Where was G-d in the Holocaust?

Any rabbi or Jewish speaker who has ever spoken in public on the topic of emuna has probably been challenged with the question, Where was G-d in the Holocaust? Even today seventy years after the end of the Second World War, the issue occupies people’s minds. Some may use it to justify their secular lifestyle. For them the question is really an answer rather than a question. Others are truly perplexed. As Avrohom Ovinu said (Bereishis  18:25) “ Shall the Judge of the Earth not do justice?”

Why am I writing this essay? Do I think that I am the best-qualified person to answer the question? How can I even relate to the horrors of the Holocaust, with no first-hand experience? Many books have been written by survivors, describing their horrific experiences. The authors of the ones I have read maintained their emuna despite everything. However they usually do not discuss how they maintained their emuna. Other survivors have written that they saw   Hashem in the Holocaust. Again, this is usually part of an account of their personal survival. They somehow escaped the brink of death multiple times. They see their survival as an outright miracle. This is a truly Jewish response displaying a level of emuna which we cannot aspire to. We do not reach the ankles of these heroes. But they do not attempt to explain why Hashem allowed so many others to die.

Books have been written on this subject which unfortunately do not represent Torah Judaism. The very few books written by Talmidei Chachamim are either too lengthy for today’s ‘instant’ generation or are written in loshon hakodesh or they are out of print.[1] Having been asked recently by a well-meaning Jewish lady how can I explain where Hashem was when six million Jews were brutally murdered, I felt it was appropriate to give her an answer which, despite the tragedy of the Holocaust, will be positive and non-critical and will leave this lady strong and positive in her emuna. I am putting my answer on paper so that it may be a help for Rabbonim and kiruv workers who need to respond to this question, for others troubled by this question who are reluctant to ask anybody because they might be suspected of having doubts in emuna, and for today’s youth who need succinct answers to their questions in emuna as part of their education. There is a risk that, whatever I write, I might be quoted out of context by somebody who disagrees. But should one not write or say anything because people might quote you out of context? The well-known pasuk says, “The righteous shall walk in them and the wicked shall stumble in them.” (Hoshea 14:10) I have tried to decrease the risk by suggesting various Torah responses to the question. Someone who finds one explanation difficult to accept, might be better able to accept others.

The wording of the question — “Where was G-d in the Holocaust?” assumes a belief in G-d. This may lead us to wonder what we mean by G-d. Do we mean the Jewish definition of Hashem, the all-powerful Creator, responsible for the myriads of stars and every blade of grass on Earth, who provides food for every creature from the greatest to the smallest, who gives us the strength for every step we take and every breath we breathe? Or do we mean a childish view of a god who has supernatural powers and is supposed to do for us anything we want at any time we demand it. The latter belief is certainly going to be suspect if our very own god didn’t do what he is supposed to do, helping us out when we needed it. The Jewish belief also leads us to ask why He didn’t help when we needed it because He certainly can do anything. However, expecting an explanation which we can understand, presupposes that we are capable of understanding His conduct. This is clearly a weak assumption; such a Creator is so much greater than us in every possible way that there is no reason to assume that we will understand Him, His actions or His decisions. In fact if a person thinks that he has the mental capacity to understand whatever Hashem does, he is contradicting himself. If we are equal to Hashem, why worship Him?

We can begin to understand the rationale of a decision only if we have all the facts in front of us on which it is based. Would any intelligent person criticize the decisions of the managing director of a company who has decreased his work-force without full knowledge of the workings of the company? Maybe he is doing it because of a poor annual report just in, or in the offing. Maybe he is planning to employ new workers with new skills to meet the anticipated technological demands of the next season? Or maybe he is planning to open a new factory in another country where the wages are less and the company profits will increase. Although the question of where Hashem was in the Holocaust might pass through our minds, we cannot assume that we will understand His reasons. What do we know about Hashem’s plans? What do we know about the present state of the universe and our rôle in it? Have we any concept of the purpose and destiny of each individual’s neshama?

