Elie Wiesel is perhaps the most important voice of our time for Jewish searching, Jewish agony and Jewish commitment. A survivor of Auschwitz–his entire family had perished there–he has said and written probably more than any other person about the torment and the questioning in which we as a people have engaged for more than half a century. He divides his time each year among the United States, where he lectures and writes; France, where he grew up after the war, and where his talents and purpose in life first emerged; and Israel.
A year ago Elie Wiesel spoke at a conference of Jewish organizations about Jewish identity. During the course of the discussion he was asked, “Where in the Jewish world do you feel most at home?” He was silent for a moment, and then answered, “Jerusalem–when I am not there.” With that simple phrase, “Jerusalem–when I am not there,” Wiesel touched upon a profound and universal human trait.
There is in each of us a strong, constant tension between where we are and where we long to be. We hover in the tension, in this never-never-satisfied land. There are always two roads before us, and both lead to frustration. When we are in one place, we dream of being somewhere else. But that other place also leaves us restless and discontented.
I am not talking only about physical geography, although that, too, is what I believe Elie Wiesel had in mind. On the simplest level we are always aching to be on the move. It is staggering to think how many millions of people are constantly traveling from one place to another–here, in Europe, Africa, the world over. Whatever else such widespread and ceaseless motion means, it also often means an inability to be happy wherever we are.
But there is another level on which we should understand Elie Wiesel’s strange response. Namely, our inner geography. We know, even if no one else knows, that the Jerusalem inside us is never quite what it ought to be. We are in limbo between our sensitive hearts, which lead us to higher spiritual plateaus, and our feet of clay, which hold us down.
There is yet a third level to which we must relate Elie Wiesel’s intriguing comment. He suggested that in any Jerusalem, in any society, however dear it may be to us, we must never acquiesce in its shortcomings. The patriot, the citizen, the lover of any land or people is that man or woman whose patriotism is not blind to truth, whose citizenship is not deaf to injustice, whose love for country ignores neither blemish nor imperfection.
That is what our Kol Nidre eve is about. It asks us to stop running and to recognize that wherever we go, we take our problems with us. It asks us to admit our inner impulses and to march to the beat of a nobler drum. And it asks us never to sell short our ideals for the world.
But in the tradition of Kol Nidre, these expectations are easier to describe than to heed. The familiar and haunting melody we hear again may stir in us feelings of nostalgia and even of regret. But the words remind us of the vows and promises we make, but will not, or cannot, keep. In fact, our Kol Nidre prayer is followed immediately by Moses’ prayer: “Forgive the people’s sins according to your mercy,” and by God’s answer to Moses: “I have forgiven, as you have asked.”
The inference is clear: If we are forgiven, it is not because we have fully repented, but because of God’s patience with our frailty. The assumption is that we shall probably be no different when we leave this place than we were when we came. As we shall return to our homes, we shall continue not to be at home in them, because we have built them with outer rather than with inner strength and beauty. As we return to our thoughts, we will still not be at home in them, because we do not wish to look at what we think of as our less admirable selves. Indeed, if we do not know where our homes are, it will be because we have forgotten that home for the decent human being can only be found in the decent society around him.
A young man in the congregation told me, not happily, but with great distress, “The only time I appreciate my mother is when I’m out of town.”
What is this unending ambivalence that does this to our love, whether it be our love for other people, our love for places, our love for things, our love for where and what we are?
Why is it difficult for us to say “I love you” when we are at home, but easy to say “I miss you” over the phone when we are away?
Why is it easy for us to be kind and polite to strangers, and rude and cruel to those who love us?
Why do we seldom visit our own synagogues but delight in visiting the synagogues in Curacao, Prague, Florence or Kol Haneshamah?
Why is it that in our fantasies we see other places and other times with tenderness and warmth when actually, in those times and places, we were quite wretched?
Why do we let our envy of some people consume us, only to find that when we achieve what they have, we find other people to envy?
Why are we most at home in all of these “Jerusalems” only when we aren’t there?
Recently, a member of our Temple, a man in his sixties, said to me, “I earn enough money. I am happy at home. I am in reasonably good health. But, is that all there is?”
A woman in her forties once said the same thing to me in a different way. She said, “I am my husband’s wife, my children’s mother, my parents’ daughter, but what am I for myself alone?”
Intuitively, both these people were saying what Carl Rogers, a man of great insight has stated: “We are lonely, and homeless, and unhappy in whatever we do, wherever we go, and whatever we possess because we have looked for the meaning of life in the wrong places.”
We have looked for meaning in the outer fronts we have built around ourselves, in our relationships to others, in the outer shells the world sees, in the superficial images we wish the world to believe we are. But the meaning of our lives is inside us, in our real, perhaps strange and even contradictory selves.
Rogers illustrates: “If I think the meaning of my life can be found in the relation of my role as a psychologist to whatever your role is, if a rabbi believes that the meaning of his life is to be found in the relation of his role as a priest/rabbi to his church/temple, if the CEO thinks that the significance of his life lies in the relation of his role as a CEO to his associates, then at some point each of these individuals is likely to discover that this is not an adequate basis for living.”
The actor, Richard Burton, once said, “Half the fun of being an actor is getting away from your own disgusting self.” We wear certain clothes. We adopt certain mannerisms. We speak certain lines. And we are always acting in these roles so that we confuse them with our real, inner selves. Now we don’t really fool the world, though we may think we do. But we don’t certainly fool ourselves … and sooner or later life catches up with us. We travel widely. We read frantically. We get every gadget we can afford. We share in every fad that comes along. And the questions still remain:
Is that all there is?
Who am I for myself alone?
Where, really, is home for me?
What is the meaning of my life?
Shall we, in this hour of atonement, use reason to restore us to a more meaningful and satisfying life? Or shall we play Russian roulette with the chance that it may tell us where home is for us? Shall we set aside our outer shells, and fashion for our inner selves the meaning of our personal lives? Shall we at the same time uphold the ideal of justice and find in it the true meaning of our collective life?
These are the questions we must ask tonight, and as it is written in Hebrew literature, “A wise question is half the answer.”