Elie Wiesel was a man of many gifts. Among them was a gift for friendship.
I have never met anyone whom so many considered a close friend. All over the world people tell me how close they were to this extraordinary man. Considering his constant stream of obligations, his writing and speaking, his family and of course his symbolic presence as the voice for those who had died, it is a mystery to me how he made and kept so many friends.
I remember the first time I met Wiesel. My father invited him to speak at Har Zion in Philadelphia, the synagogue where my father was a Rabbi. The two of them were friends (of course) having bonded in the course of their mutual work in the Soviet Jewry movement, the movement to free the Jews that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union. My father had invited his children to come that evening, so we could meet and hear this already legendary voice of conscience. I was 7- or perhaps 8-years old.
He immediately demonstrated an interest in us. When we walked in he was busy looking through my father’s library, pulling books off the shelf, scanning them. Spotting us he stopped and turned his attention to me, asking, as though I was in my 30s, so what did I do?
“I’m a student.” I answered. Of course, I had no idea who this person was that asked such a question. Yet my mother had schooled me well. So I politely asked, “And what do you do?”
He answered seriously. “The same as you. I too am a student.”
I never forgot that response. It combined kindness, profundity and truth. It was perfectly characteristic of the man.
We then went into the hall to hear him speak. Hearing Wiesel speak was like listening to the whisper of eternity. His voice had a haunting magic, speaking words that were wrung from the suffering of his own soul, and his indelible witness to the sufferings of others. Even when he discussed something lighthearted it had gravity. He loved to tell a story about an evening when he was, almost in Marx brothers style, invited to Shabbat dinner in the homes of both Heschel and Lieberman, two eminent professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The two were rivals, so he could not simply excuse himself from one to attend to the other. He had to accommodate and dodge both and the story was very funny. His recounting had a soft eloquence that made it much more than funny; it was also illuminating about human nature and human need.
When 20 years ago I took a pulpit at Sinai Temple a few people very close to me called or wrote their congratulations. But I was astonished that Elie Wiesel, with whom I had not spoken for years, wrote me a note in his precise hand, telling me how lucky the synagogue and I were to have found each other, and assuring me of his friendship. It was an extraordinary act of kindness from someone I certainly did not know well, who had many other things to do, to say the least. Yet it was not a quick note, or dashed off; I was dumbstruck by the capaciousness of his soul. He bore himself with the humility of the truly great.
As the scholar for our 100th year as a synagogue, he created many unforgettable moments. Perhaps the most indelible was the last, when as a final question one of our teens asked if he could summarize his advice to live a good life. Wiesel offered four words: “Think higher. Live deeper.”
We have lost one of the most eloquent voices in the history of witness. Wiesel spoke for the millions slaughtered by the Nazis, and continued to speak for the bereft all over the world, whether from Cambodia or the inner cities of our nation. His voice was as large as history, and as gentle as reaching out to a child and never forgetting him. Never forget — that was his creed. Elie Wiesel will never be forgotten. His memory will endure as a spur to our conscience and a blessing to this often benighted world.