“Shall the Judge of the Earth not do Justice?”

We started by strengthening the question of where was Hashem in the Holocaust by quoting the pasuk “Shall the Judge of the Earth not do justice?”  However, this pasuk is not necessarily relevant. In the context of Sedom and Amora, Hashem was about to destroy the cities with “fire and brimstone from Heaven” (Bereishis 19:24) This was something clearly supernatural, initiated and carried out directly by Hashem. Avrohom Ovinu was asking about the Hashem’s justice if righteous people were to be killed as well. If fire and brimstone had come down from Heaven killing six million Jews we would certainly ask why Hashem did it. But the Holocaust was carried out by human beings. Hitler had written of his plan to destroy the Jews and when he achieved political power he began to carry it out. Our question has to change to “why didn’t Hashem intervene to prevent the Holocaust happening?” This is a different and much weaker question.

It must be emphasized that, however we try to answer this question, an essential part of our emuna is that every person is judged individually by Hashem. Every mitzvah and every aveira that a person does is noted. Every pleasurable moment and every moment of distress that a person experiences on this Earth is similarly noted by Hashem. There are sinful people who are rewarded for their few mitzvos while they live in this world and do not receive any reward in the World to Come. There are righteous people who want to receive all their reward in the World to Come. Others who have suffered in this world through no fault of their own will receive a lofty place in the World to Come with all the pleasure that brings with it. And the very sinful will receive a great eternal punishment. On an individual level every Jew who suffered in the Holocaust will have their account corrected and their pleasure in the World to Come will be greater than we could ever imagine, each one according to their individual life and destiny. What we are discussing here is the Holocaust on a national level. Is there any way we can understand it?

To begin answering, we have to clarify several essential points of Torah hashkafa. The first of the thirteen statements of Torah hashkafa as written by the Rambam says: “I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be He, creates and guides all creatures and He alone made, makes and will make everything.” Nothing can possibly exist outside the will of Hashem. Every act we do, every word we say, every thought we think and every second we live is only because Hashem wills it to happen. Therefore we have to thank Him for giving us life and everything else. However, because these miracles happen on a constant basis, we do not readily recognize them as miracles and they are called nissim nistorim – hidden miracles. Nissim gluyim – open miracles – are those interventions by Hashem which go against the normal functioning of the world. These happen extremely rarely. The plagues in Mitzrayim which punished the Mitzriim but did not affect the Jews were examples of nissim gluyim. The Ramban in his commentary in Parshas Bo (13:16) says that the open miracles which took place at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim proved that Hashem exists, that He involves Himself in matters of this world and that He gives reward and punishment to individuals. But “He will not do open miracles in every generation for anyone who demands a proof of Hashem’s power. We are supposed to have learnt about the power of Hashem from the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim. For this reason we have many mitzvos zecher l’yetzias Mitzraim to remind ourselves of those open miracles.” We see from this Ramban that, although Hashem can do anything, He restrains Himself. He does not perform open miracles on a regular basis. He does not normally intervene in a miraculous way in the ‘natural’ world. The Gemara (Shabbos 53b) tells of a righteous man who prayed that he should have the ability to nurse a baby and was granted that ability, but he was criticized for “changing the ways of nature.”  In fact for Hashem to do so would be self-defeating. Even an open miracle performed often would be taken for granted by many, just like all His constant hidden miracles. One of the reasons for this is that he wants us to have free choice to believe in Him and His powers and so to earn the reward for doing so. If we saw Hashem clearly intervening either to punish the wicked or even stop a sinful act, we would have no free choice. In our times, we often plead for Hashem’s intervention but it is not forthcoming, at least not in an obvious way. After Moshiach comes, writes the Ramban in Devarim  (30:6), we will see open miracles again, but then we will gain no merits for believing in Hashem. In the meantime, therefore, Hashem’s apparent non-intervention should not lead us to wonder where He is. It is in keeping with Hashem’s plan as explained by the Ramban and many other commentators. In fact the Torah says explicitly “I will hide Myself on that day.” (Devarim  31:18). At the same time Hashem promised “I will never allow the Jewish People to be destroyed,”(Vayikra 26:44) which has miraculously been fullfilled despite all our persecutors until today. Our belief in the Torah should therefore not be weakened but strengthened.

