Filled with Fire and Light: Por­traits and Leg­ends from the Bible, Tal­mud, and Hasidic World 

Elie Wiesel, Alan Rosen (Edi­tor)

  • Review
By – December 13, 2021

Elie Wiesel was known for writ­ing mas­ter­ful­ly about the lives of Judaism’s heroes, both ancient and mod­ern. Over his career he attempt­ed sketch­es of bib­li­cal per­son­al­i­ties like Joshua, Jere­mi­ah, Ruth, and Esther. He explored the lives of the rab­bis from Rab­bi Tar­fon to Yehoshua Ben Levi. He opened his read­ers up to the mys­ti­cal world of the Hasidic mas­ters and the world of the shtetl. Wiesel’s lat­est book, Filled with Fire and Light, con­tin­ues this pur­suit. Posthu­mous­ly pub­lished, it intro­duces read­ers to many of the most fas­ci­nat­ing and often less­er explored sages and dream­ers” in the Jew­ish canon.

Like many of his pre­vi­ous books, Filled with Fire and Light is a com­pi­la­tion of Wiesel’s pub­lic lec­tures. As the book’s edi­tor Alan Rosen explains in the intro­duc­tion, Wiesel left a num­ber of these man­u­scripts after his death. Rosen adapt­ed and pub­lished nine of them.

Filled with Fire and Light is an eclec­tic col­lec­tion. Wiesel’s char­ac­ter sketch­es range from ancient kings like Josi­ah to prophets like Elisha. He explores the per­son­al­i­ty of God in the Bible and then turns his atten­tion to the lega­cy of Satan in the Tal­mud. In all his pieces, Wiesel writes with his usu­al pathos and under­stand­ing. He is a keen observ­er of his character’s moti­va­tions. One will read the book not only to learn about these fig­ures but to feel along­side them as well. We sit with Wiesel at the deathbed of Yochanan Ben Zakai and in prison with Shneur Zal­man of Lia­di. Unlike an aca­d­e­m­ic char­ac­ter study, Wiesel is not removed from his sub­jects. It’s clear he is high­ly invest­ed. In fact, one leaves the book with the dis­tinct feel­ing that he loves them.

One of Wiesel’s most pow­er­ful gifts was his abil­i­ty, through a brief aside and a thought­ful digres­sion, to take the lives of his char­ac­ters and make them rel­e­vant for his read­er today. It’s not uncom­mon in his writ­ing for Wiesel to opine about God’s role in suf­fer­ing or why evil exists. In one mas­ter­ful exam­ple, Wiesel uses the char­ac­ters of Rab­bis Yochanan and Resh Lak­ish to explore the divide between the uni­ver­sal, open, and accom­mo­dat­ing impulse in our tra­di­tion found in the for­mer and the par­tic­u­lar­ist, stri­dent, dis­ci­plined, and obdu­rate bent in the lat­ter. Their rela­tion­ship mat­ters, Wiesel seems to say, because both voic­es have a seat at the table.

Read­ing these essays, one is struck espe­cial­ly by two fea­tures. The first is that Wiesel has a way with words. His writ­ing is not fan­cy, nor is it par­tic­u­lar­ly hard, but he is able though the per­fect phrase to cap­ture the essence of his char­ac­ters. It is also high­ly rhyth­mic. It reads like it was spo­ken. He has a vir­tu­osic sense of pac­ing. His essays build, almost sym­phon­i­cal­ly, call­ing on ear­li­er themes and ques­tions, until they cli­max at the per­fect end­ing that lingers with the read­er long after they fin­ish the page.

Addi­tion­al­ly, one is struck by Wiesel’s com­mand of his sub­ject mat­ter. Wiesel spent his life wad­ing into the sea of Jew­ish texts. It’s not uncom­mon for him to ref­er­ence a Hasidic sto­ry in a bib­li­cal sketch or remind us of a Tal­mu­dic teach­ing when unpack­ing a Hasidic mas­ter. Wiesel under­stands that any piece of Jew­ish lore can inform every piece of Jew­ish lore. This tech­nique makes his essays not just speech­es but mas­ter­ful­ly craft­ed sermons.

Filled with Fire and Light is Wiesel’s first posthu­mous­ly pub­lished col­lec­tion, and one has to imag­ine it is not his last. If so, he will join many oth­er writ­ers and artists who con­tin­ue to pro­duce work long after their death, be they Joseph Soloveitchik or Tupac Shakur. Only time will tell if this will be Elie Wiesel, but if this col­lec­tion is any indi­ca­tion, what­ev­er we find will like­ly be rich and meaningful.

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

Discussion Questions