On July 2, 2016 we lost Elie Wiesel, world-renowned survivor of Auschwitz, author, and voice of conscience. A week later, I went to Germany with a group of Boston-area rabbis, sponsored by the Boston German Consulate. While I blogged recently about that trip, I continue to process the experience and also to hear the reflections of my fellow travelers. Certain experiences, such as our visit to a very active refugee resettlement project on the edge of Berlin, directly after a visit to the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, have left me wondering: How has German society created this impressive about-face from where it was 70 years ago?
In 1997, Wiesel published a prayer for the Days of Awe, the ten days of reflection that make up the High Holy Days in the Jewish calendar each fall, that clearly speaks to human responsibility in the face of evil.
He writes, speaking to God, “At one point, I began wondering whether I was not unfair with you. After all, Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men, and their aim was to destroy not only us but you as well…”
In this prayer Wiesel achieved a new level of personal reflection as he empathizes with a stricken God and opens up the door for us to once again connect deeply with God. This was a great insight and gift from Wiesel, for I am asked weekly by survivors, and other elders who live at HSL, how to understand God and faith after the Holocaust. Wiesel teaches us that over time, he reached a point where he did not forgive God, but rather had understanding for a God who was diminished by the crimes of the Nazi’s along with all the other victims. When humans are cruel and destroy – they denigrate not only their fellow human beings – but also God.
As I enter the High Holy Days this year, I am thinking about the current suffering in the world, and how as humans, we seem to create suffering without end, and thus diminish the creative potential and generous spirit of humanity from the world. For people who believe in God, this also serves to diminish God’s image.
As the news presents us with growing violence in Syria, it is impossible not to appreciate the historical reconciliation and transformation in Germany and the possibility to bring compassion back into the world. The historical and moral record of the utter subjugation and murder of innumerable victims remain, but the choice made by Germany to take in close to a million refugees over the last year and a half is remarkable and should make us think. Learning from their past, Germans whose grandparents’ generation created the death camps are now personally volunteering to welcome and provide clothes, food, and shelter to refugees, people escaping dire circumstances. And, as should not be a surprise, there is also a backlash of right extremism occurring, so we will stay vigilant.
This Rosh Hashanah, in unity with people of all beliefs and cultures, as the number of refugees has increased worldwide to a staggering level not seen in Europe since the Holocaust, let’s ask ourselves, what can we do to open our hearts and bring more goodness back into our land and into the world?