In the late 1980s, I was teaching in the smaller of the two Jewish high schools in Sydney. There was tremendous excitement when we were informed that Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Elie Wiesel, would be visiting our city and had agreed to spend a morning with the senior students of the Jewish day schools.
In the days leading up to visit, we prepared the students, aged 16-18, by reading excerpts from “Night” and studying his biography. On the appointed morning we, on the “other” side of the city, boarded buses very early to join our sister school for morning prayers, in which Elie Wiesel participated.
After tefillin were removed, the students and teachers gathered to hear from our guest. We expected to learn about the Shoa, to listen to personal testimony of the horrors of Auschwitz from one of its most famous survivors, and to have reinforced the importance of memory. Many of the children were themselves descendents of survivors. The Shoa was (and is) part of their personal narrative.
It did not take long for the normally boisterous teenagers to settle quietly. We were all in awe. Professor Wiesel began:
Ani maamin b’emunah shleimah b’viat hamashiach; v’af al pi sheyitmamea, im kol ze achake lo.
[I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he tarries, I still await him.]
“What is wrong with that sentence?” asked Wiesel of the students.
A few attempted answers. “It doesn’t make sense to wait when things seem so bad.” “Waiting for the messiah is one of the problems. People waited instead of taking things into their own hands.” “How can people still have faith in the light of such evil?”
“All good responses,” answered Elie Wiesel, “but you have not seen the problem. The problem is with the sentence itself – v’af al pi sheyitmamea. What does it mean yitmamea? He will be late? Will be?”
“Girls and boys. That is the problem. We always see our own latest tragedy as the one that should have been the catalyst for the arrival of the Messiah. But the arrival of the Messiah is, in its essence, late. If he had arrived after the destruction of the First Temple, it would have been late, after the Destruction of the Second, after the Judean War, after the dispersion to the diaspora, after the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Chmielnicki massacres. Indeed, even after the murder of Abel by Cain.
A better world is too late. The tragedies that humans have inflicted on one another should not have happened. All those who have suffered did not deserve their fate. We surely deserved a gentle world, free from evil. This is a cruel God, Who permits His creations to face such horrors. It is a cruel God Who gives humans the choice and the power to inflict pain on others.
But I choose to continue to believe that the world will be redeemed. I choose to believe that humans can learn and can improve. I continue to believe that we can bring the Messianic age by learning from history.
The Messiah will be too late for those who preceded us, and even for us, but it is not too late for us to bring about a different era by making different choices.”
This was nearly thirty years ago but I remember it like yesterday. Elie Wiesel penetrated my soul. His message continues to inspire me.
He had an enormous impact on many of the students, too. At the end of the year, my class presented me with a gift – “Twilight,” fresh off the press.
Yiyhe zichro livracha. May his memory be a blessing.