Lessons from Shimon Peres and Elie Wiesel – Protectors of God’s Windows

Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres – Our Inspiration this Rosh Hashanah: Men of courage, faith and action. They not only saw the world as it was, they worked to make to make it as it should be.

‘There is an old Yiddish proverb: “If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.” But I prefer another Yiddish proverb instead: “If things are not as you wish, wish them as you are.”’[1]

We live in a world, where too many people try to “break God’s windows” through unjustified hatred, senseless acts of violence, racism, xenophobia, war and so much more. We witness it each and every day in our own community, in the United States and around the world.

From the earliest of days, there have always been those, who have not been content to sit silently by watching as God’s windows are broken, people are oppressed and wars are waged, and they must respond. The jarring call of the shofar which we heard this morning – that ancient startling symbol – is their clarion call to action.

The shofars call awakens their conscience. It reminds them that when things are NOT as they wish, they should not only wish them as they are, but they need to take action to change the world. As we read in our machzor last night: (Gates of Repentance, page 64) “Let the Shofars sound awaken the voice of conscience…Let our memories of bondage impel us to help the oppressed.” We read this reminder immediately preceding the prayer which tells us that every creature is made “b’tzelem Elohim” – in the image of God. (God’s dominion extends to all creation).

We have a long list of these “protectors of God’s windows:” Abraham, Moses, the biblical prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa – and so many more famous and not famous who work anonymously and tirelessly in both large and small ways on behalf of humanity and our world.

You might recall learning that when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama to protest against segregation and racism, he said: “I feel like I am praying with my feet.”

Just recently, we said goodbye to two more “protectors of God’s windows” who blew the metaphorical shofar with their life’s work, who modeled for us what it means to “wish things as they are.” They prayed not just with their words, but with their actions, their deeds, their courage. They are our inspiration for us today, this Rosh Hashanah morning.

As summer began, Elie Wiesel died, one of our greatest moral statesmen. He became the voice of conscience after the Holocaust. Wiesel’s mission was to always deliver a powerful message “of peace, hope, atonement and human dignity” to humanity. To me, this is “the message” of the High Holy Days. We begin anew every year with the blessings and hopes that THIS year our lives will be filled with good health, that THIS year our lives will be filled with hope, that THIS year we can turn around and change old behaviors for the good, and that THIS year our world will be a more peaceful place.

And now, this past Friday, the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah, we have just buried Shimon Peres, one of our greatest political statesmen. Peres was the last of the founders of the state of Israel — a man who embodied everything that the Jewish state is and wants to be. A man who, like Wiesel, delivered a powerful message of peace, hope and human dignity.

The two of them, Wiesel and Peres, played different yet similar roles in the life of our people. Each fulfilled his mission with passion, drive and humility – spurred on by the teachings of our Jewish tradition. For both of them, they took to heart these verses from Torah: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice justice you shall pursue as well as the notion that God tells us that every human being is made b’tezelem Elohim – in the image of God. They made it their life’s work to fulfill the teaching in Pirke Avot – the Ethics of the Fathers: to “be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.” Not only do we read about the shofar being our clarion call to action in our prayer book, we read about peace:

“Peace will remain a distance vision until we do the work of peace ourselves. If peace is to be brought to the world, we must bring it to our friends and community. But we cannot be content to make peace only in our own household. Go forth and work for peace wherever men and women are struggling in its cause.” (paraphrased from Gates of Repentance, pp. 67 and 68)

Wiesel and Peres each embodied these lessons in their actions and aspirations, their words and deeds and with every fiber of their being. They worked tirelesslessly, they felt the moral imperative to actively pursue peace and justice to the fullest extent possible. And they understood the rabbinic teaching which tells us: “Lo aleicha hamlacha ligmor…it is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free from abstaining from it.”

