According to tradition, the 9th day of the month of Av (coinciding this year with Saturday night July 17 and Sunday July 18) witnessed five tragedies suffered by Jews in ancient times, including the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples and of the city of Jerusalem itself. Since then, we express our grief over these losses by means of rites of public mourning. In synagogues the world over, we sit on the floor to read the Book of Lamentations and recite Kinot, poems specially composed to transmit the vast dimensions of the upheaval. Further, it is a day of fasting and introspection. Yet the day’s grief holds the promise of redemption, since the Sages teach that this day also heralds the birth of the Messiah.
Prof. Wiesel would annually serve as the designated reader for his synagogue congregation of the third (and longest) chapter of the Book of Lamentations. In his 92Y lectures, he explores the nature and implications of these catastrophes through the words--and silences--of those who lived through them: mainly, the prophet Jeremiah for the destruction of the first Temple, and the early Talmudic sages for the destruction of the second.
Their fervent commitment to bear graphic witness to the sad plight of Jerusalem, and their determination to go forward with Jewish life and learning in the aftermath of numbing losses clearly served as a model for Prof. Wiesel’s own vocation as a witness to catastrophe, a teacher of Torah and a lover of Israel. The brief excerpts that follow convey a measure of his special contribution on themes close to his heart—and, we think he would certainly hope, close to ours as well.
Jeremiah and His Lamentations, 4/25/2013
Jeremiah was forever torn between God and Israel, Israel and other nations, big powers and small powers, between his lost childhood and his unbearable old age; he is perplexing and intriguing; he arouses every passion from extreme hatred to infinite fidelity. He’s an outsider and, as such, misunderstood. He is, in short, a survivor, a witness. Of all the prophets, he alone predicted the catastrophe, experienced it, and lived to tell the tale. … None endured and lived his experiences. He alone sounded the alarm before the fire, and after being singed by its flames went on to retell the fire, in so many words, to whoever was ready to listen. Whenever we are struck by misfortune we turn to him and follow in his footsteps. We use his words to describe our struggles, our pain, and our memories.
Rabbi Abraham the Angel, 11/5/1987
Once, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of Av, when we commemorate the destruction of both the first and the second Temple, Reb Avrohom sat with the faithful on the floor of the synagogue, as is customary, mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, 17 centuries earlier. With candles in their hands, they waited for the Baal Tefilah, the chazan, to start reciting the Lamentations. After a while, he began. Eicha yashva badad -- oh, how the city of Jerusalem was left sitting alone.
“Eicha,” repeated Reb Avrohom, as if to himself. And with his head buried in his knees, he meditated on the meaning of the image; the implications, the destiny of the word. He remained in that position throughout the service, throughout the night, until the next morning. He was alone for a whole night. And next morning, when they came to the synagogue, he was heard whispering, “Has the redeemer arrived? Has the redeemer arrived?”
A Hasidic master, Rabbi Yitzchak of Radzivil, who was there, trembled when he saw him with his head in his knees. “I never knew,” said Rabbi Yitzchak of Radzivil, “I never knew that one can be here, in this synagogue, and relive from far the destruction of our sanctuary as if he had been there, when and while it happened.”
Rabbi Akiva Revisited, 10/29/1987
As a survivor of the Churban, the destruction of the Temple, [Rabbi Akiva] had to find a way of conferring a meaning to the Churban. He had to learn, and teach, how to deal with its aftermath. How to explain and articulate what cannot -- should not -- be explained. What to tell old men whose memories were wounds. What to tell young people who wondered why they should go on praying, or dreaming, or living as Jews in a world that seemed to have been drained of Jewishness. Why they should go on affirming spiritual values, rather than military ones...
As one who walked amid the ruins of the Temple, he had to find a way to build again, upon those very ruins. He, who saw what Roman civilization had done to Jews, felt the need to discover the words and images necessary to prevent Jews from giving up on all civilization. In a world shattered by despair, he had to show how to cope with despair. And this is, perhaps, why we feel so close to him.