Witness – Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom

There were years when I couldn’t read anything written by Elie Wiesel. Having grown up a first generation American, his works hit too close to home – they were too raw and too painful. (I remember when my class had to read Night, I skimmed the book and relied heavily on the cliffsNotes.) Then I experienced acute heartbreak first-hand and I became a voracious reader of Elie Wiesel. I had so many questions, among them: How did he rebuild? Why did he rebuild? Did he truly have moments of joy? Was his pain always with him?   

Recently, I discovered a new book about Elie Wiesel – Witness, Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, by Ariel Burger. This book offers a glimpse of Elie Wiesel which I had not seen before – Elie Wiesel the teacher and mentor, which ironically is how he often described his primary identity!  

Among the many gems hidden in this book is the story of Elie Wiesel’s liberation from Buchenwald. He describes that while he had countless emotions of sadness, anger, and hopelessness directed towards humanity and God, the first thing he asked was for a pair of tefillin. Wiesel explained his need for continuity, even while struggling with a shattered faith. It was precisely the continuity of religious ritual which provided him the space to grapple in healthy and necessary ways.

I cannot help but think about this lesson as it relates to our own disrupted lives during this pandemic. While I dare not compare our reality to that of Wiesel, I do believe his guidance is deeply applicable. Whatever we can do to maintain our routine we must do – whatever we can do to keep our religious rituals meaningful, even while separated from our primary location of religious worship, we must do. I hope and pray that we use this time of year to reflect on our religious lives and help one another to stay committed, connected, and inspired.

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