Beit Midrash

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The Road from Auschwitz


Rabbi Gideon Weitzman

We must try to seek the presence of the Divine in all of existence, and also we must seek it in all life events. So, too, with regard to the events of the entire nation, in the past and in the future. (Ma’amrei HaRa’ayah, page 412)

In the same way that the recognition of God arises from the righteous so does it come from the wicked, and in the same way that the praise of God comes from Heaven, so does it come also from hell. (Orot HaKodesh, Volume I, page 147)

We are close to the realization that there is a remedy for the ailment of our division and separation. In the end we remain one people and will always be one people. Israel will rise again through the immortal refrain, "Go and gather all of the Jews" (Esther 4:16). (Ma’amrei HaRa’ayah, page 156)

The Road to Auschwitz
There is a road that leads to Auschwitz. It is long and it is straight. It is lonely and it is cold. It brings us to large metal gates topped with the cruel words, "Arbeit Macht Frei," work makes you free. This was an ironic, mocking statement that the Nazis carved on the gates of hell. Those who entered were never to leave that place, however hard they worked.

We have all traveled along that road in our collective consciousness. Together we have walked that road towards death and destruction, towards the annihilation of the Jewish people.

There is a strange thing about the camps, Auschwitz and all the many others. There are roads leading in, but no roads leading out. This would be unusual were it not that we know why this is the case. Jews were supposed to enter, they were supposed to live and die in the camps. But they were never to leave. This was to be the end of the road for Jews. And for Judaism itself? The end of the Jewish people?

We traveled this road, but did God as well? Was He there in the fire, did He join our final march? If the answer is yes, then how could it happen, why did He not stop it? However, if the answer is no, then where does that leave us as Jews today? Without a living God?

Obviously, this is one of the major questions of Jewish theology today and it must be answered. The question is whether there exists a suitable answer, a palatable solution to the question of the Holocaust.

The Blasphemy of Silence
I have already written elsewhere that the correct response to the horrors of the Holocaust is silence.1 Not a silence of despair, but a silence of acceptance. That is with regard to our relationship with God. We need to recognize His greatness and our severe limitations.

However, we also owe a debt to the victims of the Holocaust. We cannot ignore them even while accepting God’s will. If we face their plight with silence we do them a great disservice, and even an injustice. Can we regard their suffering as devoid of Divine significance? Was God really absent while they burned in the ovens of the Nazis? Is it conceivable that six million Jews were murdered, countless others suffered, and God was not there, that it was some great accident? Such a claim is an affront to the victims, a blasphemy of epic proportions.

Yet simply to accept that God was there and glibly to explain that the Holocaust happened for this or that reason is painful and offensive. The victims of the Nazis were not sinful, nor were they to blame for past misdeeds. Can we say then why they died?

So we are left, not wanting to insult their memories, nor wanting to allow them to have died in vain and then abandoned. This is the paradox of modern Jewish theology. How do we speak? Yet how can we remain silent?

A Precedent in Purim
Instead of trying to apportion blame, or to search for God in the flames, it may be more pertinent to seek relevant sources. Are there any sources in our rich literature that describe situations similar to those that occurred during the Third Reich in Germany and Europe? We have a long history, and it tends to repeat itself, as history generally does. Surely we can find a similar occurrence in an earlier period.

When we find that period we are then in a better position to understand the ramifications of that time. How did the Sages relate to those events? What was the normative response to the events?

I believe that one such period was the story of the Jews in Shushan and the rise and eventual fall of Haman. There are many similarities between the two periods of history, in Shushan and in Germany. In both, the Jews were in exile, in an unnatural environment with no way to defend themselves from tyrants who rose to power. In fact, the Book of Esther is the only book of the entire Tanach that takes place totally outside the Land of Israel.

Another similarity is the position of the Jews. In the court of Achashverosh the king, the Jews were most definitely integrated. The queen was a Jew, albeit it in secret, and one of the closest advisors to the king was a Jew.2 The Jews were invited to the king’s banquet and were generally accepted as being good Persian citizens (Megillah 12a).

Indeed, when Haman rose to power and his plan was revealed, to destroy all of the Jews - men, women, and children - on one day, the Book of Esther uses interesting wording. In describing the sentiments of the Jews in Shushan at that time the verse states, "the city of Shushan was confused" (Esther 3:15).

This verse is interesting in two ways. To begin with, it is talking about the feelings that the Jews had, and yet it uses the expression, "the city of Shushan." Perhaps this hints at the prominent position that the Jews held in Shushan. They were the city, they set the tone of life in Shushan. When the Jews were confused, the entire city felt the repercussions.

In addition, the verse employs an unusual phrase to describe what the Jews of Shushan felt. They had just heard of the plan to kill them. We can understand that they would be frightened. They could also be angry, exasperated, or even anxious. Why, of all things, were they confused?

Yes, the Jews were afraid and angry. But they were primarily confused. They were such good citizens of Shushan, model citizens, never stepping out of line, obeying the law. How was it that a man like Haman could rise up and declare that he wanted to kill them, and no one stopped him? They were confused; they could not comprehend how such a thing could happen, here in Shushan, in their home.