If Hashem does not intervene, at least not overtly, in what happens in this world, some people argue that the central question is not “Where was G-d in the Holocaust?” but “Where was man in the Holocaust?” Even if we accept that there are wicked people who are prepared to murder others to achieve their goals, the genocide of six million Jews was only possible with the co-operation and participation of huge numbers of others who had no compunction about murdering innocent citizens. The cruelty of Nazis soldiers and their collaborators is well-documented. The indifference of millions of bystanders to the fate of the Jews is equally testified to by survivors. Western leaders and media deliberately downgraded reports of mass slaughter of the Jews and failed to come to their rescue even when they could. The valiant efforts of heroes like Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat and Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved many thousands of Jews only highlights what could have been done if more people had been determined to help Jews. So where was man? Where was human decency? Where was there an appropriate response by twentieth century civilization to the mass genocide which we call the Holocaust? The lack of response to the question, ‘Where was man?’ should prompt more introspection among students of history than the theological question of where G-d was. He gave man freedom of choice (Devarim 30:19) and if man failed, is He to blame?[2]

One of the most sensitive areas of discussion on this subject is whether the Holocaust can in any way be understood as a fulfillment of the curses of the Torah as described in the Chumash, (Devarim 28: 15-68). These horrific events were understood by the Gemoro in Gittin (55-57)and commentators such as the Ramban (Vayikra 26:16) to have been fulfilled earlier in our history, during the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash and the subsequent Roman exile. If the curses of the Torah had already been realized, then the Holocaust could not have been their fulfillment. It is clear from the curses written in the Torah, however, that if we don’t listen to G-d’s commandments we are liable to be punished. Howls of protest beset anyone who dares to suggest that the Holocaust was a punishment for the sins of the victims, not least because some of the greatest Jewish leaders and masses of loyal Jews and more than a million children were victims alongside Jewish atheists and non-observant Jews. Therefore it is not useful nowadays to pursue this avenue of explanation, certainly in a secular forum. Chazal say that “Just as it is a mitzvah to say something which will be listened to, it is also a mitzvah not to say something which will not be listened to.”[3] However it is perhaps a less sensitive point to say that we didn’t deserve that Hashem should perform miracles on our behalf. There are posukim in Tanach tell us that sometimes Hashem will not answer our tefilos because we are not worthy enough.[4]  According to the Seforno’s commentary on Shemos 15:16, Moshe Rabeinu davened in the Shiras Hayam that the Alufei Edom and Eilei Moav should be like stone until the Bnei Yisroel had crossed the river Yarden  because “before they have the crossed the river Yarden any war would be very difficult and would require a big miracle which perhaps they won’t merit.”

Another possible explanation given, is that the Holocaust was a necessary atonement for sins committed over a period of time. The concept of atonement or kapara is not readily understood. Why is kapara necessary? Why isn’t forgiveness (selicha and mechila) enough? It is interesting to note that on Yom Kippur we say “Selach lonu, mechal lonu, kaper lonu” but in our weekday Shemone Esrei we say only “Selach lonu” and “mechal lonu “ We do not request a kapara. Why not? What is this extra concept of kapara?

The Abarbanel says on the wording of our Yom Kippur tefila that our requests from Hashem go in ascending order. First we ask Hashem to forgive us for sinning. We made an error of judgement or we gave into our yetzer hora and we are truly sorry. Please forgive us. In His great kindness Hashem can do this, but there is the question of the honor of His Royal Throne. Hashem, personally, (as it were), can forgive us but sometimes the Honor of the Royal Throne doesn’t allow the sin to go unpunished. For this we need mechila, which is the equivalent of a royal pardon. This is why in the Shemone Esrei we ask Avinu (our Father) for selicha but Malkeinu (our King) for mechila. But our sin has not yet been obliterated from the record books. For this, says the Abarbanel, we need a kapara. However, we still haven’t explained why we need a kapara. If we have been totally forgiven and pardoned, what is missing?