Wiesel and Peres shared similar backgrounds, similar ideologies and similar philosophies, both rising out of the ashes of the Holocaust to build lives of purpose and meaning. Like all great people, their lives could be seen sometimes through a lens of controversy and controversy. Like each of us, they were human, and as such, each had limitations and failings, like each of us. For who are we to say: we are perfect and have not erred? But that is why each had his share of critics and naysayers as well.

“Our Jewish tradition says that the truly righteous do not need monuments of stone. Their deeds and actions, their words and legacy are their monuments.”[2] The impact each has impressed upon the world is an inspiration for each of us as we begin our new year, lessons for us as we pledge to renew our lives once again this Rosh Hashanah.

President Barack Obama said this on Friday, about Shimon Peres:

“Shimon once said: “The message of the Jewish people is that faith and moral vision can triumph over all adversity.” For Shimon, that moral vision was rooted in an honest reckoning of the world as it is. Born in the shtetl, he said he felt, “surrounded by a sea of thick and threatening forests.” When his family got the chance to go to Palestine, his beloved grandfather’s parting words were simple: “Shimon, stay a Jew.” Propelled with that faith, he found his home. He found his purpose. He found his life’s work. But he was still a teenager when his grandfather was burned alive by the Nazis in the town where Shimon was born. The synagogue in which he prayed became an inferno. The railroad tracks that had carried him toward the Promised Land also delivered so many of his people to death camps.

And so from an early age, Shimon bore witness to the cruelty that human beings could inflict on each other, the ways that one group of people could dehumanize another; the particular madness of anti-Semitism, which has run like a stain through history. That understanding of man’s ever-present sinfulness would steel him against hardship and make him vigilant against threats to Jewry around the world.

But that understanding would never harden his heart. It would never extinguish his faith. Instead, it broadened his moral imagination, and gave him the capacity to see all people as deserving of dignity and respect. It helped him see not just the world as it is, but the world as it should be.”[3]

This forms the basis for Peres’ three-part philosophy: ‘The most important thing is life is to dare, to dream big, to have imagination and think out of the box. The most complicated thing in life is to be afraid, but not so afraid as to hinder you from taking risks. The smartest thing is the world is to try to be a moral person.”

Obama’s words could just have easily been said about Elise Wiesel. Elie Wiesel’s life-path had similar beginnings. Born in Romania, he and his family were taken to Auschwitz-Berkinou where he watched as Yosef Mengele selected his mother and sister and sent them to their death in the inferno of the crematoria. Like Peres, Wiesel bore witness to the cruelty and horror that humans can inflict upon each other. Like Peres, he struggled to come to terms with his own personal experience of total humiliation and utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps. After remaining silent for a decade, he decided that silence was never an option. Like Peres, Wiesel understood man’s ever-present sinfulness and it would steel him against hardship and make him vigilant against threats to Jewry and other oppressed peoples around the world.

And like Peres, that understanding would never harden his heart. It would never extinguish his faith. Instead, it broadened his moral imagination, and gave him the capacity to see all people as deserving of dignity and respect. It helped him see not just the world as it is, but the world as it should be. (Quoting Obama)

Wiesel said: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Both Wiesel and Peres dared to dream, to have imagination that our world has the potential of healing and wholeness. They both devoted themselves tirelessly to that cause.

Peres did so by shaping the story of Israel’s history. There was hardly a significant role he didn’t occupy: minister of defense, minister of foreign affairs, minister of finance, minister of transportation, prime minister and, ultimately, president. He was a tireless champion of peace. While Peres was willing to fight for Israel’s safety, security and right to exist, he also felt the moral imperative to actively pursue peace to the fullest extent possible.

He taught us by his word and deeds what it means to reach out to one’s enemies and make them your friends: he initiated dialogue and contact with Jordan’s King Hussein long before Israel and Jordan ever had diplomatic relations; he knew that it was crucial to work towards a peaceful relationship with the Palestinians – even when times seemed difficult.

Thus, he was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for the work they did together, even though tensions still exist. His work for peace earned him many international awards and prizes.

