Elie Wiesel and the Meaning of Tisha B’Av

Last month, the Jewish world lost an icon. An inspiration of mine, Elie Wiesel epitomized tolerance especially as someone who survived its opposite. This month, Jews will be observing the fast of Tisha B’Av to commemorate Jewish history’s tragedies including, but not limited to, the destruction of the two Temples (Beit HaMikdash) in Jerusalem, exiles, Crusades, expulsions, pogroms, and the Holocaust, which Wiesel survived. Although most of the tragedies listed involve Jews being the targeted by other groups, the lesson behind the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash can be connected to Wiesel’s call for tolerance and fighting injustice in the aftermath of the Holocaust. These parallels are applicable.

The Talmud states the second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of sinat chinam: baseless hatred among the Jews. In his most famous work, Night, Wiesel writes, “It is not always events that have touched us personally that affect us the most.” Even if we didn’t personally experience the destruction in Jerusalem or the Holocaust, we have an obligation to treat each other, especially among Jews, with respect despite our differences.

Additionally, even though we didn’t encounter the expulsions and pogroms, we can still forgive. Wiesel said, “Only the guilty are guilty. Their children are not.” We should strive to learn from the past and prevent injustice by taking direct action dealing with conflicts, whether personal or political. This strategy may be a vague and tall order, but avoiding or dealing with conflict passively, such as only releasing statements condemning the injustice, is inadequate.

In his 1999 speech, “The Perils of Indifference,” Wiesel said: “Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.”

As I wrote a couple years ago in my Times of Israel blog, the lessons of preventing injustice can be followed by exemplifying the phrase “v’ahavta l’rayach hakamocha” (“Love your fellow as you would love yourself”) is relevant. It embodies tolerance and peace.

Although I am an observant Jew, I have family and friends of different backgrounds. Whether or not a Jew observes Jewish laws like keeping kosher and Shabbat is not for me to judge. A Jew is a Jew; if the mother is Jewish (in accordance w/ halakha), then the child is Jewish regardless of belief [emphasis added]. Even if my views on Israel-Palestinian conflict are different than someone else, I should strive to have a conversation without chastising the other side.

Last year I wrote in New Voices Magazine that I went to Poland in 2013 and visited places where Jewish communities thrived, only to be vanished. The experience caused me to realize the obligation to speak and act against injustice. The primary lesson I learned is to treat everyone with dignity. Therefore, I believe that when we say “Never Again,” it’s a rallying cry to address issues abroad and in our own neighborhoods.

May we accept each other, Jew or non-Jew, and embody Wiesel’s motto of tolerance and human dignity. Returning to “the days of old” does not mean returning to the darkness of the past.

About the Author
Jackson Richman is a student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Former fellow at The Weekly Standard. Once shadowed at the Jerusalem Post.
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