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The 10 Commandments of Elie Wiesel

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LJ Cohen

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This afternoon, I was listening to WBUR as I was prepping dinner, and heard a moving story about Elie Wiesel's life and legacy as told by Rabbi Ariel Burger, a former student who became a colleague and then a friend.

Rabbi Burger had put together this from his time in Wiesel's classroom and so much of it spoke to me.

Ten Commandments of Elie Wiesel
By Ariel Burger
  1. Listen to a witness to become a witness.
  2. Don't kill the dead again by forgetting them.
  3. Enter madness if necessary to awaken sleeping communities.
  4. Don't let the enemy define you.
  5. Any one life is worth more than all that's been written about life.
  6. True prophets don't comfort; they disturb.
  7. Remember to laugh in spite of all the darkness.
  8. There is always something you can contribute – even if it's just your protest.
  9. Worship God by arguing with God.
  10. Sometimes there is no meaning. But then we must make meaning.
Of all of these, I am most struck by the last one.

Sometimes there is no meaning. But then we must make meaning.

That speaks to me as a poet and a writer. In a world that seems dark and ominous and where I feel so very vulnerable, writing is an act of valor, of defiance, and of creation. 

I have a friend who is struggling to make sense of her past and to find a path for her future. I have urged her to start journaling, not as a means to make a living with words, but to bring clarity and self-compassion to her life. 

Until I have written down the words, I often don't truly know how I feel. Finding the way to describe an experience is akin to sorting through a pile of stones for a handful of the right size, color, and heft. I often consider each word - alone and then next to its fellows. Does it fit? Does this phrase carry the meaning I need? Do the lines resonate with one another? And above all, will the language I craft organize the tangle of emotion into something I can understand and view from outside of myself?

Then I find peace and acceptance. Patience and compassion. 

Words are my tools to make meaning from the chaos of existence. This is more than capturing the accuracy of a memory. Our minds are not video recorders. Our memories are always in flux. Our interpretations of those memories change, depending on current life events, emotions, and our interactions with others. In effect, our lives are in a constant state of creation and recreation. 

Without the transformational power of art, I would argue that we cannot make meaning. Events would crash over us like the relentless tide on a rocky beach. Without transformation, we react,  lacking the space for reflection. Without reflection, there is no understanding, no wisdom. 

That final commandment is an obligation. We must make meaning, especially when there seems to be none. And yet, there is a danger in this, too. Especially if the meaning we make is one that distorts rather than illuminates. 

As I have lived through the political upheaval in my country these past several years, it occurs to me that we have become vulnerable to letting meaning come from without rather than from within.  We practice less introspection and reflection and instead abdicate our responsibility to self by accepting prefabricated and neatly packaged versions of our experiences. Is it any wonder that so many of us feel fragmented? Strangers to our selves?

It's been far too long since I've kept a journal consistently. Perhaps it's time to return to my old practice and use it as a way to interrogate my emotions and beliefs. Maybe the meaning I seek is waiting for me there.    



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