I was in North Carolina this week accompanying my son and family for a meeting at the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro when Elisha Wiesel informed me that his father’s health had taken an irreversible turn for the worse. Elie, or Reb Eliezer as I always affectionately called him, had been battling illness for more than two years. But each time he fought back. Hearing this was now not the case I was stunned and numb.
Elisha is his father’s foremost achievement and only child. A man of deep warmth humility, his gentility and moral clarity reminds you instantly that he is his father’s son. I have loved Elie Wiesel my whole life and I have known him for the past 26 years. He has served as inspiration, mentor, guide, and loving friend. Every moment I have spent with him had been an honor and privilege and I had visited with him just last week.
I decided that though we planned to remain in the South for the 4th of July weekend, we would begin the long drive back so that I might have the privilege of spending Shabbat with him. For the next hours I lived with the constant dread that we would not make it in time.
I arrived minutes before the Sabbath and Elisha greeted me at the door. I offered whatever comfort I could to Marion, Elie’s remarkable wife of 47 years and world-renowned translator. Marion and Elisha then invited me into the room with Elie. I will remember those last moments with the man President Obama called “the conscience of the world” as some of the precious and haunting of my life and I was consciously aware that I was being granted an unprecedented privilege to spend the last Sabbath with the Jewish people’s greatest living son.
Elie was lying down and I pulled my chair up close to his bed. His family, including his daughter-in-law Lynn and grandson Elijah, were all at his side.
I shared with him how much I loved him and what he meant to the Jewish people and the world. I told him that in the last few hundred years the Jewish nation had rarely produced a personality that had made more of a global impact.
I did not know quite what to say. I felt inadequate to the task. But I did not want to choose my words. I wanted them to flow from my heart.
I suddenly found myself reminiscing aloud about some of our personal experiences.
I reminded him that when he spoke for us at Oxford 26 years ago he had told the students that if the world gave the Jewish people its children for just one generation we would return the children to them in a way that would greatly increase the world’s light. Why I chose that particular story amid the many speeches I had heard Elie say over the years I do not quite know. I know that when he said it there was a hushed silence in the room filled with more than 1000 students. He was responding to a student who was insinuating that the world’s Jews had too much influence. He said quite the reverse is true. We have had our voices silenced. But give us your children for one generation and we will return them with greater love and light than when we took them.
I told him that I remembered that as he walked that night into the Oxford Union chamber to deliver his lecture, he suddenly stopped and put a Yarmulke telling me he would deliver his speech at the world’s most famous debating chamber as a proud Jew.
I looked at Elisha at the foot of the bed and remembered the herculean efforts and endless patience this only child had shown amid his father’s long illness the past few years. I suddenly remembered the story that Elie had told me about Elisha. It was at a kosher restaurant in Manhattan where I had invited Elie to have dinner with Michael Jackson. Elie shared that Elisha had taken up sky-diving. He told me that he, Elie Wiesel, would rather throw himself from the airplane with a parachute than see any risk to his precious son. “If providence decrees that a Wiesel has to be thrown from an airplane, then let it be Elie rather than Elisha Wiesel.”
I told Elie that his son and grandchildren were his greatest legacy. His daughter-in-law Lynn was cradling his head and kissing him gently.
I told him he had been the Jewish people’s great light to the nations, the man who had lent eternity to the six million of the holocaust. The martyrs of the holocaust honored him for honoring them. I shared with him that without his books, especially Night, the six million would not be remembered in the same way.
I suddenly recalled Elie telling me, when he was writing his novel “The Forgotten,” about a man with Alzheimer’s, he had said to me, “I’m writing a book about a man who is losing his memory because I am fascinated by the connection between memory and identity. Without memory there can be no identity.”
I told him that I remembered all the special public events we had shared together, from public conversations with Samantha Power and President Paul Kagame against genocide, to speeches against Iranian brutality with Ted Cruz at the United States Senate, to our public discussion with Dr. Oz on spiritual wellbeing, to the many times we were fortunate to honor him at our gala dinners.
And I told him how much I loved our private interactions, the unending warmth and affection he always showed me, the stories he shared, the wisdom he offered, the loving rebukes of a devoted friend always seeking to bring out my light.
And I sat there, I remembered his honesty and integrity, his righteousness and unending truth.
I remembered that only a few months ago I asked Elie at his home about the searing honesty he expressed toward the end of Night when he revealed that his father, consumed with fever, asked him in the death camp barracks for water. Elie, emaciated, starving, infirm and famished, had hoped that after spending weeks taking care of his typhoid-ravished father he would finally be liberated from his care. When his father begged him for water in the middle of the night, Elie, freezing and barely holding on to life himself, could not summon the energy to even respond. In the morning the pleas had ceased. Elie’s father had expired. Elie was free at last.
“How did you write those haunting words?” I asked. How could anyone be so painfully honest?
“I wrote them,” he said, “because if I was not honest in the book there was no point in writing it at all,” he said.
That commitment to the truth allowed Elie to become the greatest chronicler of the greatest crime in human history.
Though I am not a Kohen, a priest, I turned to Marion and Elisha, and said I would like to give Elie the Priestly Biblical blessing. I stood up. “May the Lord protect you and keep you. May the Lord shine his light to you and be gracious. May the Lord lift his countenance to you and always give you peace.”
And I kissed him repeatedly on the cheek, telling him each time how much I loved him.
On Shabbat night, after returning from Elie’s bedside and sharing with my children his struggle for life, my daughter Shterny who will God willing soon be married, broke down in tears. At 16 she had written a book report about Elie and he kindly agree to answer all her questions at his office. He spoke to her with his customary gentility, whispering wisdom and truth. It was an experience she will never forget. And now at the table she cried. I asked her why she was crying and she said, “If we God forbid lose Elie Wiesel, there will be no more special people alive any more. There will be nobody left. He is the last of the giants.”
“America’s Rabbi,” Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America” is Executive Director of The World Values Network, which promotes universal values in politics and culture, and is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including his forthcoming, “The Israel Warriors Handbook.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.