Commonplace: Elie Wiesel and Tim O’Brien on the Power of Story

“When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: ‘Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,’ and again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: ‘I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.’ It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: ‘I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.’ And it was sufficient.

God made man because he loves stories.”

~ Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest

“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a life-time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

~ Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

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