What is Done When at a Loss of What to Do

I just flipped open to an essay by Elie Wiesel entitled, “The Death of My Father” which begins with the words: “The anniversary of the death of a certain Shlomo ben Nissel falls on the eighteenth day of the month of Shevat.” Since it was just recently Tu B’Shvat [the fifteenth day of Shevat], it so happens that today is the eighteenth day of this Hebrew month.

Since his father was murdered in Buchenwald, Wiesel discusses finding himself unable to conform to the ritual traditions of Jewish mourning that include going to synagogue, studying the Mishnah, saying the orphan’s Kaddish, and proclaiming God’s holiness.

“[These things are] undoubtedly what I would do had my father died of old age, of sickness, or even of despair. But such is not the case. His death did not even belong to him. I do not know to what cause to attribute it, in what book to inscribe it. His death, lost among all the rest, had nothing to do with the person he had been. […] He was robbed of his death.”

Wiesel goes on to discuss his father’s secularism in juxtaposition to his mother’s piety – “My father’s ambition was to make a man of me rather than a saint.”

The essay is a lament about how the Holocaust “defies reference [and] analogy.” Wiesel feels that his tradition is inadequate for facing up to the incomparable horrors of the Holocaust – “I should have to invent other prayers, other acts. And I am afraid of not being capable or worthy.”

With this realization of his own incapacity and unworthiness to invent new rituals, he ultimately decides to go to the synagogue and light candles anyway, describing these acts as “further proof of my impotence.”

But by this admission of his personal weakness and futility before so great a tragedy, Wiesel fulfills a responsibility his father entrusted to him when he said, “Your duty is to fight solitude, not to cultivate or glorify it.”

When Elie Wiesel was brought to the brink and felt himself utterly at a loss for what to do, he fought the solitude and mourned in community– in a place set apart, in the light, and within a tradition. In this way, even though his father had “been robbed of his death”, Elie did, in a sense, become released to mourn by receiving a sense of what to do when he was at a loss about it.

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