As I sit on the plane flying home after our first-ever Silicon Valley Community Trip to Israel, I want to reflect on the passing of Elie Wiesel. We were in Jerusalem when we heard that Elie Wiesel had died, and it just so happened that our group was slated to visit Yad Vashem that very day. The serendipity was not lost on me.
Elie Wiesel was my living hero for the past 25 years. He wrote and spoke and inspired during my lifetime. And from his teachings – including the few times I was blessed to meet him in person – I would like to share the six lessons I learned from him.
- We must bear witness. Even if it’s difficult, we can’t look away. We must look and then tell the story. This is a theme throughout his life, of course. Whether it was Nazi Germany or Rwandan genocide, we must look evil in the face and then call it out for what it is.
- We must remember. This is a theme throughout his work as well. It is not enough to only bear witness – we must also remember so that we never repeat the mistakes of the past. Memory is seminal. I have truly embraced this idea. (The good news is my name is Zechariah, which is Hebrew for “G-d Remembers,” so it wasn’t too hard for me.)
- Always stand up for what is right. Elie Wiesel stood up for those who needed defending. His moral compass was always set on RIGHT. He was never confused. He was never half-way. He knew what was right and he stood up for it, despite what criticism might come his way.
- We must hold G-d accountable. Elie Wiesel put G-d on trial for the atrocities of the Shoah, and he found Him guilty. And in so doing, Elie taught us that as we look at what’s happening every day in this world, we must also judge G-d for the injustice we see.
- Never stop fighting. I remember hearing about ten years ago that Elie Wiesel was depressed. Still having to fight against Holocaust deniers, still having to fight for Israel’s right to exist, and still having to fight against anti-Semitism depressed him. It was hard for him to believe that these fights still needed to be fought. And yet, he did. He kept fighting. Even though he, of all people, had earned the right to rest and pass the baton to the next generation to fight, Elie didn’t believe in that. He believed that all of us need to keep fighting until the end. And he did.
And finally, this last one came from personal experience:
- Shake hands with intentionality. I had the honor of meeting Elie Wiesel three times in my life: once when I was in graduate school and he came to speak, and my advisor, John Roth, introduced us; once when I was at AIPAC and he came to speak to the Policy Conference, and I had a few minutes with him backstage; and once when he came to San Francisco to receive the Koret Lifetime Achievement Award, and I was at the small ceremony to honor him. At each of these meetings, I remember Elie’s handshake. It was unlike anyone else’s I’d ever met. He gripped my hand hard – not bone-crushing hard, but with a firmness that got my attention – and he didn’t let go. He held my hand and looked in my eye and greeted me like I was the only person in the room. I’d never before – and I’ve never since – had someone shake my hand that way. And as much as I said to myself, “I want to shake hands like that,” I never have. It was unique to Elie Wiesel, like so many other special character traits.
When my 11-year old daughter visited Yad Vashem on the day of Elie Wiesel’s passing, she said it was the most meaningful experience of her life. Now I think she is ready to start learning from one of my greatest teachers. And so I will honor Elie Wiesel’s memory by introducing my daughter to his writings, and another generation will begin to learn the same lessons I learned from him. I only wish she’d had a chance to shake his hand.