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.