I was looking into the deepest eyes I think I had ever seen. I was a young graduate student, and Elie Wiesel, only 48, not yet a Nobel winner (not even very well known) was sitting across a table from me at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. It was 1976.
A few years before, Wiesel had coined the word "holocaust" to represent the Nazi attempt to eliminate all European Jewry. He was already regretting it, as people were sullying it, using the term to describe all manner of tragedy, large and relatively speaking, small. But he seemed, that morning, full of energy and more intent than ever to do his part to see that the world would never forget.
The hour before he had lectured on the Biblical character, Job. I remember his defiant spirit. He insisted that Job was perfectly correct to take God on and complain to "Him" about his own cruel fate, unjust as it was. Describing how God, in return, bullied Job, upbraiding him and asking him where he was when God made the cosmos, Wiesel said, "Job should have cried, 'Bulls^*t!' instead of just caving before the Almighty."
It was fresh air to someone like me, so used to the conventional discussions of the Bible I'd heard (and been part of) growing up.
I felt quite lucky to be included in a group of a dozen who got to speak with this slim gentle man after the lecture. His full dark eyebrows caught my attention immediately as we sat down. They seemed like sentries guarding his vulnerable, deeply lined face.
"He has the look of Lazarus about him," wrote Francois Mauriac. Still, as I beheld him in those moments, I couldn't forget the photo I'd seen of him as an adolescent in Sighet, his Romanian hometown, just before the Nazi occupation. He was a mature man now, but still seemed a touch boyish, if not innocent.
That face of his, those eyes — I had met celebrities before, one or two "great men," but this was different. Wiesel's eyes engaged you. They held you. They looked at you with such expectancy. Maybe it was because I was so fresh faced, unlike today.
I had a question ready, one I'd been mulling over for some time, and yet, remembering it now, I'm a little embarrassed. But I was very young, direct, and often clueless in those days. I remember it exactly. I said, "Mr. Wiesel, can there be any meaning in suffering?" As I asked it I saw a member of our group wince and shake his head, with emphasis.
How could I ask this man, this man of all humanity, such a question; this man who had seen his beloved mother and little sister literally go up in smoke; this man who, in captivity, had made it his goal to survive and drag his father out of hell with him — but failed?
Wiesel answered me very quickly. He said a quiet but emphatic, "No!" There could be no meaning in suffering. The suffering he had seen was too great. Any meaning one could imagine connected with it would immediately evaporate in the face of its shear gargantuan magnitude.
But then, taking into account my youth and obvious naïveté, he softened. He said, "Well, of course, one can learn from suffering; from some suffering.
"Suffering can soften the heart, but you must realize that as a Jew living on this side of such an outrage, I have no choice — I have no choice but to reject suffering outright. It is entirely unacceptable."
And then I remember he paused, and leaned back a little so as to more fully take me in.
"Well," he said, "that is the difference, isn't it, between your Christian faith and my Jewishness?"
I imagine I agreed with him about that. He spoke a moment about the Christian cross, but I don't remember what he said. I think I was busy resolving within myself to try, from that moment on, to never ever be glib about the subject of suffering ... with anyone.
Rev. Scott Dalgarno is pastor of Wasatch Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City.