On Yom Kippur and also in the paragraph printed in some siddurim before kerias Shema al hamitta, we ask that our sins should be nimchaku, erased – but not by serious suffering. Why don’t we ask that our sins should erased without any suffering? It seems that this is not an option. There has to be a response by Hashem at some level to our sins.  Why?

The answer is that a lack of response to sin gives the impression that leis din veleis Dayan, there is no judgment and no Judge (ח”ו). We need to know and the world needs to know that that there is a Judge. He may be very forgiving but He exists. He has given us mitzvos to live by. If there is no response to sin, the world will deteriorate into to lawlessness and will eventually destroy itself. We will all be the losers. In the same way that parents love their children and want to forgive them, but they know that if there is no response to their bad behaviour the children will grow up wild and undisciplined and unable to enjoy a successful adulthood, there has to be a response to our sins which enables our sins to be totally erased. This is what kapara is.

Kapara may or may not be in the form of yisurim (physical punishment). Chazal say that Yom Kippur atones for some more minor sins. They say also that the mizbe’ach atoned for sins, as did the clothes of the Kohen Godol. If there is a recognized method of kapara to erase our sins, people will accept that they have sinned but it has been atoned for by one of the ways kapara. But if there is no recognized method of kapara and the sin seems to have been ignored, people will think that there is no Law and no Judge. It is a hefker velt  – anything goes. Unfortunately we do not have a mizbe’ach or bigdei kehuna.[5] Yom Kippur atones only for minor sins. For more major sins there is no option but yesurim. Only with yesurim will there be a kapara. If there are no yesurim and no response to our sins, the world will just degenerate into lawlessness. We will lose any incentive to improve.

This is why we ask Hashem, in our daily tefila, to forgive us. Selach lonu..mechal lonu. He can do that whilst we are standing in front of Him. But when it is not Yom Kippur, kapara will involve yesurim. This we do not ask for.

There is no doubt that the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw large numbers of Jews abandoning Judaism. About two hundred and fifty thousand Jews converted to Christianity in Central Europe.[6] Many more Jews became weak in their loyalty to the Torah. The Russian and Polish governments interfered with traditional Jewish education. The First World War caused enormous damage to the Jewish communal structure. Our youth were abandoning Torah observance. And the more Jews who abandoned Torah observance, the more difficult it became for the rest to remain loyal. Great Gedolim like the Chofetz Chaim tried their hardest to stem the tide, with limited success. Members of their own families were also abandoning the Torah. It was a time of unprecedented crisis for the Jewish People. Hopes of a great return to Torah observance seemed completely out of the question. Something major had to happen.

Did all these Jews really deserve punishment? Probably not. The temptation to leave Judaism was massive. After two thousand years of exile, people were exhausted from pogroms, expulsions and anti-semitism. Mass circulation secular newspapers urged Jews to take the escape route offered to them by the non-Jewish world. “Join the rest of the world and your problems will be solved. Anti-semitism will become something of the past,” they shouted from every rooftop.[7] Let us imagine that Hashem in His mercy could forgive them. The temptation was just too great.  But there had to be a response. Otherwise people would conclude, as we mentioned above, that leis din veleis Dayan –There is no Law and no Judge. Even if there was selicha and mechila there had to be a kapara. Thus some explain that the Holocaust was an atonement for the abandonment of Judaism by so many Jews. It was not a punishment but a kapara which was necessary to show that the world is not hefker. This was the only way of rebuilding the Jewish People so that there could be a Jewish future.

