Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Eliezer’s Struggle to Maintain Faith in a Benevolent God
Eliezer’s struggle with his faith is a dominant conflict in Night. At the beginning of the work, his faith in God is absolute. When asked why he prays to God, he answers, “Why did I pray? . . . Why did I live? Why did I breathe?” His belief in an omnipotent, benevolent God is unconditional, and he cannot imagine living without faith in a divine power. But this faith is shaken by his experience during the Holocaust.
Initially, Eliezer’s faith is a product of his studies in Jewish mysticism, which teach him that God is everywhere in the world, that nothing exists without God, that in fact everything in the physical world is an “emanation,” or reflection, of the divine world. In other words, Eliezer has grown up believing that everything on Earth reflects God’s holiness and power. His faith is grounded in the idea that God is everywhere, all the time, that his divinity touches every aspect of his daily life. Since God is good, his studies teach him, and God is everywhere in the world, the world must therefore be good.
Eliezer’s faith in the goodness of the world is irreparably shaken, however, by the cruelty and evil he witnesses during the Holocaust. He cannot imagine that the concentration camps’ unbelievable, disgusting cruelty could possibly reflect divinity. He wonders how a benevolent God could be part of such depravity and how an omnipotent God could permit such cruelty to take place. His faith is equally shaken by the cruelty and selfishness he sees among the prisoners. If all the prisoners were to unite to oppose the cruel oppression of the Nazis, Eliezer believes, then maybe he could understand the Nazi menace as an evil aberration. He would then be able to maintain the belief that humankind is essentially good. But he sees that the Holocaust exposes the selfishness, evil, and cruelty of which everybody—not only the Nazis, but also his fellow prisoners, his fellow Jews, even himself—is capable. If the world is so disgusting and cruel, he feels, then God either must be disgusting and cruel or must not exist at all.
Though this realization seems to annihilate his faith, Eliezer manages to retain some of this faith throughout his experiences. At certain moments—during his first night in the camp and during the hanging of the pipel—Eliezer does grapple with his faith, but his struggle should not be confused with a complete abandonment of his faith. This struggle doesn’t diminish his belief in God; rather, it is essential to the existence of that belief. When Moishe the Beadle is asked why he prays, he replies, “I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.” In other words, questioning is fundamental to the idea of faith in God. The Holocaust forces Eliezer to ask horrible questions about the nature of good and evil and about whether God exists. But the very fact that he asks these questions reflects his commitment to God.
Discussing his own experience, Wiesel once wrote, “My anger rises up within faith and not outside it.” Eliezer’s struggle reflects such a sentiment. Only in the lowest moments of his faith does he turn his back on God. Indeed, even when Eliezer says that he has given up on God completely, Wiesel’s constant use of religious metaphors undercuts what Eliezer says he believes. Eliezer even refers to biblical passages when he denies his faith. When he fears that he might abandon his father, he prays to God, and, after his father’s death, he expresses regret that there was no religious memorial. At the end of the book, even though he has been forever changed by his Holocaust experience, Eliezer emerges with his faith intact.
In one of Night’s most famous passages, Eliezer states, “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.” It is the idea of God’s silence that he finds most troubling, as this description of an event at Buna reveals: as the Gestapo hangs a young boy, a man asks, “Where is God?” yet the only response is “[t]otal silence throughout the camp.” Eliezer and his companions are left to wonder how an all-knowing, all-powerful God can allow such horror and cruelty to occur, especially to such devout worshipers. The existence of this horror, and the lack of a divine response, forever shakes Eliezer’s faith in God.
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