“Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time?”

When I recite this line from the Unetanah Tokef prayer on the High Holidays, I will be reflecting on the loss of two people.

Ironically, both of their last names begin with the letter ‘W’.

They are Eli Wiesel and Jacob Wetterling.

Eli Wiesel’s name is a household word.

If you live in Minnesota, Jacob Wetterling’s name is too.

Eleven-year-old Jacob was abducted on Oct. 22, 1989. For twenty-seven years his family and countless others never gave up looking for him.

Last week the case was finally cracked. The monster that kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered Jacob confessed, and led authorities to his remains.

Although Jacob’s life ended nearly three decades ago, it feels like he died this week.

Said his mother, Patty, “Jacob was alive until we found him.”

The Nobel laureate Holocaust survivor from Romania and the sandy haired boy from rural Minnesota would seem to have nothing at all in common.

In fact, they had the most essential thing in common.

Both encountered unspeakable evil.

Both came face-to-face with the monsters that walk among us in human form.

Wiesel endured years of human barbarity, first in the ghetto of Sighet, Romania, then later at the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. Somehow, he survived.

Wetterling’s encounter with the unthinkable lasted just hours, and ended with two bullets to his head.

When Wiesel died on July 2, he died not on the Nazis’ timetable, but on God’s. He lived to the age of eighty-seven.

Wetterling lived to the age of eleven.

“Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time?”

There is one more thing that these two lives have in common, and it is found at the end of the Unetanah Tokef prayer:

“But penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.”

A beautiful explanation for these words comes from Rabbi Helen Plotkin:

It is not the decree that is transformed, it is the badness of the decree. And “deflect” is a more precise translation than “cancel.” Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah deflect the badness of the decree by changing the focus from our powerless suffering to our power of response.”

Eli Wiesel’s eyes bore the melancholy of a man who had seen too much.

Nonetheless, he spent the rest of his life bearing witness to the Shoah. He was a prolific writer, teacher, and speaker, a warrior for human rights and human dignity, characterized by the Nobel Committee as a “messenger to mankind.”

Wiesel transformed his powerless suffering at the hands of the Nazis into the most powerful response imaginable.

And so has Jacob Wetterling’s family, in particular, his mother.

Patty Wetterling became a vocal, visible and effective child protection advocate, working tirelessly to safeguard children from abduction and abuse.

Her work led to the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, as part of the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This law requires every state to keep a registry of convicted sex offenders and to keep track of where they live after they are released from prison.

We will never know how many children were saved from harm thanks to the Wetterlings’ efforts.

This week, the Wetterling family sat in a courtroom and listened to Jacob’s murderer describe his horrific final hours. As I read the account, I felt like my heart was being filleted with a meat cleaver. I cannot imagine the agony experienced by Jacob’s loved ones.

And yet, moments later, with what seemed like superhuman grace, there was Patty Wetterling speaking to the media, thanking everyone who helped them to find Jacob at last.

She spoke not at all of the murderer, but of Jacob’s legacy and the ongoing work of protecting children.

The Wetterling family has crafted the “11 Jacobs”, to perpetuate the values that were so important to their son.

Be fair. Be kind. Be understanding. Be honest. Be thankful. Be a good sport. Be a good friend. Be joyful. Be generous. Be gentle with others. Be positive”

The Wetterlings could not prevent Jacob’s suffering, nor can they erase the heartache they will live with forever. But for twenty-seven years they have chosen to focus on the power of their response to unfathomable evil and personal loss. Just as Elie Wiesel did.

If there is a world to come– and I believe that there is– I hope that Elie Wiesel and Jacob Wetterling cross paths.

May their precious memories be a blessing and an enduring lesson for humanity.