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Nobel Peace Prize winner and commencement speaker Elie Wiesel was unable to attend Old Dominion University's 99th commencement ceremony on Sunday due to a winter storm in the New York area that caused flight delays and cancellations. Lawrence A. Forman, rabbi emeritus of Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk and director of Old Dominion's Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding, delivered Wiesel's words to the more than 1,000 graduates and 6,500 well-wishers at the Ted Constant Convocation Center.

Wiesel first apologized for being unable to attend the ceremony and then asked graduates to "take a moment just to wonder: what have you learned from one another? First of all, have you learned to listen. . . In listening, we pierce each other's solitude. Not to hear another person's pleas for compassion or understanding is to impoverish oneself. Not to show concern is to be diminished."

Currently a professor at Boston University, Wiesel has written more than 40 books including "La Nuit" ("Night"), a terrifying account of his experiences in the Nazi death camps. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter appointed him chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust.

Forman continued to read Wiesel's words. "When you entered this marvelously inspired institution, the twentieth century had just neared its end. Hannah Arendt called it the most violent century in history. How could the Jew in me, after all that we have discovered from reading memoirs or listening to witnesses about the murder of more than one million children, still have faith in the humanity of the human being?"

Wiesel told the graduates that he turns to biblical texts for solace. "To explore certain appropriate passages and find layers of commentaries, visions and interpretations left there by generations of scholars and their pupils, remain to me a source of inexhaustible curiosity and joy, for they all speak to me, addressing my present concerns and dilemmas."

"Soon you will leave this house of learning and enter the outside world. Often more often than not, you will wish you could still be here with your teachers and friends. There is so much violence outside. Bitterness. Danger. Perplexity when confronting the consequences of racism, bigotry and fanaticism. . . You will try to answer moral questions . . . You will be looking for explanations. Search for them not only in newspapers but also in books. Remember young friends, Romeo and Juliet is a story not of love but of hatred. Remember, hatred has unforeseen consequences. It spreads like cancer from limb to limb, from person to person, from people to people."

He concluded by offering insight into what saved his sanity after surviving the "apocalyptic" events of the Holocaust that claimed the lives of his mother and younger sister. "It was my passion for learning. The moment I arrived in an orphanage in France, I reopened a talmudic tractate and continued to study ancient laws and tales about the Temple in Jerusalem and God's love for his people-and all people are His."

"When I was your age, students, I had many questions. I still have them. But I will not allow them to become a wall between us. . . I celebrate freedom. To be free is essential, but to help others gain freedom is even more rewarding. That applies to all intellectual endeavors endowed with ethical resolve. . . Again with my profound gratitude, I wish you a future filled with learning, peace, fervor and hope."

This article was posted on: December 14, 2003

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