In his book Souls on Fire, Elie Wiesel paints a scene with words. He depicts a country that encompasses all the countries of the world. In that country there is a town, the town of all towns. In the town, there is a street, the universal street, and within that street is a house, the archetype of all houses. Inside the house is a room, and there stands a man who laughs and laughs.1
Who is the laughing man, Wiesel wonders? Does he represent you and me, all men and all women? And why is the person laughing? Has he gone mad? Is he merely happy and joyous at being alive? Or is he laughing because he is worried about his terrible aloneness in the universe? Is he laughing to banish his anxiety or because he faces it and wants to show his strength? Is this the Jew who laughs off worry?
Wiesel’s scene comes, he tells us, from Nahman of Bratzlav. Let us go back to the tale that was written down by Nahman’s scribe. As we have seen in the previous chapter, the Hasid wanted Jews to interpret his tales just as they interpret Torah, to discover their deeper meaning. Indeed, this is exactly what Wiesel attempted to do, retelling the scene and asking questions. This is what the rabbi’s scribe wrote:
“Toward morning, the sound of very, very great laughter was heard throughout the forest. The sound of the laughter spread throughout the forest because it was very, very great. The tree shook and swayed from the sound. And [the man sitting in the tree] was very, very scared and frightened by this.” As the story continues, we are told