In June 2011, Elie Wiesel underwent emergency heart surgery. In his book Open Heart, he recounts the pain and emotions he felt as well as the memories and existential questions that surfaced during his ordeal.
And God in all that?
Am I asking myself that terrible question to chase away my anxiety and my pain?
Now that I am confined to the hospital bed, that question arises again, obsesses me as it haunts all I have written. And, lover of insoluble philosophical problems that I am, I remain frustrated.
A great journalist, a friend, in a televised conversation asked me what I would say to God as I stood before Him. I answered with one word: “Why?”
And God’s answer? If, in His kindness, as we say, He actually communicated His answer, I don’t recall it.
The Talmud tells me: Moses is present as Rabbi Akiba gives a lecture on the Bible. And Moses asks God, “Since this master is so erudite, why did You give the Law to me rather than to him?” And God answers harshly: “Be quiet. For such is my will!” Some time later, Moses is present at Rabbi Akiba’s terrible torture and death at the hands of Roman soldiers. And he cries out, “Lord, is this Your reward to one who lived his entire life celebrating Your Law?” And God repeats His answer with the same harshness:
“Be quiet. For such is my will!”
What will His answer be now, to make me be quiet?
And where shall I find the audacity and the strength to not accept it?
And yet, once I have left the antechamber of death, I ponder the question again. Why this illness? These pains, why did I deserve them? Even the possible success of the surgery leads me to inquire: “And God in all this?” Merciful God—as we say—did He not, after all, intervene and lend a hand to the surgeon? But again why, for what purpose?
When I was a child, I situated God exclusively in all that is Good. In all that is sacred. In all that makes man worthy of salvation. Could it be that for God, Evil represents just another path leading to Good?
In truth, for the Jew that I am, Auschwitz is not only a human tragedy but also—and most of all—a theological scandal. For me, it is as impossible to accept Auschwitz with God as without God. But then how is one to understand His silence?
As I try to explain God’s presence in Evil, I suffer. And search for reasons that would allow me to denounce it. Thoughts I expressed already in Night, in particular in the passage that describes a Rosh Hashana service in Buna:
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
But a few lines later I describe how during the same service I recite the traditional prayers and litanies, and proclaim my faith in Him, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob….
I confess to having rebelled against the Lord, but I have never repudiated Him.
Having studied the sublime, enchanting texts of the prophets, I make mine Jeremiah’s Lamentations, evoking the destruction of the first Temple of Jerusalem:
“You have killed [Your children] without mercy!”
“You have assassinated [Your people] without compassion!”
What? God, assassin? True, some of us protested against the divine silence. But none of us had the audacity to call God “Assassin”!
On the third day, I feel the need to say my daily prayers. I ask [my wife] Marion to bring me my talit and tefilin.
To thank Him? To explain to God that I believe in Him in spite of Himself? My thoughts are still too nebulous to formulate a valid response on the subject of the Almighty.
I do, however, find a response, more personal perhaps: namely, that my commitment is an affirmation of my fidelity to the religious practice of my parents and theirs. If I observe the laws of the Torah by putting on the tefilin, it is because my father and grandfather, and theirs, did so. I refuse to be the last in a line going back very far in my memory and that of my people.
I know this answer is in no way satisfactory, or perhaps not even valid. But it is the only one.
All my life, until today, I have been content to ask questions. All the while knowing that the real questions, those that concern the Creator and His creation, have no answers. I’ll go even further and say that there is a level at which only the questions are eternal; the answers never are.
And so, the patient that I am, more charitable, repeats, “Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers.”
Excerpted from Open Heart by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 2012 by Elie Wiesel. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.