Of course, even though, we are quoting the opinion that Hashem allowed Hitler to carry his intentions for the reasons we have given, he and all the other murderers will not be able to claim that they were carrying out Hashem’s will. This argument was tried by the Egyptians three thousand years ago, in vain. They didn’t enslave the Jews because Hashem had told them to do so but out of their own wickedness and they were duly punished. So the Nazis and all those who helped them were acting only because they in their wickedness decided to commit genocide. They will never be forgiven. As the pasuk says, (Yoel  4:21) “domom lo nikeisi” Those who shed Jewish blood will never be forgiven.[8]  They will suffer a terrible and eternal punishment.[9]

Did the Holocaust bring us closer to Moshiach?

When Yosef was sold to the merchants who then sold him as slave to Potifar the pasuk tells us that these merchants were selling sweet smelling spices. (Bereishis 37:25)  Rashi explains that the pasuk says this because these merchants usually sell tar which has a very unpleasant smell. Because Yosef was a tzaddik, Hashem arranged that the merchants would, on this occasion, be selling sweet smelling spices so that Yosef’s journey would be slightly pleasanter. Rav Mattisyahu Salomon shlita comments that in any situation that we may have to endure, we must look for the ‘sweet smelling spices,’ – the one aspect which makes the situation not quite as bad. There is always something which makes any situation slightly better than it might have been. Not only will we feel slightly better but we can regard it as a hidden message from Hashem that although for some reason we have to endure a very difficult trial, He has not abandoned us.  Therefore even in the horrific Holocaust we must look for something positive, some aspect which could have been worse, some good point which came out of it.

It is possible that the Holocaust was a necessary preparation for the days of Moshiach. If so, this might be the “sweet-smelling spices” which we are told to look for even in the midst of tragedy.  The Holocaust may have speeded up the messianic process for several reasons. The first reason stems from the extreme cruelty of the perpetrators.  The commentators say that the bitterness and severity of our exile in Mitzrayim was such that the day of redemption from Mitzrayim was brought forward.[10] Perhaps this is the case as we look forward to our final redemption. Perhaps the severity of the Holocaust has also brought that date forward.

Another reason was the fact that the Holocaust caused a re-awakening of the desire for the Moshiach. Millions of tefilos were said during the years of the Holocaust that Hashem should send the Moshiach. Jews re-affirmed their belief in the coming of Moshiach by singing Ani Maamin on many occasions as testified to by survivors.

We mentioned before that in the absence of the Beis Hamikdash, we can only merit kapara for major sins through yissurim. Our natural desire to avoid yissurim should have caused Jews at the time of the Holocaust and still today to hope and daven for the Moshiach and a new Beis Hamikdash with greater intensity.

Another reason why the Holocaust might have speeded up the messianic process is as follows.  Before the Second World War, Germany was the center of culture in Europe, if not the world. German musicians, poets and sportsmen were outstanding. Even their manners were exemplary. They never failed to say please and thank you. Why should the Holocaust originate in just such a culturally advanced country? Both the Tenach and our oral tradition look forward to a time when all Jews will return to the Torah. All the nations of the World will abandon belief in other gods, recognize the existence of Hashem and worship Him. For this to happen, everyone needs to see that those other gods are false. Ancient gods of the graven image variety were rejected because they obviously had no power, but modern gods come in less easly-recognised  forms of political systems, secular beliefs, sport, culture and even atheism. For everyone to return to belief in the Torah, all the false gods have to lose their credibility. If the very seat of civilization and culture was the source of the depraved behavior which led to the Holocaust, its worshippers have to reconsider very seriously. And the indifference of the rest of the world to the plight of the Jews, disgraceful as it was, can be a catalyst for Jews wherever they live to resist assimilation into their host nations, to do teshuva and to return to the Torah.

Many Gedolim held that the Holocaust was a fulfillment of the chevlei Moshiach, the birth pangs of the Moshiach which according to Chazal which will take place before Moshiach and the final redemption.[i][11] These “birth pangs” were feared even in the times of our Amora’im, leading Rebbe Yochanan to say that he did not want to be alive during this most horrific period in our history. (Sanhedrin 98a)  Doniel (12:1) says about this time that “There will be a time of trouble such as never occurred from the beginning of the nations until that time.” Birth pangs are, of course, not random but are a necessary preparation for a healthy birth. Why did Chazal see the need for suffering as preparation for Moshiach and why might the Holocaust have been the realization of that prophecy?

