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Home » 3 Faiths Together

FORGIVING GOD

26 October 2018 No Comment

FORGIVING GOD
Rabbi Michael Whitman

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

With these words, written by Elie Wiesel in his first, seminal book, Night, a book that took him 15 years to write, he expressed more eloquently than anyone else, the impossibility of peace with God in the shadow of the Holocaust, whose flames consumed the faith of so many.

Some of us have our own personal Holocaust, and feel – not a desire to come closer to God, but confusion and anger at God for what he has done to us, to someone we love, to someone we know.

Some of us have prayed – hard – for life or health, or for a child, or release from abuse, or financial stability – and feel that when we turned to God, we were ignored, or rejected. Some of us suffer one catastrophe after another and ask, “Why me? Repeatedly? Why can’t God just once give me a break?”

The Jewish People, and the world lost an extraordinary man with the passing of Elie Wiesel. It seems hard to imagine today, but, according to Joseph Berger, in the years just after the Holocaust:

“No voice had emerged to drive home the enormity of what had happened. For almost two decades, the traumatized survivors seemed frozen in silence.” And it took Wiesel 15 years to publish the passage I quoted above. He later said, “I didn’t want to use the wrong words.” Eventually, Elie Wiesel came to personify the Holocaust survivor, and became its most eloquent and tireless witness.

In doing so he became the world’s conscience against indifference everywhere. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 he said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Allow me to trace with you a line that starts at the rupture with God in that passage in Night: “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God.” He once said, “I believe during the Holocaust, the covenant with God was broken.”

This line continues when he wrote a play, a version of which we screened at my synagogue a few years ago, “The Trial of God,” based on an actual trial, conducted by three religious Jews in Auschwitz – a trial against God.

So with that background, I want to share what is perhaps Wiesel’s most remarkable and surprising essay on this subject. It was written in 1997, 52 years after the end of WWII. It was published in the NYT and is titled, A Prayer for Yom Kippur:

“Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time. How long can we go on being angry?

More than 50 years have passed since the nightmare was lifted.

Does this mean that the wounds in my soul have healed? They will never heal. As long as a spark of the flames of Auschwitz and Treblinka glows in my memory, so long will my joy be incomplete.

But what about my faith in you, Master of the Universe?

In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role in our tragedy. I would not repeat them today. But I felt them then. Why did you allow if not enable the killer day after day, night after night to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children?

These questions have been haunting me for more than five decades.

But at one point, I began wondering whether I was not unfair with you. Ought we not to think of your pain, too? Watching your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven’t you also suffered?

Let us make up, Master of the Universe. In spite of everything that happened? Yes, in spite. Let us make up: it is unbearable to be divorced from you so long.”

Now, I am sure some of you reading this are thinking to yourselves – how dare he suggest forgiving God. He has no idea the horror I experience and the anger I feel.

I accept that.

But at the very least, focus with me on a man, who also went through a horrific nightmare, as least as horrific as what you and I experience – and after more than 50 years of wrestling with it, he was able to make peace with God.

So while there are those of us who are not, now, capable of that heroism, at least let us be inspired by those who, just like Elie Wiesel though in different ways, wrestle with God – and still love God, and ask for God’s intimacy and forgiveness.

And let that be a challenge, and an inspiration for the rest of us.

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