There are two fascinating traditions concerning Simon, son of Jacob in the Book of Genesis. On the one hand, he is a man who is quick to translate outrage into violence. It was he who led his brother Levi into battle, making the entire town of Shehem pay for the rape of their sister (Genesis 34:25). He was also the initiator of the attack against Joseph, although that is less explicit in the text (ibid. 37:19-20). But it is confirmed by the fact that Joseph later jailed him (42:24) and Jacob on his deathbed criticized him (49:5-7).
Yet it was this same tough guy, this hard case, who took his sister the rape victim into his home and nursed her through her recovery, helped her to regain her self-respect. Between the flying fists beat a very gentle heart.
These two sides of Simon cease to be an oxymoron when we study the Hebrew definition of his name. It means: “The one who hears.” Those whose ears are dulled by the noise of life’s series of errands are not alert to the indignities perpetrated against their brethren. They fail to hear the call to war and they fail to hear the wounded heart. Simon is the one who hears; you can count on him to fight for you and you can count on him to sing you a lullaby.
Simon Wiesenthal died this week in his 97th year. In passing to his reward, he took with him that pair of ears which heard so well, which heard on our behalf, on behalf of all humanity.
He heard the cries of the victims while in the Nazi camps. More than 80 of his close relatives and six million of his coreligionists perished in that regime of brutality. He heard every cry, every whimper, every grunt, every moan, every death rattle. And he resolved to keep his ears always open to the eldritch echo of those sounds.
After the war, he heard the mewling protestations of innocence and ignorance, all the petty refuges of the cowardly. He heard also the scampering footsteps as evildoers scattered in all directions, seeking to elude the faltering pursuit of polite victors. Instead of turning down the volume and drifting off into civilian occupations, he shouted down the deniers and he hunted down the escapers.
However far those killers roamed, they always knew that one man heard their every rustle and their every twist. Even Mr. Eichmann, leaving his factory job and taking public transportation to his modest Argentina home, made little sounds that were audible to Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna. Eventually he saw to it that we all got to hear Eichmann, his snarl, and his puling rationales.
Most of all, Simon heard the hearts of the wounded. Most of the victims lived in silent shells, often refusing to share their tales with spouses and children. Now, finally, most of those who have lived this long can speak of their ordeal. But he heard them long before they made the faintest sound out loud.
He spoke to the victims and he promised them justice. He spoke to governments and demanded from them justice. And he spoke to all of us who would rather think good thoughts and dwell on happy things, reminding us that without justice there can be no joy, without consequences there can be no limits, without limits there can be no security, and without security there can be no future.
When Julius Caesar died, Marc Antony asked the populace to lend him their ears. Once they did so, they were well on the way to freedom. Simon Wiesenthal demanded of us that we lend him our ears and we could not refuse him because we saw how faithfully he had given his to the six million martyrs.
We remember him today as a great hero of humanity, a great Jew. He takes his place among the immortals. But for us who stay behind, he has left a great patrimony. He has taught us that we should never feel too weak to fight for justice or too tough to yield to compassion. We must be ever vigilant to hear the growls of the wicked and the entreaties of the innocent.
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