Night - Understanding the Jewish Background of Elie Wiesel's Night
Created on March 15, 2023
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Understanding the Jewish Background
Wiesel pens first edition of Night in Yiddish - an 800 page memoir titled Un di Velt Hot Geshvign
La Nuit, a novella, is published in French language
Night is published in English also in novella form.
L'aube (Dawn, 1961) and Le Jour (The Accident, 1961) and revolve around survivors of the Holocaust and the way they deal with the memories of the camps
Night is revised by Marion Wiesel for clarifications in language translation(s)
Night continues to be read, studied, and taught across the world reminding all who encounter it of the atrocities of the Holocaust through the eyes of Elie Wiesel.
Night, Dawn, The Accident - Goodreads
Jewish Background & Concepts
Devekut - "Glue-ing oneself" to God and God's will
Exploring Theme: The Silence of God
Moishe the Beadle falls silent
The silence of bystanders
There are four aspects of the theme of "silence"
Elie's rebellion on Yom Kippur
God's silence in mourning
Elie forgets to say the Kaddish
Where is God?
Wiesel's wrestling with faith/God and his perceived silence of God.
Silence is the great sin
The first night in camp
Then & now quotes from Elie Wiesel
Following his expulsion from Sighet, Moshe the Beadle witnesses the atrocities being committed against Jews by the Hungarian police (pg. 6). He returns to Sighet and pleads for the people to listen to his warnings.
- Page 7: "Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned either God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. Some even insinuated that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things. Others flatly said that he had gone mad."
News continues to come in regarding the war and the progress being made by the Russian Front and the Jews of Sighet feel confident they will avoid Hitler's extermination plan. They spoke openly of their doubts about Hitler's ability to annihilate an entire people. In the midst of their confidence, Moishe goes silent.
- "And thus my elders concerned themselves with all manner of things - strategy, diplomacy, politics, and Zionism - but not with their own fate. Even Moishe the Beadle had fallen silent. He was weary of talking. He would drift through synagogue or through the streets hunches over, eyes cast down, avoiding people's gaze.
Even with news of the advancement of the German army, the people remained optimistic that they would be safe. 3 days later, German vehicles were on their streets.
"They ordered us to run. We began to run. Who would have thought that we were so strong? From behind their windows, from behind their shutters, our fellow citizens watched as we passed."
Theological - God's silence in the face of evil
Existential - The dead versus the mute
Linguistic - Language cannot describe what occurred; therefore, there is only silence.
The realm of testimony - Sometimes silence seems to be the only response.
(Elie's response is silence until years later when he could overcome the challenge of silence he was dealing with in his own life)
Elie continues to grapple with his faith and the seeming silence of God. He also describes the wavering faith of Akiba Drumer and a rabbi:
pg. 76 - "He was not alone in having lost his faith during those days of selection. I knew a rabbi, from a small town in Poland....One day, he said to me:
"It's over. God is no longer with us."
......."Where is God's mercy? Where's God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?"
Elie describes how Akiba's spirits have weakened:
"Poor Akiba Drumer, if only he could have kept his faith in God, if only he could have considered this suffering a divine test, he would not have been swept away by the selection. But as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentive to fight and opened the door to death."
Akiba states that in three days he will be gone, and he asks the men to say Kaddish for him. However, due to the conditions and being beaten and given crushing work, the men forgot to say the Kaddish three days later for Akiba.
- "For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?"
"I did not fast....there was no longer any reason for me to fast. I no longer accepted God's silence. As I swallowed my ration of soup, I turned that act into a symbol of rebellion, of protest against Him."
On Yom Kippur, Elie is not asking God for forgiveness. God is silent. Elie's mindset seems to be, perhaps God needs to ask him and the Jewish people for forgiveness.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Throughout Night, Elie describes how this experience has caused him to wrestle with God and his faith. Below are several quotes that illuminate this process for Elie:
- On page 34, Elie says, "Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever....Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes."
- Following this, he continues on page 37 to say, "The student of the Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded - and devoured - by a black flame.
- Page 45: "...As for me, I had ceased to pray....I was not denying His existence, but I doubted His absolute justice."
- Page 64: "Behind me, I heard the same man asking: "For God's sake, where is God?" And from within me, I heard a voice answer: "Where He is? This is where - hanging here from this gallows...." That night, the soup tasted of corpses.
- Page 66-68
Elie continues to wrestle with God and his faith
- Calls himself a former mystic
- "Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled...."
- "But look at these men whom You have betrayed, allowing them to be tortured, slaughtered, gassed, and burned, what do they do? They pray before You! They praise Your name!"
"What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander."
"I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
"I rarely speak about God. To God, yes. I protest against Him. I shout at Him. But open discourse about the qualities of God, about the problems that God imposes, theodicy, no. And yet He is there, in silence, in filigree."
"I was very, very religious. And of course, I wrote about it in "Night". I questioned God's silence. So, I questioned. I don't have an answer for that. Does it mean that I stopped having faith? No. I have faith, but I question it."
Three days after liberation I became very ill; food-poisoning. They took me to the hospital and the doctors said that I was gone.
Compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the two endings. Identify the differences in his response to what he has endured.
For further analysis of the two endings, read this article, Jews of Rage, by Naomi Seidman.
Survivor portrayed as witness and expression of silence and death.
Survivor shatters that image as soon as he sees it, destroying the deathly existence the Nazis willed on him.
An Intriguing Possibility
According to Judaism, there are 600,000 root souls in the World. This corresponds to the number of letters in the Torah (the 5 books of Moses)
Gilgul Neshamot – Recycling of Souls
A Belief from Kabbalah – Jewish mysticism
An example - Chaim ibn Attar in his classic commentary on the Torah identifies Moses as the gilgul/soul of Abel, and Rabbi Akiva as the gilgul of Cain.
Given his background, is it possible that Elie viewed himself in the aftermath of the Shoah as the gilgul/soul of Moshe the Beadle?
pg. 115 - "From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me." - If the Elie Wiesel who endured the Holocaust is dead, who is he now?
Other themes and concepts to consider
1. Throughout the book, how does Elie’s thought about God change? Can we understand or relate to these thoughts?
This is the most famous quote from Elie Wiesel.
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This is the most famous quote from Elie Wiesel.
How might it relate to the book?
What does it mean to you?
What should it mean to us?
“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”
- Elie Wiesel from a 2002 gathering of survivors & and their descendents