Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters is a strange, profound, and disturbing book. It portrays a world ruled by contradiction, in which all warring religious impulses come to fruition and somehow coexist. Wiesel’s Hasidism is not Buber’s: it is darker, more chaotic, truer to life. Wiesel’s radical insights remind me of those of the Zen masters; I like the way he grapples with his subjects’ flaws and incoherencies. Here are a few quotations from the book that I think will remain with me for a while. Some of these are Wiesel’s own words, others are translations from the words of great Tzaddiks.
Rebbe Hersh, son of the Baal-Shem, . . . withdrew into himself, and in the end, spoke only to his dead father. In his dreams, he asked him, “How can I serve God?”
The Baal Shem climbed a high mountain and threw himself into the abyss. “Like this,” he answered.
Another time the Baal Shem appeared to him as a mountain on fire, erupting into a thousand flaming fragments: “And like this as well.”
Man is the language of God.
Why does [suffering] exist? I’ll tell you: man is too weak to accept or absorb divine charity, which is absolute. For that reason, and that reason alone, does God cover it with the veil that is pain.
[Israel of Rizhin] addressed God [thus:] “I am not a slave come to ask favors of the king. I come as a counselor to discuss matters of state.”
A day will come when man will stop hating others and hate himself; a day will come when all things will lose their coherence, when there will be no relation between man and his face, desire and its object, question and its answer.
I remember. Grandfather blessing me: “May you see the Messiah put an end to exile and the reign of evil.” A blessing that almost came true. It was night. I found myself transported into a strange and distant kingdom. In the shadow of the flames, the exiled were gathered. They came from everywhere, they spoke every language and all told the same story. Seeing them together under the fiery sky, the child in me had thought: This is it; this is the end of time, the end of everything. Any moment the Messiah will appear out of the night, the Messiah of fear, the Messiah of death. I thought of my grandfather and I trembled for him, for myself. And for his blessing.
Miracles, [Yaakov-Yitzhak of Pshiskhe] would say, are not difficult to perform; it is more difficult to be a Jew.
The Messiah will come and there will be nobody left to redeem.
In hell one prays better than in paradise.
If I am and You are because I am myself and You are Yourself, then I am I and You are You; but if I am because You are, then I am not I and You are not You.
. . . a road where silence enters the word and tears it apart the way the eye tears apart what it sees.
His last words were: “At last I shall see Him face to face.”
We don’t know—nor will we ever know—whether these words expressed an ancient fear or a renewed defiance.