And if it doesn’t, it’s up to us to
give it one. But first, let us consider these questions:
Why the world? Why
people? Why did God consider it useful or even good to introduce them into his
If we are to believe an
old Talmudic legend, these questions are as old as Creation, and perhaps even
older. The angels did in fact try to dissuade him. "What good will they be?"
asked the Angel of Truth. "People will be unable to keep from lying." The Angel
of Peace added, "People will never be able to live in peace without quarreling
amongst each other." And so why not simply give up?
Was God wrong not to
listen to his celestial counselors’ wise warnings? History’s answer seems
depressing. It didn’t take long for Adam and Eve, in paradise, to disobey
divine will. These pitiful parents left their two sons to argue; one became the
assassin, the second the victim of the other. Death thereby made its debut into
human memory in the form of murder.
living in society, people irritated God so much that he ended up lamenting the
confidence he had placed in them. Hence the devastating flood. Was it his mistake to start over again?
Confronted by their creator,
are people condemned to remain God’s adversary, or even his enemy? Perhaps his
prisoner? His orphan? The Jewish tradition in which I base my thoughts defines
it unambiguously – we are his partner. To put it plainly: Though God created the
world, it is up to people to preserve, respect, enrich, embellish, and populate
it, without bringing violence to it.
Because the world is
fragile and vulnerable, it has always been in danger. And this danger comes
from man himself. Is it fear of solitude or death that makes it so desirable to
conquer and dominate another person’s thoughts, dreams, and hopes? Does the
torturer torment his prisoner or hostage to soothe his own anguish from
awakening in a universe that will outlive him?
Will man one day
understand that God alone is alone? That a living person is not alone and can depend
only on him or herself to not be alone? And that each of us is
responsible for another’s solitude? And for the world that another carries
Where is this world
going today? Hard to know, but we do know that it’s going there fast – in a train
that seems to race toward disaster. How can we stop it if not by pulling the
alarm? Aware of the perils that threaten the planet, perils coming from its own
inhabitants, it is at times easy to lose hope. So many wars, massacres, and hatreds
sweep over Creation that one wonders if God will lose patience.
Did he lose it before,
when evil and misfortune seemed to reign over a Europe occupied by Hitler’s
army? Each time that a child died of hunger, fear, sorrow; each time a child
expired in flames lit by men, it was right to wonder: Where was God in all of
this? What could his goal possibly have been when, over there, the Kingdom of Night had replaced his own?
I admit that all these
questions remain open for me. If an answer exists, I challenge it. The brutal
and cruel death of one and a half million children neither could nor should
have an answer.
But I know this: the
questions that confront us today do have a response; and this response engages
us. If the present world has a purpose or fate, it must be the same for all.
And each human being, with his own background and culture, owes it to him or
herself to affirm his or her own humanity with respect to that of his or her
peer. The purpose of the world cannot be to propose or impose a choice between
joy for some and distress for others. This is a false and unjust choice. If, in
order to be happy, it is necessary for the other not to be, the world in
which we live would look more like a prison than an orchard.
whole world into a massive enclosure is indeed the goal of a fanatic suffering
from ugly and unappeased hatred, not of a sincere and warm-hearted believer.
The former – the jailer – aspires to stifle out all those who are not like him. The
truth is that he manages to put God himself in prison.
Man’s task is thus to liberate
God, while freeing the forces of generosity in a world teetering more and more
between curse and promise.
Elie Wiesel is the Andrew W.
Mellon Professor in the Humanities and University Professor at Boston University. This essay was translated from the French by Jamie Moore.