Written after his passing in 2016.
For a long time I thought Eli Wiesel was my favorite author, and as such I have a hard time believing my writing could ever do his justice. He’s still one of my favorite authors, mostly for what he taught me about the power of language.
My favorite book of his that I’ve read is “The Trial of God.” It’s a play, set in the 1600s, about three traveling minstrels who spend the night in the village of Shamgorod. The inn is owned by Berish, the only remaining Jew in the village after a recent pogrom on the night of his daughter’s wedding. It’s Purim night and the minstrels should be doing their spiel, laughing and celebrating but there’s no one for whom to perform. As the night wears on, Berish derisively suggest that as a form of Purim spiel they should put God on trial.
The play is three acts. It never leaves Berish’s inn. Of the bards, one is a joker, one a wagon-driver, and the third a begger and mystic who makes cryptic but profound statements. A large chunk of the play is a verbal quarrel about who should defend god; nobody wants to take the role. The play is somehow darkly funny despite the themes, and despite the fact that it is based on an actual trial of God that Wiesel witnessed in Auschwitz. Wiesel plays with the themes of loss and faith and tragedy in a fashion that is so human, so sensitive, and so uniquely Hasidic.
Mendel (minstrel 1): You forget why we have gathered here tonight? The question remains a question: Is there no one here–or anywhere–to plead the case of the Almighty King of the universe?
(Mendel has spoken with nostalgia. Melancholy sets in)
Avremel (minstrel 2): Poor, poor King of Kings.
Yankel (minstrel 3): Feel sorry for Him? Already?
Berish: We’re heading in the wrong direction! We’re her not to pity Him but to judge Him!
Avremel: Poor King who needs His servant’s pity.
Berish: He needs it? He won’t get it! Not from me! He had no pity for me, why should I have pity for Him?
Mendel: I-who? Berish the innkeeper or Berish the prosecutor?
Berish: Berish is Berish. And I’m fed up with you! I’m an honest man, I’ve never stolen, I’ve never cheated! I’ve never humiliated anyone. I have done only good, not He. He has done me nothing but harm. And now, now you want me to feel sorry for Him? Where was He when… (catches himself and tries to sound calm) I forgot that we are playing–maybe He, too, is playing.
For a college essay about faith I quoted from this book and then cited a Wiesel quote that really resonated with me at the time.
You can be a Jew with God. You can be a Jew against God. But you can’t be a Jew without God.
Wiesel was my favorite author at a time that his particular blend of language and faith, but a faith that was meant to be explored and questioned and battered and hated, in a god that deserved anger and needed defense, meant everything to me.
Now my relationship to is a little more complicated; it feels like a part of a past I’m still figuring out how to embrace. But even if the messages are less immediately revelatory to me, the language, and what I learned about its power, is something I’ll forever be grateful for.