One approach may be this: We try to avoid painful experiences, but pain is part of life in this world and it sometimes strikes us. It can be physical or emotional or both. It can be severe or slight but it is unlikely that anyone can escape it for his whole life. Why did Hashem create pain? There are many answers but let us concentrate on one facet of pain – its spiritual ramifications. A person in pain is challenged. Do we lose our faith in Hashem? Do we blame Him? Or do we accept that it is somehow way for our greater good? Do we learn to daven with more kavono? Do we grow in the mitzvos of fearing Hashem or at an even higher level, loving Hashem?

When Moshiach comes, we will no longer have free will as we mentioned above. Perhaps Hashem, during the chevlei Moshiach wants to give us our last opportunities to gain merits. He puts us in situations in we may be tempted to weaken in our loyalty to Hashem but where the opportunity exists to rise in our loyalty to Hashem. In an easy test we can gain only a few merits. But in a very hard test we can gain enormous merits to prepare us in the best way for the days of Moshiach.

This spiritual challenge certainly existed for every Jew caught up in the Holocaust. How do you react to a well-armed enemy determined to kill you? Does one lose emuna or gain emuna? Does one think only of oneself or does one look for ways to try to help others? Does one try to keep mitzvos or abandon everything? Did those in England and America, who were not physically threatened, carry on with their lives with just an occasional sigh or did they do what they could to help, not least by intensive davening? Everyone alive at that time had their challenges and their opportunities, their chevlei Moshiach – some less, some more. Those who have read the better books on the Holocaust will know that there were many, many spiritual giants amongst both the victims and the survivors. Ordinary people who lived their post-war lives as loyal Jews despite their horrific experiences are heroes whose courage we cannot aspire to. The Satmer Rebbe zt”l famously advised a young man who asked him for a brocho that he should seek one from someone who rolled up his sleeve to put on tefilin, revealing a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm.

Mention of the many spiritual giants amongst the victims of the Holocaust leads to another possible dimension of chevlei Moshiach. In the well known  tefila, ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ there are twenty-six lines all except two of which are requests to Hashem to have mercy on us in many different ways. Towards the end are the following three lines: Avinu Makeinu, aseh lema’an harugim al shem kodshecho. Avinu Malkeinu aseh lema’an tevucheinu al yichudecho. Avinu Malkeinu aseh lema’an bo’ei vo’eish uvemayim al Kiddush shemecho. We daven to Hashem to answer our tefilos for the sake of those who were slain for His holy name, for those who were slaughtered for His unity and for those who went through fire and water sanctifying the name of Hashem. We have made so many requests of Hashem to save us from our enemies, to save us from serious illness, from pestilence, the sword, famine, captivity and destruction etc. Our problem is that, to quote the last line of Avinu Malkeinu, “ein bonu ma’asim” we haven’t done enough good deeds, we do not have enough merits. From the fact that we invoke those who died al Kiddush Hashem it would appear that their merits are a vital way of our tefilos being answered. This idea may be a further positive consequence of the Holocaust and could be another reason for chevlei Moshiach. Each individual who died has his own account as we mentioned before. But they were also part of the Jewish People and the merits they created with their spiritual bravery and through their sacrifice, are passed on to other members of our people. Rav Elchanan Wasserman zt”l, Hyd, in his last speech before being killed al Kiddush Hashem together with many others, is known to have said that the purity of the way that they will die al Kiddush Hashem will help that at least the Jews of America will survive. Every single pure thought by the victims and survivors creates a merit which others gain from. Their determination to maintain their loyalty to Hashem despite unspeakable horrors has created a spiritual reservoir to help us in our tefilos to be saved from our present-day enemies, from illness, pestilence etc.  Furthermore it can be suggested that their extreme sacrifice helped jump-start the messianic process. How can we earn redemption when we are falling deeper and deeper into galus and losing so many to assimilation and intermarriage as described earlier. But the huge merit of spiritual bravery in a world of physical cruelty could have been just the way to begin the process of Geula. In this sense the Holocaust could have been the chevlei Moshiach, a necessary part of the messianic process.

