In his novel Dawn, Elie Wiesel tells the story of Elisha a young Jewish Holocaust survivor who settled in Paris after the war to try to rebuild his life.
Not long after his arrival Elisha meets Gad who encourages him to move to Palestine and join the Jewish resistance against British occupation. When they first meet, Elisha is surprised to discover that there is such a thing as Zionism and that Jews are rallying to take up arms to reclaim what they believe is rightly theirs. He is intrigued, but filled with uncertainty, when Gad explains to him the role he would play as a “fresh recruit”:
Then Gad told me the part he expected me to play. I was to give up everything and go with him to join the struggle. The Movement needed fresh recruits and reinforcements. It needed young men who were willing to offer it their futures. The sum of their futures would be the freedom of Israel, the future of Palestine.
It was the first time that I had heard of any of these things. My parents had not been Zionists. To me Zion was a sacred ideal, a Messianic hope, a prayer, a heartbeat, but not a place on the map or a political slogan, a cause for which men killed and died.
Although Elisha joins the armed opposition to the English, it is not clear that the freedom fighters ever fully claim his heart. He seems unable to shake the nagging suspicion that the promise of the “Messianic hope” was never intended to be established here on earth as a physical political entity in a geographical location.
As Elisha’s career in the resistance unfolds, he finds himself caught up in the terrible drama of life and death. He confronts a heart-wrenching decision that allows no life-giving solution.
The dawn that comes at the end of the book, is not a dawn of hope for a new day. It is a dawn of despair and desperation.
I went to the window. The city was still asleep. Somewhere a child woke up and began to cry. I wished that a dog would bark, but there was not dog anywhere nearby.
The night lifted, leaving behind it a grayish light the color of stagnant water. Soon there was only a tattered fragment of darkness, hanging in midair, the other side of the window. Fear caught my throat. The tattered fragments of darkness had a face. Looking at it, I understood the reason for my fear. The face was my own.
Whenever we strive to make concrete in the material world those promises that are intended to be realized in the human heart, we risk despair.
The realization of our dreams will always fall short of our hopes in this world. This is no reason not to work for a better world. But it is a challenge to face honestly the inadequacy of all human strategies to make real that which will only ever be “a prayer, a heartbeat, but not a place on the map or a political slogan, a cause for which men kill and die.”
How much suffering might have been prevented if we could have resisted the temptation to seek ultimate satisfaction and final security on the material plain? How much pain might have been avoided if we understood that, although we live in this physical realm and must be responsible about material realities, the meaning of our lives is finally realized in the inner realm of the spirit?