Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Judaism is more than simply a religion; it is an entire culture that has, for most of its almost 6,000-year existence, been a dispersed culture, a nation without a country, a people without a home. As a result, memory and tradition play a significant role in Jewish life. In the absence of any geographic continuity, Judaism relies on customs, observances, and traditions, passed down from generation to generation, as the markers and bearers of cultural identity. Hitler and the Nazis wanted not only to destroy the Jewish people but also to humiliate them and eradicate all vestiges of Judaism. As Eliezer relates in Night, the Germans desecrated Jewish temples, forced Jews to break dietary laws, and deliberately shaved their heads and tattooed them in violation of Jewish Scripture. The Nazi genocide was an attempt to wipe out an entire people, including all sense of national and cultural unity.
Conversation and storytelling have always been important elements of Jewish folk tradition, and Shlomo’s storytelling symbolizes Jewish culture as a whole. His story is interrupted by the arrival of the Nazis, just as the Holocaust attempted to interrupt Jewish history as a whole. Throughout the book, Eliezer clings to tradition, even after his faith has apparently been lost, because it serves as an important link to life outside the Holocaust, beyond the terror and oppression he is experiencing. He struggles with the question of fasting on Yom Kippur. He expresses regret when he forgets to say Kaddish (a mourner’s prayer) for his deceased friend Akiba Drumer, not because he feels that he has forsaken an obligation to God, but because he feels that he has forsaken his commitment to his fellow Jews and fellow prisoners.
During the first sections of Night, there are frequent mentions of religion and religious observance. Eliezer begins his story mentioning the Talmud and his Jewish studies and prayer rituals. He is upset that the Nazis desecrate the Sabbath and his synagogue. By the end of Night, however, mentions of Jewish observance have almost vanished from the text. Most striking, Eliezer does not mention the Kaddish by name after his father’s death, and says only that “[t]here were no prayers at his grave. No candles were lit in his memory.” By specifically avoiding Jewish terminology, Eliezer implies that religious observance has ceased to be a part of his life. Eliezer’s feelings about this loss are ambiguous: he has claimed that he has lost all faith in God, yet there is clearly regret and sadness in his tone when he discusses the lack of a religious memorial for his father.
Although Eliezer’s explicit mentions of religion vanish, religious metaphor holds Night’s entire narrative structure together. As noted above, the Akedah is a foundational metaphor for the work. Throughout the memoir, furthermore, Wiesel indirectly refers to biblical passages (Psalm 150, for example, when Eliezer discusses his loss of faith) and Jewish tradition (the Nazis’ selections on Yom Kippur of which prisoners will die—a cruel version of the Jewish belief that God selects who will live and who will die during the Days of Awe). Though Eliezer claims that religion and faith are no longer part of his life, both nevertheless form a tacit foundation for his entire story.