Yet another way that the Holocaust could have been part of the messianic process was its political consequences. Whether the European nations had any real conscience about what had happened is debatable, but they certainly had a major problem with the half a million Jewish survivors in displaced persons’ camps with nowhere to go to. Nobody wanted them and the logical place for them to go to was Palestine. Despite British reluctance, the United Nations voted in 1947 in favour of a Jewish State in part of Palestine. This monumental decision enabled large immigration of Jews into Eretz Yisroel and they, together with those who were already there, formed the basis of the new Jewish State. Whether one follows those Gedolim who said that it is forbidden to create a Jewish State, certainly a secular state, before the coming of Moshiach or whether one follows those Gedolim who didn’t approve lechatchila but seeing that it was being formed anyway, paskened that it is better to work from the inside rather than the outside, is not relevant because it was formed anyway by others. This had led to today’s situation that Eretz Yisroel is now the centre of Jewish life with huge communities of loyal Jews, yeshivos, kollelim, chadorim, Beis Yaakovs and shuls in their thousands beautifying the land. Although a secular Jewish state is certainly not an ideal and potentially a very negative force, with great siyatto d’shmaya the Torah community has grown exponentially; many of the so called secular community have become baalei teshuva and many idealistic Jews have moved there from other countries. The total number of Jews who live in Eretz Yisroel is now over seven million. It can be argued, therefore, that as a consequence of the Holocaust  and its political aftermath, Moshiach is closer.  The land has been cultivated, cities have been built, trees have been planted which will greet the Jews when they return, as the pasuk prophesied, “And you, mountains of Israel, spread out your branches, give out your fruit for my People Israel because they are coming shortly.” (Yechezkel 36:8)

Final Thoughts

However we must return to our original theme before concluding this discussion. There have always been questions asked concerning G-d’s justice. The most famous is the question of tzaddik v’ra lo and rosho v’tov lo – why do we sometimes see righteous people suffer and wicked people prosper? Moshe Rabbeinu had this question as did great people throughout the generations. There are answers but the question has never disappeared. Knowing that this world is only an ante-room to the main hall of life in the World to Come certainly helps. There, we are told, all our questions will be answered. We will appreciate the justice of everything that happens in this world. In the meantime, while seeking to understand is legitimate, demanding answers is not. When Yirmiyahu Hanavi saw Nevuchadnetzar and his soldiers trampling over the site of the Beis Hamidash, he said, “Where is the awesomeness of Hashem? Doniel saw the nations enslaving the Jews and he asked, “Where is the might of Hashem? The Anshei Knesses Hagedola explained that we see the awesomeness of Hashem in the fact that the Jewish People still exists despite being in exile. We see the might of Hashem because He conquers His desire to destroy the wicked, despite all their decrees against us. (Yuma 69b and Rashi) We can understand that Hashem is awesome in the Jewish People’s continued existence but how can we understand Hashem’s might because He doesn’t destroy them despite their guilt? Let Him punish them! Isn’t justice served by the punishment of the wicked? When the malachim asked if it was just that Torah sages be tortured and massacred by the Romans, Hashem told them that if they persisted, He would turn the world back to sohu vovohu (nothingness)[12]. When Titus, the Roman conquerer of Jerusalem entered the place of the Kodesh Kodoshim blaspheming and committing immorality, Abba Channan said “Who is as strong as You, Hashem? (Tehilim 89:9) that you hear the blaspheming of this evil man and you remain silent.  Devei Rebbe Yishmael said Michomocho bo’ilmim Hashem – Who is like You amongst the speechless? Can we understand this? Is this praise of Hashem, to see such wickedness and not react? To our minds, a bolt of lightning should have immediately exterminated this rasha. What right did Titus have to live even one more second? It seems that what in our minds is obvious, is not obvious in the mind of Hashem. In the words of Yeshayahu “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways.” (55:20)

