A Beggar in Jerusalem

by Elie Wiesel

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

I have known more prisons and asylums than exist in this world," he explained to me one day. "They are the palaces and the castles of the poor. Mine. That's where I left my tears. All of them. Tears of joy, of bitterness, tears of impotent rage, the tears of a child fearing death and the tears of an old man cursing his youth. There are no more tears. All I have left is laughter.

The above words are spoken by a beggar named Moshe. In Wiesel's book, Moshe belongs to a group of beggars who gather near the Wailing Wall each evening. They tell stories to comfort each other. While the Jews have won the Six Day War, they have also lost many loved ones in the brutal struggle for statehood.

As in many of Wiesel's novels, laughter is portrayed as an act of defiance. It is natural to cry, rather than laugh, in the face of loss, but the Jews in Wiesel's book admit no such weakness. Instead, they flaunt their laughter in the face of tragedy and dare their persecutors to challenge their audacity.

And so, in order not to listen any more, the disciple thinks of his father, his mother, his friends, and hates himself for having deserted them. He throws his body across the corpses filling the grave and he begs them not to reject him. Inside the grave, and above it, night has fallen.

The above quotes refer to the surrealistic figure who refuses to die. He is Wiesel's quintessential madman, who cannot be destroyed. What this mystical figure represents is the spirit of Israel, a spirit that has woven itself into the fabric of humanity.

According to Wiesel in his book Conversations, the Jewish fate is tied to the fate of all humanity. He believes that humanity will never recover from another holocaust of the Jews. Thus, the indomitable, mystical figure must represent humanity and its fight for self-preservation.

In the book, the mystical figure (representing the spirit of humanity) cannot die, even in the face of tragedy. It yearns to live, even as it "hates" itself for having deserted the less fortunate. Wiesel appears to suggest that the intrinsic human predilection for self-preservation may be mankind's only hope against another Holocaust.

In the eyes of that generation, a people can and must alter its destiny. It believes that the children of Israel can escape the past of Israel. Thus, it wishes them all to be healthy, normal, cured of obsessions and complexes, relieved of mystery and burden. It is deluding itself.

To Wiesel, the past cannot be disconnected from the present. Doing so would imperil humanity. Thus, the past must be seen in all its starkness and unmitigated by human illusions. In his book Conversations, Wiesel maintains that the Holocaust should never be dramatized. Doing so would banalize the scope of its tragedy. To Wiesel, the past should never be revised in any way. The ugliness of the past has a purpose: to deter the destruction of the entire human race.

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