There is a lesson here about the precarious situation of the Jew in galut, in exile. He is at the mercy of his gentile hosts. It is not his home, and he is always an easy target for attack, unable to defend himself. No matter how high he rises in the ranks, he is still despised and feared. Maybe the higher he rises the more he is disliked and not the opposite.

Differences in the Story
Of course there are many differences between the story of Esther and that of the Holocaust. During the time of Esther there were still some prophets left and prophecy was not dead. In such an environment it is much easier to ascertain what is happening and why. The prophets can advise as to which course of action God wants the people to take.

During the Holocaust there were no prophets and guidance was sparse. Some felt that the Jews should resist, others objected to this method, fearing that it would further endanger the Jews. Some tried to escape Europe, others stayed put.

The rabbis interpreted the events of the Purim story after the events themselves. They recognized that God hid His face3 but that even so, He was still present. The Gemara devotes more than six whole pages to interpreting the Book of Esther.4 This enables later generations to understand the events in a religious sense.

After the Holocaust many interpretations were offered. Some were religious and tried to explain the religious significance of the events. Other views did not allow room for God in their interpretations.

Possibly the most significant difference between Purim and the Holocaust was that Haman was thwarted in his efforts before they were realized. Haman threatened to kill the Jews, but this remained a threat. He was hanged before he was capable of carrying out his terrible plan.

Hitler not only threatened to kill the Jews, he actually killed them. He invented perverse schemes for carrying out his murderous plans and was very successful. The Holocaust was not genocide in theory. It was genocide in practice. Thank God, the plan of totally destroying the Jewish people was unsuccessful. Many Jews were killed, but not all of the Jews, and many survived.

Together We Stand
We have seen that there are some similarities between the story of Purim and the Holocaust. What was it that allowed both these events to occur? We are not looking for blame, rather for a condition that enabled each of these to happen.

When Haman rose and tried to seduce the king to kill the Jews he described them to Achashverosh in the following way: "There is one nation, divided and spread out among the nations throughout the states of the kingdom, their religion is distinct from other peoples, they do not obey the king, it is not worth leaving them to be" (Esther 3:8).

Haman uses many expressions to describe the Jewish people. They are one nation, separate, and they have their own religion. He alludes to the fact that they may have dual allegiances, to Persia, but first and foremost to the Jewish people. These are familiar themes used by anti-Semites throughout history.

However, there is one phrase that points to a weak point of the Jewish people. They are "divided and spread out." They were divided and therefore were vulnerable. Not that the threatened annihilation was a punishment for their division. Rather, the fact that they were divided left them open for attack. The Achilles heel of the Jews is unity. When we are united we are invincible. When we remain fragmented and fractured we are defenseless.

The end of the story proves the point as well. Esther fasts to prepare herself to face Achashverosh and inform him of Haman’s plot and pleads for her life and the life of the Jews. She sends a message to Mordechai that he should help her, together with the Jews throughout Shushan. She says, "Go gather all of the Jews in Shushan, and fast for me" (Esther 4:16). The power of the Jews is their unity. When you gather them together I know that we will overcome all of our adversaries.

This is one message that we learn from the book and the story of Esther. We would do well to act on this lesson in our national life.

The Aftermath
There is one more similarity between Purim and the Holocaust that deserves mention.
The Book of Esther concludes with Esther as the queen of Persia and Mordechai as the chief advisor. As good as this may sound, however, the Jews were still in exile in Persia and at the mercy of the king there.

What the book does not record is the events that happened some three years after the end of the story. According to the tradition, Achashverosh and Esther had a son together, and his name was Daryavesh, or Darius. This son took the throne when Achashverosh died. He ordered the reconstruction of the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem, according to an earlier ruling by Koresh, or Cyrus.

Thus some three years after the end of the Purim story the Jews returned to the Land of Israel and started rebuilding the Temple.

Similarly, some three years after the end of the Holocaust the State of Israel was established. Jews from across the world were allowed to come home to their own country. The survivors of the death camps made new lives in the Land of Israel.

This is not a coincidence, rather it is a message, a Divine call of assurance. Jews did not leave Auschwitz. Many millions died and each one is an entire world and should be mourned individually. The Jews did not leave. But the Jewish people did leave. We left and made a new life for ourselves in the Land of Israel, in the State of Israel.

We can ask where God was, and the answer is that He was there but did not reveal Himself. Why that is the case no one can answer definitively. But were we to ask today, Where is God? the answer would come back loud and clear. God is alive and well and living in Jerusalem.

The State of Israel is not a payback for the millions of Jewish lives lost. It is a reality that we face daily. In the same way that the Jewish people survived Shushan and rebuilt the Temple, in the same way that we survived each pogrom and crusade against us, so we outlived the Third Reich and built for ourselves a home in Israel.

Let us appreciate this fact every day and allow the memory of the victims to live through us and our deeds.

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