Our purpose in this world is to serve Hashem, not to second-guess Him. There are things that we don’t understand and perhaps never will. We have a Torah to learn and keep and we have to live each day according to His will. Each day brings us new challenges and new opportunities. There were those who lost their faith in the Holocaust and we cannot judge them. How would we have reacted in their situation? But many others, even as they lost their lives, did not lose their faith.  They had lived as believing Jews; they died as believing Jews al Kiddush Hashem. And many survivors, despite having experienced the most terrible conditions, did not lose their emuna. On the contrary, they strengthened their emuna and according to the testimony of many, their emuna helped them survive. Their determination to keep whatever mitzvos they could and their hope that soon they would be able to recommence their Jewish lives gave them  the will to continue. Spiritual giants emerged like the Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l  who, despite having lost his own wife and all his children, did everything he could for others both during the war and after. He spent the day of liberation collecting Jewish bodies to give them a Jewish burial! He had no time to wonder where G-d was in the Holocaust[13]. He was too busy using every ounce of his strength to strengthen and rebuild the Jewish people. His greatness was matched by his humility. After the war he was introduced to someone who had given up his religion. This person explained to the Rebbe that G-d cannot exist because how could it that in his town, pious and wonderful people had died and yet he, the town batlan (good for nothing), had survived. The Rebbe said that he had the same question. In his town also many wonderful Jews had died al Kiddush Hashem and just he, also the town’s ‘batlan’, was the sole survivor!

We asked, “Where was G-d in the Holocaust?” I have no ruach hokedesh to give the answer.[14] But we have suggested several approaches which might help those whose emuna is challenged by the question. What we certainly can do, however, is to follow the example of the Klausenberger Rebbe and others – to do what we can to make up for the tremendous loss the Jewish People suffered during the Holocaust, to strengthen ourselves and others, to observe every detail of the Torah even better than before and wait eagerly for the final redemption and the coming of Moshiach, bimheira beyomeinu omein.

[1] There is an article on the subject by Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita in ‘Rav Moshe Speaks’ published by the Vilna Gaon Center (1988)

[2] The Zohar on Bereishis 37:21 as expounded by the Or Hachaim (ibid) and the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 3:12 discuss whether man, whom Hashem has endowed with free choice, has the ability to kill an innocent, even a righteous person. Of course, if he can, the innocent victim will certainly be given a lofty place in the World to Come which will more than make up for his untimely death.

[3] Yevomos 65b

[4] See Yirmiyahu 2:27-28 and Yeshayahu 1:15

[5] Even though Taanis 27b says that if we learn about the korbonos it will be regarded as if we have brought them, how many of us have a proper understanding of the seder korbanos to be confident that we have fulfilled this Chazal. See also Machatzis Hashekel  on Magen Avraham 1:7. “It is not enough…..”

[6] Triumph of Survival by Rabbi Berel Wein p 51

[7] With hindsight we will all admit that these claims by the secularists were utterly false.

[8] Rosh Hashana 23a

[9] Gittin 57a

[10] See the commentary of the Vilna Gaon on the pasuk “And they embittered their lives” (Shemos 1:14) who sees a hint to this in the musical notes with which the baal koreh sings these words.

[11]  Rav Elchanan Wasserman zt”l,  Rav Eliyahu Lopian zt”l, (Lev Eliyahu 1:77),Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l, The Rebbe of Gur zt”l held that the Holocaust was part of the Chevlei Moshiach.

[12] Yom Kippur Machzor

[13] This is just a figure of speech. We can be sure that the Rebbe zt”l fulfilled the pasuk,Shivisi Hashem L’negdi tamid” throughout his holy life as required by the Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim(1:1)

[14] Rav Moshe Sternbuch in ‘Rav Moshe Speaks’ p 32 writes, “We have no right to interpret the Holocaust as a punishment for specific sins. Rav Yitschok Hutner zt”l wrote, “We have no knowledge of the specific reason for what befell us. (Jewish Observer 1971).