Monday, December 7, 2009

Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By

Last Thursday night I had an opportunity of a lifetime. I was able to attend a lecture at Bryant University given by Elie Wiesel. Most people know Wiesel as the Holocaust survivor who wrote about his time at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in the book Night. (If you haven't yet read Night, you really should. It's one of those books that everyone should read at least once in their lifetime). But, Mr. Wiesel is also a professor and a humanitarian. And it was in his role as Humanitarian that he spoke to the packed audience at Bryant.

I have read the book Night three times. And all three times it made a huge impact on me. Most recently I read it in early October. It had been assigned to Katie in her World Literature class. I offered to read it with her. It was a moving experience to read that with Katie and discuss it together. So, when Sandy of It's a Jungle out There told me that Elie Wiesel was coming to Bryant to give a lecture that was free and open to the public, I jumped at the chance to attend. Sandy was kind enough to make the call and get tickets for me and Katie to attend the lecture with her and my Dad (for those of you who don't know, Sandy is not only my friend, she's also my Step mom).

It is impossible to describe what it felt like to be in that room with Wiesel. This is a man who regularly talks to world leaders. A man who is summoned by Presidents to consult on matters of world peace. And here he is, speaking to a group of students, professors and community members. For free! It's hard to wrap my mind around that.

It's also impossible to describe or summarize his talk. His mind is so nimble and his intelligence so great that he made transitions in his talk from one topic to another very smoothly, but as a listener it is difficult, in retrospect, to figure out how we got from his writing, to memory, to the violence of modern language, to the silence between words, to the Bible, to world events, and on and on. I felt as though I was in the presence of true greatness. I was so honored to be in his presence. I know how schmaltzy that sounds. But it was my honest reaction.

In spite of the fact that it's impossible for me to summarize his talk, I did walk away with a message. Wiesel spoke about the 10 Commandments and he suggested an 11th. The most important commandment. One he lives his life by and one he exhorted us to live ours by as well. Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By. The focus of his Foundation and his message is that people should not stand idly by when others are suffering or in need. That as human beings we must respond to those around the world and those close to home who are in need. I've been thinking about that since Thursday night. And I wonder if I measure up. I try to give back. But I do it in a more distant way. I think I need to do more to relieve suffering that I witness first hand. But, you know what, that's much harder to do. So much more up close and personal. So much "messier". What would Mr. Wiesel say to that? In his gentle and accepting way I think he'd tell me not to stand idly by. Words to think about. And live by.


tori said...

It's been a long time since I read Night, I just remember feeling like he had given up on his faith. I don't know if that is true or not. I would have loved to go hear him speak. What an honor.

strokeofliving said...

I admit to not ever having read Night. After reading this post I feel like I must.

When I heard Cornell West speak for free at Pasadena City college a few years ago, I felt similarly. And I couldn't find a sole to attend with me so I went alone.

Karen said...

That sounds like an amazing experience!

I haven't read the book but it's on my list!

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Anonymous said...

What an experience! I read about his talk in the paper and wish I had gone. I felt this same way after listening to Dr Paul Farmer speak last year. Another amazing human being who is not just standing idly by but is helping humanity.

I love the 11th commandment. Good advice.


bettyl said...

Wow. What an honor you had. It truly is not easy to reach out, but once you do, you realize how important it is. Something we all can do more of--especially at this time of year.

Sandy said...

Truly a chance of a lifetime. You did a fabulous job of summing up the hour we spent listening to him. It seemed especially poignant to me to have three generations of family there listening to him together. The fact that we each were touched shows the scope of his reach.

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