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All Rivers Run to the Sea (Elie Wiesel)


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Here is what the Midrash tells us. When the Holy One, blessed be His name, comes to liberate the children of Israel from their exile, they will say to him "Master of the Universe, it is You who dispersed us among the nations, driving us from Your abode, and now it is You who bring us back. Why is that?" And the Holy One, blessed be His name, will reply with this parable: One day a king drove his wife from his palace, and the next day he had her brought back. The queen, astonished, asked him "Why did you send me away yesterday only to bring me back today?" "Know this," replied the king, "that I followed you out of the palace, for I could not live in it alone." So the Holy One, blessed be His name, tells the children of Israel: "Having seen you leave my abode, I left it too, that I might return with you."

God accompanies his children into exile. This is a central theme of Midrashic and mystical thought in Jewish tradition. Just as the people of Israel's solitude mirrors the Lord's, so the suffering of men finds its extension in that of their Creator. Though imposed by God, the punishment goes beyond those upon whom it falls, encompassing the Judge himself. And it is God who wills it so. The Father may reveal Himself through His wrath; He may even sharpen His severity, but He will never be absent. Present at the Creation, God forms part of it. Let atar panui minei is the key phrase of the Book of Splendor, the Zohar: No space is devoid of God. God is everywhere, even in suffering and in the very heart of punishment. Israel's sadness is bound to that of the divine presence, the She'hina: together they await deliverance. The waiting of the one constitutes the other's secret dimension. Just as the distress of the She'hina seems unbearable to the children of Israel, so Israel's torments rend the heart of the She'hina.

What happens to us touches God. What happens to Him concerns us. We share in the same adventure and participate in the same quest. We suffer for the same reasons and ascribe the same coefficient to our common hope.

Now, this community of suffering presents certain difficulties. Its purpose is ambiguous. Does it aim to make our human ordeal easier or more difficult to bear? Does the idea that God also suffers--that He suffers with us and therefore on our account--help us to bear our grief, or does it simply augment its weight? Surely we have no right to complain, since God, too, knows suffering; nevertheless, we can say that the suffering of the one does not cancel out the other; rather, the two are added together. In this sense, divine suffering is not consolation but additional punishment. We are therefore entitled to ask of heaven, "Do we not have enough sorrow already? Why must You add Yours to it?"

But it is not our place to make decisions for God. He alone has discretion in the thousands of ways of joining His suffering to ours. We can neither elicit nor reject them, but can only seek to be worthy of them, even without understanding. Where God is concerned, all is mystery.

We know that God suffers, because He tells us so. We know of His role as an exile, because He offers us vivid descriptions. Yet we do not even know His name. When Moses asked Him, He replied: "Eh'yeh asher eh'yeh," I shall be who I shall be--in other words, I do not define myself in the present, my name itself is a projection into the future. "And on that day," says the prophet, "God will be one and His name will be One." Does that mean that now, in exile, God has more than one name? Let us say that His ineffable name has been disseminated in more than one place, taking on more than one identity. But this ineffable name eludes us. It is not the Tetragrammaton, but something else. It is the name the High Priest used to pronounce but once a year, during the Yom Kippur service, in the Holy of Holies of the Temple, in Jerusalem. Since the Temple no longer exists and its servants were massacred, God seems to have retaken His name, causing it to escape our awareness. But how, then, are we to speak to Him? God has no need of a name to be present. He is present in our request and its fulfillment alike. He is both question and answer. For us mortals, He is at once link and sundering, pain and healing, injury and peace, prayer and pardon. He is, and that must be enough for us.

I confess, however, that sometimes it is not enough for me. Nothing is enough for me when I consider the convulsions our century has endured. God's role is important in that context. How did God manage to bear His suffering added to our own? Are we to imagine the one as justification for the other? Nothing justifies Auschwitz. Were the Lord Himself to offer me a justification, I think I would reject it. Treblinka erases all justifications and all answers.

The barbed-wire kingdom will forever remain an immense question mark on the scale of both humanity and its Creator. Faced with unprecedented suffering and agony, He should have intervened, or at least expressed Himself. Which side was He on? Isn't He the Father of us all? It is in this capacity that He shatters our shell and moves us. How can we fail to pity a father who witnesses the massacre of his children by his other children? Is there a suffering more devastating, a remorse more bitter?

This is the dilemma confronted by the believer late in this century: by allowing this to happen, God was telling humanity something, and we don't know what it was. That He suffered? He could have--should have--interrupted His own suffering by calling a halt to the martyrdom of innocents. I don't know why He did not do so and I think I never shall. Perhaps that is not His concern. But I find myself equally ignorant as regards men. I will never understand their moral decline, their fall. There was a time when everything roused anger, even revolt, in me against humanity. Later I felt mainly sadness, for the victims.

Commenting on a verse of the Prophet Jeremiah according to which God says, "I shall weep in secret," the Midrash remarks that there is a place called "secret" and that when God is sad, He takes refuge there to weep.

For us this secret place lies in memory, which possesses its own secret.

A Midrash recounts: When God sees the suffering of His children scattered among the nations, He sheds two tears in the ocean. When they fall, they make a noise so loud it is heard round the world. It is a legend I enjoy rereading. And I tell myself: Perhaps God shed more than two tears during His people's recent tragedy. But men, cowards that they are, refused to hear them.

Is that, at last, an answer?

No. It is a question. Yet another question.

 
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Excerpted from All Rivers Run to the Sea by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 1999 by Elie Wiesel. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.