TEXT OF WIESEL'S COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
President Runte, Distinguished members of the Faculty, students, friends:
I cannot begin to thank you how grateful I am - and how sorry...sorry for not being able to be with you and share in your joy as well as in your pride. But I hope you also know how deeply grateful I am for the honor you have chosen to bestow upon me today. It means so much to me - and one day I will do my best to come to Old Dominion and tell you why.
But you are there. And that is more important...
As you are about to say farewell to one another, after four long years of searching for ways in which to live in a new century already filled with political and social convulsions, do take a moment just to wonder: what have you learned from one another? First of all, you have learned to listen. Isn't that the basis for all that matters in what constitutes "human exchange?" 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. "Thou shall not stand idly by, for I am the Lord" is to me one of the most sublime commandments of Scripture. It governs my life. The Creator Himself does not stand idly by. He is present in History. Job's fear is not that God may be unjust but that He may be indifferent. And if there is anything at all that one discovers in religious faith, it is that God is not a stranger to His creation. "How then," you may ask, "is one to comprehend, let alone justify, the suffering, the persecutions, the infinite variety of injustices, all willed by human beings upon other human beings?"
When you entered this marvelously inspired institution, the 20th Century had just neared its end. Remember? Hannah Arendt called it the most violent century in history. And what a century it was! Two totalitarian ideologies produced atheistic religions - Naziism and communism - causing evil which acquired unprecedented power; two world wars and their 60 million victims, the Gulag on one hand and Auschwitz on the other, civil wars, racial wars, religious wars, ethnic wars. 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?
Where did we go wrong in history?
Whenever I am faced with difficult questions, I go back to biblical texts. I love them. 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 us, addressing our present concerns and dilemmas.
What does the story of Cain and Abel convey to us? First, that their parents were poor pedagogues with no sense for family education. They should have intervened in their children's quarrels. But they didn't. And so, one became a murderer, and the other, a victim. Thus we now know that brothers can become mortal enemies: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Ireland and Bosnia. But above all we should realize that whoever kills, kills his own brother.
Religious texts are not the only ones you have studied. Plato's description of Socrates' trial and punishment, is a great lesson of the singular relationship that exists between teacher and disciple. Socrates had a choice between death and exile. He chose death. He understood, as many stateless and homeless persons do today, that exile could very well be harsher than death.
From the prophets we learn that for the sake of justice and truth, one may and occasionally must, speak truth to power. Power is temporary, truth is eternal. Eternal also is the human quest for truth and peace. There is no beauty in war. War is always cruel, forever ugly, destroying life. War grants victory to death alone. Why can't good, decent and sensitive people understand that? Is it because of their hatred towards their fellow humans? What is hate? How is it produced? And once it's there, how can it be unmasked and then eliminated?
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. Why are there so many violent conflicts on our small planet? Why the daily assassinations in Iraq, why so much bloodshed in Israel? Why has society allowed suicide terrorists to dominate the national and international agenda with its absurd and horrifying acts against defenseless civilians, including little children and their mothers? What will convince the international community to declare that suicide terrorism is a crime against humanity? What is the answer to unjust power?
You will try to answer moral questions. Is our country right in waging war? Is neutrality ever an option? Has racism vanished from our horizon? If not, why not? Who is to be thanked for the recent improvement in Christian-Jewish relations? Will it affect our connection with Islam?
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.
And what is the meaning of all that you have just heard? Whatever one may say about life is in life. And learning about life is as sacred as life itself. Hence my passion for learning. I am defined by its power as well as by its dazzling possibilities. Did it help me survive certain apocalyptic events that marked my life? Often I am asked by brilliant students: what enabled me to survive the darkness that long ago had engulfed the universe and the human heart? I don't offer any answer; I have none. But to me and to some of my peers the real question is a different one: what helped me save my sanity after the war? Logically, medically speaking, we who have seen the frailty of man on one hand and the cruelty of man on the other, should have yielded to madness. What was there in my soul that saved my sanity? To this question I do have an answer: 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 favor doors and windows. Walls are for prisons. 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. Both ethos and logos imply the existence of "the other." Remember, God alone is alone. Human beings are not alone and must never be. And to the prisoner in his prison, to the patient in her hospital bed, to the hungry mother in Africa who cannot feed her emaciated child, we must say in our own words: "You are not alone."
The key word remains: "Remember."
Again with my profound gratitude, I wish you a future filled with learning, peace, fervor, and hope.
This article was posted on: December 17, 2003
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