To each life there are many facets, and even more to the soul of the world figure Elie Wiesel. However, in each such life there is also an animating core from which all else radiates.

So many have paid tribute to Elie Wiesel as he lived out the mitzvah (commandment) in the public arena to remember that no others should suffer as he and the Jewish people did.

Eliezer ben Shlomo, “Eliezer son of Solomon,” as he is known to the Jewish People and to God was first and foremost a believer, a lifelong student of the Torah and Rabbinic literature.  He was a devoted hasid of the many Rebbes, the 18th and 19th century mystic masters of Jewish eastern Europe, whose teachings he rescued from obscurity and presented to American Jewry and the world in his legendary 92nd St. Y lectures in the 1960s.

As he told us so many stories about God and man, let us now tell a few stories about him.

He was a God-intoxicated man. Only a believer could be so angry with God. Wiesel speaks to us through one of his characters in Gates of the Forest.

He presents a conversation between the prophet Elijah and Gavriel.  Elijah instructs the young Gavriel: “You think you’re cursing Him, but all you do is open yourself to Him.  You think you’re crying out your hatred and rebellion, but all you’re doing is telling Him how much you need His support and forgiveness.”

 Wiesel records the development of Gavriel’s thinking.

“Gavriel used to say that the difference between Christians and Jews was that for the Christians, everything that comes from God is good, and everything evil bears the mark of man; Jews however, press their search further and more blasphemously, crediting God with evil as well as for absolution.”

One does not turn to Zeus or to Hera to Ba’al or Anat.  They are puny, limited, territorial ‘gods’. To God the Creator who took Israel out of Egypt, and declared “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt…” it is to Him that one turns in inexpressible anger as a fifteen-year-old in Auschwitz.

The Holocaust was a time when children turned old overnight. Who was the teenager, Elie Wiesel?  What did he bring to Auschwitz?

He was a young boy whose Jewish spiritual and scholarly formation was underway. He came to Auschwitz shaped by a faithful family whose life was suffused with the mitzvot commanded by God at Sinai, and with the Rabbinic scholarship developed to understanding and transmitting those commandments.

He came to Auschwitz from a family of followers of the Rebbe of Vishnitz, whose Chassidic traditions were imbued with singing and worshiping God in joy and elation.   He came to Auschwitz with a family filled with love, and whose love was realized in the Jewish home, successor to the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem.

In Judaism, the home succeeds the Temple: Every home a Temple. Every table an altar.  Every meal an offering. Every Jew a priest.

Elie Wiesel came to Auschwitz a novitiate in this happy priesthood.

And there, he watched a young boy hanging from the gallows. He writes in his anti-autobiography, Night, “Where is God?  There he is.  Hanging from the gallows.”

The Torah commands that the lifeless corpse be treated with dignity, which is explained by a parable. There were identical twins, one of which became king and the other became a highway robber.  The highway robber was captured and hung. But, all who saw him said: the king has been hanged.

When the human created in the image of God is hanging from the gallows in Auschwitz, all who look upon him see the image of the One in whom the boy is created.

In Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel observed men saying Kaddish in the presence of their fellow Jews just murdered.  He notes, when before in Jewish history have the living recited Kaddish for themselves, soon to die?  It is only the believer who, standing in Auschwitz before a pile of corpses, can note the blasphemous irony of uttering those eternal words: “May His great Name be sanctified and magnified …”

A true atheist is bored with God.  A believer like Elie Wiesel, who is in love with God, is the one who shakes his fist at heaven and cries out:  “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me and everybody else….!”

His witness was menacing. Some wanted him to stop. Is it not time, after all, to get on with life?

Years ago, he was invited to speak to a group of Catholic priests and intelligentsia. Following Wiesel’s presentation, a nun raised her hand and asked: How long will you continue to burden us with the Holocaust? Wiesel responded, “You want us to stop talking about the Holocaust? You want us to forget the six million Jews murdered just a few years ago? And yet, you won’t let us forget the death of one man, a Jew who died two thousand years ago.”

The first version of what was later to become his monumental classic Night was written in Yiddish, millions of whose native speakers were murdered by the Germans, and pitifully few of whom remained to read his book. It was as if he was saying only a few of us can even talk to each other about that time and what happened there.

The initial version of the book was titled And the World was Silent, and was published in Buenos Aires in 1956.

Elie Wiesel was tormented by silence.  He once said that during those years, the world was divided into three groups:  the murdered, the murderers, and the indifferent.  The indifferent were the allies of the murderers.

He was tormented by God’s silence.  So tormented that he once said, all I wanted after the Holocaust was for God to appear, as He did after four hundred years in slavery, at Sinai and simply say: “I am.”

Silence in the face of suffering drove him in the 1960’s to the Soviet Union, where he witnessed the silenced Jews, rendered mute by decades of Soviet oppression.  He returned home, and immediately wrote the book that launched the Soviet Jewry movement: The Jews of Silence.

Soon afterwards, he was able to declare the Jews no longer silent when they rose up against their oppressors after Israel’s victory in the Six Day war, which saved the Jewish people from another Holocaust.

Like the traditional Jew that he was, at home with God, he did not engage theology or the study of theodicy.  To do so was to talk about God. He didn’t talk about God.  He talked with God.

Christians are often astounded by his audacity, by his summons of God to a trial to account for Divine silence in the face of the murder of six million Jews.  This is the most natural thing for a Jew ever since Abraham, our father, demanded: Will not the Judge of all the world do justice?

Wiesel was, as befits a person of faith, both humble and private in his practice of Judaism.  He was an Orthodox Jew. This gave him standing to sue in the Heavenly Court.  How could he not talk with God?  It was the most natural thing, a daily practice.

In the life of mitzvot that he lived, God is a member of the Jewish family, ever present.   If all that one brings to God is anger, that’s not much of a relationship.  If one lives with God in a deep association, then almost anything can be discussed with Him in a life of living and longing.

From Auschwitz, he insisted that we join him on a journey of witness and outcry to Bosnia, to Rwanda, to Darfur. And so, he also taught that when Iran threatens the Jewish people with genocide, it is threatening all humanity.

In this, he presented a foundational principle of Judaism. He was radically particular and absolutely universal, at one and the same time. Jewish universalism is the product of Jewish particularism and choseness. Each is the handmaiden of the other.

Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is a Rabbinic Scholar at The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.