Ani ma'amin
I believe...I believe in the coming of the Messiah...
I believe in the hope for a future,
just as I believe in the irresistible power of memory.

A Hasidic legend tells us that the great Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name, also known as the Besht, undertook an urgent and perilous mission. He wanted to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people, all humanity, were suffering too much, beset by too many evils. They had to be saved, and swiftly. For having tried to meddle with history, the Besht was punished. He was banished along with his faithful servant to a distant island. In despair, the servant implored his master to exercise his mysterious powers in order to bring them both home. "Impossible," the Besht replied. "My powers, my mystical powers, have been taken from me."

"Then, please, say a prayer, recite a litany, work a miracle."

"Impossible," the Master replied. "I have forgotten everything." And so they fell to weeping.

Suddenly, the Master turned to his servant and asked, "My friend, remind me of a prayer, any prayer."

"If only I could," said the servant. "I too have forgotten everything."

"Everything, absolutely everything?"

"Everything," said the servant, "except..."

"Except what?"

"Except the alphabet!"

At that the Besht cried out joyfully, "Then what are you waiting for? Begin reciting the alphabet, and I shall repeat after you." And together the two exiled men began to recite, at first in whispers, then more loudly, the Hebrew equivalent to the ABCs: "Aleph bet gimmel," and over again, "Aleph bet gimmel," and each time more vigorously, more fervently, until the Besht ultimately regained his memory and thus his powers.

I love this story, for I love stories; but I especially love this one for it illustrates the messianic exhortation and expectation which remains my own. It also illustrates the importance of friendship to man's ability to transcend his condition. I love it most of all because it emphasizes the mystical power of memory. Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates, like a tomb which rejects the living. Memory served and saved the Besht, and if anything can, it is memory that will save humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope....

[One of the most difficult questions] my generation had to face [after the Holocaust] was: Why go on? If memory continually brought us back to the altar of death, why build a home? Why go to school? Why reach out to others? Why make friends? Why trust? Why have faith in anyone or in yourself? How can I be sure that tomorrow the sun will shine when night seems eternal? And why bring children into a world in which God and man betrayed their trust in each other?

And yet, it is surely human to forget, even to want to forget. The ancients saw it as a divine gift. Indeed, if memory helps us to survive, forgetting helps us to go on living. How can we go on with our daily lives if we remain constantly aware of the dangers and ghosts surrounding us? The Talmud even tells us that without the ability to forget, man would soon cease to learn. Without the ability to forget, man would live in a permanent, paralyzing fear of death. Only God and God alone can and must remember everything all the time.

How are we to reconcile our supreme duty toward memory with the need to forget that is essential to life? No generation has had to confront this paradox with such urgency. The survivors wanted to communicate everything to the living: the victims' solitude and sorrow, their tears, their despair, their madness, the prayers of the doomed beneath a fiery sky. The needed to tell of the beggar who, in a sealed cattle car, began to sing as an offering to his companions, and of the little girl who, hugging her grandmother, whispered, "Grandmother, don't be afraid, don't be sorry to die - I'm not. It's not worth going on living."

Each one of us felt compelled to recall every story, every encounter. Each one of us felt compelled to bear witness. Such were the wishes of the dying, the testament of the dead. Since the so-called civilized world had no use for their lives, then let it be inhabited by their deaths....

Like the Besht, mankind needs to remember - more than ever. The lesson, the only lesson that I have learned from my experiences, is twofold: first, that there are no plausible answers, there are no psychological answers, there are no literary answers, there are no philosophical answers, there are no religious answers. The only conceivable answer is a moral answer. This means there must be a moral element in whatever we do. Second, that just as despair can be given to me only by another human being, hope too can be given to me only by another human being. Mankind must remember also, and above all, that like hope and whatever hope signifies, peace is not God's gift to his creatures. Peace is a very special gift - it is our gift to each other.


sources This article is based on Eli Wiesel's Nobel Address, delivered on December 10, 1986, in Oslo, Norway, upon acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Peace. It is reprinted in From the Kingdom of Memory, Shocken Books 1990. © 1990 by Elirion Associates, Inc. All rights reserved. Permission granted by Georges Borchardt Inc. For permission to use all or any part of this excerpt, please contact Georges Borchardt Inc.
author Eli Wiesel is the author of more than thirty internationally acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction. He is the Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University.



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