I met President Peres a few times, during times of quiet and calm in Israel, during the days of strife and terror attacks. What impressed me most, was that this former military hero, never gave up hope that peace was possible. That two peoples living on one land in harmony could be a reality.

To that end, in 1996, he created the Peres Center of Peace. It is one of Israel’s leading organizations to promote peace building between Israel and its neighbors as well as between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

Peres said: “In spite of our differences, we can build peace, not just negotiate peace. We can create the proper environment , and not just become victims of the existing environment.”

Elie Wiesel was the first to break down the doors of silence about what happened during the Holocaust, to speak openly about virulent anti-semitism, racism, xenophobia and why be must always fight against hatred. He said: “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 difference.

Wiesel and his wife, Marion, started the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity in 1986. He spearheaded the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Like Peres, he too was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – his award came first, in 1986 for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism. Wiesel felt compelled to speak out and act out wherever human beings were being oppressed around the world: the former Yugoslavia, Syria, Europe, Africa, any country or place where human dignity was compromised. Wiesel explained his feelings: “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.”

I chaperoned the 2nd March of the Living with Elie Wiesel in attendance, where he led the Memorial Service from on top of the crematorium where his mother and sister were murdered in Berkenau. Drops of rain fell from the sky like tears, as he recited the blessings, and shared that as long as he was able, he would continue to speak out, continue to work on behalf of those who could not speak for themselves and he urged us to do the same.

Both Wiesel and Peres knew that Jews struggled for our place in the world but we are still here. They both understood if we only look inward, we would cease to exist. So while it is necessary for us to take care of ourselves we must also take care of those who cannot speak or care for themselves simultaneously. We must look both inward AND outward with wide open arms and hearts, listening ears, open minds and spirits.

These “protectors of God’s windows” have so much more to teach us, beyond that of heeding the call of the shofar:

They both were men of the written word and avid readers. Peres spoke six languages fluently, was a poet and a voracious reader. He could converse with those young and old alike on any number of topics because he read so widely. Wiesel was a bible and Talmud scholar, a University Professor who held long-time appointments at both Boston University and Yale. Though he was known primarily for his Holocaust works, his vast knowledge of biblical and rabbinic portraits and legends was beyond compare. Like Peres, he too, was fluent in many languages and could converse with those young and old on any number of topics.

“They reminded us that humility, human and humor all come from the same root.”[4] They were both men of great stature, yet could relate to all people: no matter what their age or background. They remind us that they were just human and if they had the ability to affect change, so can each of us, in our own way. We can protect God’s windows at home, in our own community or wherever people are trying to break them down.

To paraphrase President Obama’s closing statements of Peres’ eulogy on Friday:

“Like Joshua, we feel the weight of responsibility that Peres and Wiesel seemed to wear so lightly. But we draw strength from their example and the fact that they believed in us — even when we doubted ourselves.

The Torah tells us that before his death, Moses said, “I call upon heaven and earth to bear witness this day that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.”

Uvacharta Bachayim. Choose life. For Peres and Wiesel – and all those ‘protectors of God’s windows,’ for ourselves, our families – and all humanity – , let us choose life, as they always did. Let us make their work our own.”[5]

Ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha’olam – together, you and I can change the world.


[1] I learned these two Yiddish proverbs from Rabbi Yael Splansky’s (Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto, Ontario) Second Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon, of 2015. The rest of the sermon’s ideas are my own, unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Blog Post on Shimon Peres: “Martini Judaism: The Best Things Shimon Peres Ever Said”, 9/28/16 (Religion News Service)

[3] President Barack Obama, Eulogy for Shimon Peres, Friday, September 30, 2016.

[4] Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Blog Post on Shimon Peres: “Martini Judaism: The Best Things Shimon Peres Ever Said”, 9/28/16 (Religion News Service)

[5] Paraphrasing President Barack Obama’s eulogy for Shimon Peres, Friday, September 30, 2016.