In Wise Men and Their Tales, a master teacher gives us his fascinating insights into the lives of a wide range of biblical figures, Talmudic scholars, and Hasidic rabbis.
The matriarch Sarah, fiercely guarding her son, Isaac, against the negative influence of his half-brother Ishmael; Samson, the solitary hero and protector of his people, whose singular weakness brought about his tragic end; Isaiah, caught in the middle of the struggle between God and man, his messages of anger and sorrow counterbalanced by his timeless, eloquent vision of a world at peace; the saintly Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who by virtue of a lifetime of good deeds was permitted to enter heaven while still alive and who tried to ensure a similar fate for all humanity by stealing the sword of the Angel of Death.
Elie Wiesel tells the stories of these and other men and women who have been sent by God to help us find the godliness within our own lives. And what interests him most about these people is their humanity, in all its glorious complexity. They get angry--at God for demanding so much, and at people, for doing so little. They make mistakes. They get frustrated. But through it all one constant remains--their love for the people they have been charged to teach and their devotion to the Supreme Being who has sent them. In these tales of battles won and lost, of exile and redemption, of despair and renewal, we learn not only by listening to what they have come to tell us, but by watching as they live lives that are both grounded in earthly reality and that soar upward to the heavens.
Wiesel sketches familiar biblical, talmudic and Hasidic panoramas, then asks questions about the personalities that people them. His compelling portraits focus on disturbing episodes and character flaws, drawn with an unexpected zing that brings fresh perspective to these time-worn but timeless texts. Why did Lot's wife look back? To Wiesel, that's more understandable than why Lot did not: "for at times one must look backwardlest one run the risk of turning into a statue. Of stone? No: of ice." The stories "continue to guide and enlighten us" in facing incomprehensible events and contemporary challenges. His "wise men" include the expected (Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Saul and Samuel), but also others rarely discussed (the prophets Isaiah and Hosea, and Talmudic sages like Rabbi Tarfon). His two Hasidic sketches are less successful and seem out of place in the context of the book, and the title is misleading, for Wiesel also considers "wise women" like Sarah, Hagar and Miriam. Wiesel's dramatic narratives are bolstered by generous helpings of midrash, commentary and a sense of humor. He raises the human, social, psychological, religious and historical dimensions of each conflict and character, but integrates them in a seamless way so they do not feel like the lectures they areoriginally delivered at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y and Boston University. It's a treat to see how Wiesel's mind works, to be privy to his literary wisdom, his insights into human character, his narrative directness and self-admitted lack of answers. (Oct. 14) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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February 28, 2005
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Excerpt from Wise Men and Their Tales by Elie Wiesel
Ishmael and Hagar A man, a woman. Abraham and Sarah. Who has not heard of them? Everyone loves them. They radiate goodness, nobility, human warmth. Who doesn’t claim kinship with them? Humankind is what it is because they shaped our destiny. He is the father of our people, she the mother. Everything leads us back to them. The promised land bears their seal. Faith—our faith—was kindled by theirs. A couple unlike any other, they inspire joy and hope. Tormented by our own troubles, we recall theirs, which give ours a transcendent meaning. Abraham, the first to be chosen, the first to choose God and crown him God of the universe; Abraham, synonymous with loyalty and absolute fidelity, a symbol of perfection. And yet . . . a shadow hovers over one aspect of his existence. In his exalted life, we encounter a painful episode that cannot but puzzle us, if not cause us to recoil. I refer, of course, to his behavior toward his maid, concubine, or companion, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael. Let us read the text, shall we? It tells us that Sarah, poor Sarah, is barren. She cannot conceive. Unhappy above all for her husband, who desires a son and heir, she proposes that he have this child with his Egyptian servant, Hagar. Jewish women being good matchmakers, the shiddukh is successful. Abraham and Hagar are together, Hagar becomes pregnant—and that is when the problems start: the servant becomes disrespectful toward her mistress, who takes offense. Eventually, a persecuted Hagar takes flight. Proud, she prefers to die in the desert rather than remain a slave in Sarah’s house. By chance, an angel notices her and advises her to return home. Hagar obeys, goes back to Abraham, and gives birth to Ishmael. Fourteen years later, Sarah finally gives birth to her own son: Isaac. What must happen, happens: When Ishmael, like any other boy, plays tricks on his young sibling, Sarah arranges for Hagar and her son to be sent away for good. The text, of course, is more detailed and contains some astonishing descriptions: Sarah’s state of mind, Hagar’s character, Abraham’s behavior—it’s all there. Sometimes a single word suffices to paint a vivid picture; a silence conveys the ambiguity of a situation. The more we reread the story, the more it troubles us. It makes us feel ill at ease. We wish it had happened somewhere else, in another book, in someone else’s memory. It has no place in ours. How is it possible? Can Jewish history really begin with a domestic quarrel between an elderly matron and her young maid? And if so, why did the Bible preserve it? Naturally, none of this would have happened had Sarah not been childless for so many years. But then, why was she? Why did she have to be so afflicted? Actually, there are those who answer that Sarah has this in common with other matriarchs who had the misfortune of being bar- ren at first. The reason? One midrashic author offers a generous explanation—generous, that is, to the husbands, the patriarchs. This author says that pregnant, the most beautiful wives appear less attractive because they lose their figures. So to be desirable to the patriarchs for as long as possible, the matriarchs had no children for years and years. A compassionate and courteous Midrash adds that Sarah, when she became a mother at the age of ninety, still had the looks of a young bride on her wedding night. In other words, the entire tragedy of Hagar and Ishmael would not have happened if God—or the text—had not decided to cater to the masculine pride of our forefather Abraham. Is it possible? Is it plausible? Let us not forget: if Sarah had given birth to a son earlier, immediately after her marriage, Hagar would have remained a servant, Ishmael would not have been born—and Israel, today, would not have an Arab problem. But let