An individual possesses the ability to grasp the short range significance of events and to understand those aspects which affect his own personal life. Yet, even this process takes time. Only after enough time has passed is one able to analyze properly what has befallen him. When a massive, sweeping event occurs – a tragedy so overwhelming that the mere thought of it causes one to recoil in horror – one must not lose sight of the fact that the world possesses a Creator and Provider, and that, as dreadful and terrifying as things might seem to be, there is pattern and purpose in the world’s development.
When tragedy befalls an individual – the death of a loved one, for example – the feeling is so painful and so sharp that at first one is unable to endure it. Because one lacks the strength to confront what has happened to him, he “forgets” the event, as it were, attempting to divert his attention from it. Thoughts attempting to comprehend the tragedy are forced to recoil, for it is beyond contemplation. It is simply too difficult.
Only after some time has passed – after one has adjusted somewhat to the pain – does a person begin to accustom himself to what has transpired, to internalize the experience, and to consider it in greater depth. This process acts as a sort of defense mechanism preventing one from facing the experience so long as he does not possess the necessary strength. And, as noted, only when the pain finally dissipates does the true confrontation, as difficult as it may be, begin.
It is not possible to listen to all of the recollections which are broadcast in Israel on Holocaust Day without crying. We ourselves were murdered along with the six million
All this holds true of the “Shoah” (Holocaust), as well. We have not yet reached the stage at which we can attempt to understand what happened. As much as we may desire to earnestly understand the Holocaust, we are unable to. True, constant emphasis is placed upon the importance of being “informed” about the Holocaust, and recalling what befell us, and perhaps for a portion of the public this is necessary. Yet, my experience with the public leads me to believe that the Holocaust was so enormous and so painful that true reflection involves nothing less than crying.
It is not possible to listen to all of the recollections which are broadcast in Israel on Holocaust Day without crying. Our own flesh and blood. We ourselves were murdered along with the six million. The deaths of the Holocaust confront us in such monstrous proportions that the mind is overwhelmed. Therefore, it is impossible to consider the Shoah without tears. We are still unable to give it proper meaning.
Rabbi Teichtal: The End of an Era
Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook used to point out that Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal, hy”d, the author of “Em HaBanim Semechah,” (book written while the rabbi was in hiding from the Nazis – he was subsequently caught and murdered by them, ed.) reached the conclusion that the Holocaust came about because Jews did not immigrate to Israel.
Rabbi Kook did not present the opinion that this was undeniably the reason for the Shoah as the final word on the subject. He made it clear that this was the opinion of Rabbi Teichtal. He, who was there in the midst of the Shoah and whose death served as a sanctification of God’s name, is permitted to say such things. We, who were not there, are not permitted to claim to know the reason for the Holocaust.
Many ask, “How is it possible that the Almighty allowed such a terrible calamity to befall His people? How is it possible that such a thing could have happened?” We might answer this question with another pointed question : How is it possible that such an event did not befall the Jewish people earlier? After all, throughout the centuries the nations virulently expressed their hatred for the Jews, portraying the Jews as leaders of a world conspiracy and the murderers of their “savior”. How is it possible that the nations did not rise up and destroy the Jews on such a large scale hundreds of years earlier?
The survival of the Jewish people in the Exile was no doubt a phenomenon which defied the laws of nature, a miracle, for “were it not for the fear of God,” say the sages, “how would it be possible for [this] one nation to survive among the nations?” (Yoma 69b). As long as we managed to survive among the nations the miracle persisted – the miraculous phenomenon of one lamb which, despite seventy wolves surrounding her, is not torn to pieces.
And so it was, that even when one king enacted harmful decrees, it remained possible to flee to a neighboring kingdom which was willing to show favor to the Jews, so that the People of Israel were never completely destroyed. With the arrival of the Shoah, the miracle of Jewish survival in the Exile came to an end, and the force which protected us because of our task in the Exile (the “elevation of sparks” i.e. the clarification of the minute details of the Torah) stopped; with its disappearance, persecution and destruction on a scale previously unknown began.
Rabbi Kook: Time for Action
It is possible to discern this concept in the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook. In his book “Orot,” Rabbi Kook explains that when the Judaism of the Diaspora is detached from that of Eretz Yisrael, its strength weakens. All of Exilic Judaism’s strength derives from its desire to come to Israel – a desire which in the past, because of factors beyond its control, could not be realized. This longing had no choice but to find alternate ways of expressing itself, on a restricted and individual level.
The moment that the barriers were removed, the gates opened, and the possibility to immigrate granted – the life force which sustained Exilic Judaism ceased to function. It was no longer enough to talk about Israel – the time for action had come. The miracle ended. Even in the case of Jews who managed to escape death in Europe, fleeing to other countries – America for example – their plight and the plight of the generations which followed deteriorated with the passage of years. This, despite the fact that numerous Torah scholars fled to America; despite the fact that observant Jews reached her shores in larger numbers than those who reached the shores of Israel.
