Perhaps it is a sign of our times that I first learnt of the passing away of Professor Elie Wiesel on Facebook. After the initial shock had worn off, and the sadness had subsided somewhat, clouds of reminiscences began to coalesce on the horizon of memory.
Three moments stand out:
I had now managed to secure an appointment with Professor Elie Wiesel in Boston, after years of trying. As he bade me sit down that afternoon he said: "I am backed up, Dr. Sharma. You have one minute to interest me in whatever you want to see me about."
So I began in earnest: "We started a project in 1998, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The goal of this project is to move in the direction of formulating a Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World's Religions. Our rationale is twofold: If the religions of the world come together to produce such a document, it would help bridge the gulf between the secular and the religious, as human rights discourse is usually considered secular in nature. And if the various religions come together to do so, they would also be overcoming their own differences in the process. We would like you to be a patron of the project. Four other Nobel Peace laureates have given us their blessings."
Having said my piece I looked at him, my body language doing the job of asking him if I was holding his interest. He said quietly: "I am listening." Then he listened some more, and, to my considerable joy, accepted our request, and made some useful suggestions regarding how we could go about our business.
My previous meeting had taken place at Boston University, where he taught at an institute named after him. This time we met at the Sofitel in Montreal. He had a striking presence I noted as he walked toward me in the reception area.
"We meet again," he said.
"And not in the best of circumstances," I said and continued: "The professor from Villanova University informed me that the project to get the religious leaders from the various religions to come together and make a joint plea against religious violence had to be called off."
I fell silent as the context in which this had happened wasn't exactly pleasant. Professor Wiesel and many others had virtually lost their life's savings in a notorious scam which had made headlines in New York Times. This crisis had led to the initiative being called off.
That this should happen to someone who had been through the Holocaust boggled the mind.
"Some people are just evil," he said. I was amazed at the total absence of any bitterness.
I was reminded of the remark made by a Buddhist monk to the Dalai Lama, when he met him in India after his release from Chinese custody in Tibet. He was asked by the Dalai Lama: "Was your life ever in danger?" And he replied: "Once or twice. I almost felt like hating the Chinese."
Hatred can be worse than death.
My purpose in seeing Professor Wiesel at this meeting, was to invite him to the second global conference on World's Religions After September 11 in Montreal, which the Dalai Lama had agreed to inaugurate. Professor Wiesel agreed, subject to his health.
Closer to the event, however, it became clear that he would not be coming. I was disappointed.
It so happened that the conference was attended by a German friend of mine, whom I had not seen for many years. When I met him at the conference he said to me: "I have a message for you from Professor Elie Wiesel." I was taken by complete surprise, and told him how we had hoped to have him at the conference. He said: "It is about that. A very close friend of his called me to convey to you the following message, which comes directly from him: That he deeply regrets not being able to make it to the conference." His regrets put an end to any regret I may have had about Professor Wiesel not being able to join us.
Good can come out of evil. Extraordinary suffering can harden the heart, or can lead to extraordinary sensitivity.
Professor Wiesel's example will continue to guide us like light from a distant star which continues to illumine even after its source has ceased to be.
Birks Professor of Comparative Religion
Copyright © 2016 Global Conference on World's Religions.
All rights reserved.
Follow Arvind Sharma on Twitter: www.twitter.com/aravindasharma