good Jew AND a great humanist. No reason that one cannot bring about redemption through little acts of kindness in everyday life AND by prosecuting grand outcomes on the world stage. No limit that says one can’t be a parent and a husband and a professional – and an involved and compassionate citizen of the world.
And I stand here today as the proud son of both my mother and father and ask you my fourth and final question: What happens to the listener of our tale — what happens to you? Are you changed by hearing it?
Will you stand with my mother and demand truth? Will you see clearly the fear-mongering against the “other” that has been allowed to fester in the populists of this country’s right-wing movement? And will you also see clearly the endless Israel-bashing equating to anti-semitism which is tolerated in the chorus of the progressive left? And on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, will you demand the world turn its back on BDS and recognize that the State of Israel, which has time after time been willing to negotiate for peace only to be met by wars seeking its destruction, will you demand the world recognize that Israel has a right to live in security and be forever a sacred guarantor that the Jewish people will never be annihilated again?
Will you stand with my father — as I believe our honoree Oprah so very much does — will you stand with him and defend his vision of love and hope as he locks eyes with God in Heaven above and demands that the rivers which feed the ocean of human suffering be abated? Will you lend your voice to DACA children in danger of deportation, to Muslim refugees fleeing to safety, to victims of shootings pleading for gun control laws, to a planet reeling from the effects of irresponsible and unnecessary pollution? And will you keep my father’s gentle voice in mind as you argue your point with respect, not scorn?
The story of Reb Yitzhak Vurka and the Kotzker Rebbe. A story from over a hundred years ago in Eastern Europe, a relic of a time before the flame. It has been handed down from speaker to listener and the story is yours now. What will you do with it?
Elisha Wiesel is the son of Marion and Elie Wiesel.