Today, it is possible to see quite clearly that yeshivas (rabbinic academies) in the United States are not able to reach the level of an average yeshiva in Israel. The fact of the matter is that today American students are sent to Israel to study Torah despite the fact that initially there were greater numbers of observant Jews there. What’s more, assimilation has reach such frightening numbers in the United States that it is referred to as the “Quiet Holocaust.” In light of all this it is possible to say with some confidence that the miracle of the survival of Jews in the Exile came to an end some seventy years ago, and this found expression in a number of ways: the Shoah, the decline of the spiritual level in the Diaspora, and the unprecedented assimilation there.
Not “Why?” but “For what purpose?”
The main lesson to be learned from the above words of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah is that the Holocaust was not a chance event; God presides over the world, and we, for our part, fall short of understanding everything that transpires therein. Simply put, we have not yet reached a level which makes it possible to grasp the Holocaust, to study the Holocaust and to understand it, to ask the so-pressing question, “Why?” This is generally the initial response of one who experiences some tragedy – to ask, “Why did this happen to me?” But, in truth, it impossible to deal with experiences of this sort in such a manner. The question “Why?” is not relevant, at least not initially. And even if there is an answer – and there is one – it is impossible to understand it in the midst of the storm of emotions that continues to rage. It is deeper than man’s intellect.
To such a person we say, “Do not ask ‘Why?’ but, ‘For what purpose did this tragedy occur?'” When something devastating happens we are called upon to learn a lesson from it about ourselves. This, then, is the real question: What can be gathered from the tragic event? And when an individual discovers how to learn from what happens to him – to improve, to ascend – he arrives at a level which allows him to understand “why” it happened. The reason for this is that now, as a result of the energy he has invested because of the push that the tragedy gave him, his point of view is altogether different. Now he understands that these deaths were not “deaths” as such, but life: death, through which we obtained life.
“A generation comes, and a generation goes…” Every generation, after it has lived, must make room for that which follows, for, were this not the case, life would be stagnant; history would come to a halt. Therefore, we bear the duty to continue and to advance, to ascend one more level in relation to the preceding generations. And even if our progress be tiny compared to what the previous generation achieved, our donation is nonetheless important.
If we were worthy we would be able to see the complete and all-encompassing picture, but, because this is not the case, we must gather together all of the individual pieces generation after generation; therefore, the next generation is also necessary. This is the sort of explanation which can be given when one looks at things from a distance, with an all-encompassing view of history.
Regarding advice for an individual who is suffering from either personal or national trauma, it must be remembered that tragedy is inherently not punishment.People generally fear Divine punishment for their actions. This is what is known as “awe of God’s punishment.” While this is a correct notion, it is not the most desirable approach. The healthiest approach is that which calls for “awe of God’s majesty,” and this should be seen as the fundamental approach.
Things happen in order that we can learn from them. Sometimes the learning process is immediate, via the intellect, the consciousness. Sometimes a person merits internalizing the lesson, and understanding with the help of his intellect why all of this has happened, and how, in a very real sense, through these painful deaths, additional life was created.
Yet, even if it takes some time to understand such things, one necessarily matures as a result of the tragedy he has been exposed to – even if he is not aware of it. It takes root in his heart and will be handed down to future generations. They will inherit the recognition that this world harbors difficult and painful events. In this manner their world-view will be richer, and their lives will receive a more responsible and serious dimension. When all is said and done, then, these tragedies can be said to have had a positive effect, even though they were not fully understood.
“When a person experiences hardships, he should examine his actions” (Berakhoth 5a). The true goal of self-examination is not to answer the question, “Why?” – i.e., to discover the cause of the punishment, but, “For what purpose?” – to discover what sort of rectification this punishment was intended to prompt. Such a person may perhaps not have previously been on the sort of spiritual level which would have made his actions deserving of such serious scrutiny. Having ascended to a higher spiritual level, hardships have come upon him. This has happened in order that, as a result, he be caused to reflect upon his behavior and hence continue to grow.
This, then, is the true meaning of examining one’s actions. It is not the sort of analysis which is aimed at uncovering the underlying cause of the tragedy, leading one to moan about not having been awakened to it in time so as to be spared of the wrath of God. Examining one’s deeds should be done in a constructive manner, with an eye to the future in an attempt to decide in which manner to advance. By adopting such a philosophy, one changes his way of viewing hardships; his approach to them and to God becomes completely different – mature, more positive and joyful. The more a person manages to advance as a result of what happens to him in life, the more his hardships become hardships with a lesson, and hardships of love, the kind that involve no interruption of Torah study or prayer.
This approach is, on the whole, applicable to any sort of tragedy. It is true regarding the Holocaust: The most important question is not “Why?” it happened but “What” can we gain from its having happened? What lesson can we learn from it insofar as our own lives are concerned? To what sort of new plane are we being called upon to lift ourselves as a result of it?
Tags: Holocaust Remembrance Day
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law “Pininei Halacha” and a popular weekly column “Revivim” in the Besheva newspaper. His books “The Laws of Prayer” “The Laws of Passover” and “Nation, Land, Army” are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1