Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Holocaust Memorial Day
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

R. Meir b"r Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld

Grappling with the Holocaust

Our Own Flesh and Blood

The deaths of the Holocaust confront us in such monstrous proportions that the mind is overwhelmed. Our own flesh and blood. It is impossible to consider the Holocaust without tears.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Iyar 5761
2 min read
1. Overwhelming Tragedy
2. Rabbi Teichtal: The End of an Era
3. Rabbi Kook: Time For Action
4. Not "Why?" but "For what purpose?"
5. Could the Holocaust ever be Forgotten?
6. The Exodus from Egypt

Overwhelming Tragedy
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 bare 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 attempt to comprehend the tragedy yet 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 happened, to internalize the experience and to consider it at 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.

All this holds true with the "Shoah" (Holocaust) as well. It appears that 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. 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 implies nothing less than crying. It is simply impossible to sit and listen to all of the recollections which are broadcast on Holocaust Day without crying. Such a horrifying tragedy - 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 to the fact that Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal, hy"d, the author of "Em HaBanim Semechah," reached the conclusion that the Holocaust came about because Jews did not immigrate to Israel. Rabbi Kook did not present this opinion as the final word on the subject, claiming that this was undeniably the reason for the Shoah. He made clear, rather, that it 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 a question from an entirely different direction: How is it possible that such an event did not befall the Jewish people earlier? After all, throughout the generations the nations expressed their hatred for the Jews in such a sharp manner, portraying the Jews as leaders of a world conspiracy and the murderers of God. 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 one nation survive among the nations?" (Yoma 69b). So 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 difficult decrees, it remained possible to flee to a neighboring kingdom which was willing to show favor upon the Jews, such that the People of Israel were never completely erased. 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"; the clarification of the minute details of the Torah) stopped its functioning; with its disappearance, persecution and destruction on a scale previously unknown began.

Rabbi Kook: Time For Action
It is possible to discern such a 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 sixty 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 received life.

"A generation comes, and a generation goes..." Every generation, after it has provided its share, 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 not punishment. In essence it is not punishment. People generally fear Divine punishment for their actions. This is what is known as "reverence 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 "reverence of God's majesty," and this should be seen as the fundamental approach. Things happen in order that we be able to learn from them. Sometimes the learning process is of a speedy nature, 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? We are familiar with the common claim that it is difficult to imagine the State of Israel having come into existence without the Holocaust. I once mentioned this in a talk I gave on the Holocaust. Afterward, an old man who had lost his entire family in the Holocaust approached me and asked, "Is the state really worth all of those who died? After all, our state lacks the sort of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust." He continued to ask me, weeping, "Do you even know what sort of Jews were killed in the Holocaust? So pious, so holy - impossible to describe!" True, comparing the punishment of the Holocaust with what came in its wake - the State of Israel - does not always appear "fair," and the old man was to a large degree justified in his claims. In some of the towns where Jews resided there were literally roads upon roads of pious and holy Jews, genuine Torah scholars. In Poland, in Galicia. In the city of Warsaw alone there were a million Jews! This is even more than the amount of Jews who live in Jerusalem today. In smaller towns, like Bialystok, there were 150,000 Jews. In Boisk there were 50,000 Jews. And there were plenty more like towns which were not considered particularly large. Is it possible to even think about forfeiting all this for the State of Israel with all of its problems?

Indeed, when one looks at the "Why" - the reason - it is difficult to accept that these millions of Jews had to die for the sake of the birth of the State of Israel. But when one considers to what end, toward what goal the Holocaust was meant to propel us, it is possible to accept such a viewpoint. Everybody acknowledges that the Holocaust shook the Jewish world to its very foundations. The question of Jewish identity changed completely after the Holocaust. Every Jew, no matter how religious, became a living sanctification of God in the world as a result of his very existence. The intention had been to wipe out the entire nation, every one of us, regardless of religiosity. If prior to the Holocaust it had been widely accepted that only observant Jews were capable of sanctifying God, today it is clear that the very survival of the Jew as a Jew is regarded as an act of sanctification. The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l has written words to this effect as has Rabbi Chaim Drukhman: "Every Jew is an expression of the immutability of Israel." This is without a doubt a completely new level of understanding with regard to Jewish identity.

In a more general sense, a revolution in Jewish consciousness was affected, and every Jew, no matter where he was, began to clarify who we are as a people and what is our purpose. We must continue this process. We are still in the midst of this first stage. Still in the midst of the trauma. The more relevant question continues to be "For what purpose?" and not "Why?"

The Holocaust is not a personal, individual issue. It is very difficult for a lone individual to arrive at any kind of estimate of what the Holocaust means to him personally, no matter how much time he invests considering it. It is a large, all-embracing, national issue which has left its mark on a deep inner layer of each one of us, such that even we are not always aware of it. Accordingly, it finds expression in a more general, national level, and relates to the public as a whole. Hence, one hears important voices in the non-Jewish world making statements to the effect that the behavior of the Jewish people must be understood in light of the fact that they have a "Holocaust complex." It is easier for one who looks upon the Jews from the outside to sense that something in us changed as a result of the Holocaust. Yet, it is possible to discern clearly enough by examining the attitude of the public that the concept of the Holocaust, like the Exodus, has been permanently etched upon the Jewish soul. If we understand the term "redemption" to mean a spiritual world revolution of the sort which results in life being seen in an entirely different light, it is possible that the Holocaust has in fact laid the foundation for such a thing. Such an approach can be discerned in the words of the verse, "As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with anger poured out, will I be king over you" (Ezekiel 20:33). It clears the path for a period of searching for something else. And though it begins in a rather harsh manner, it must nonetheless be considered a new and higher level. It is impossible at present to look for the cause of the Holocaust. Such a search yields no practical fruits and is not the correct approach to dealing with tragedy at this early stage. We are still in a state of mourning - an all-encompassing understanding is still far from us.

And while it is true that in the Talmud we find sages searching for the cause of Israelite bondage in Egypt, and concluding that it was the result of Abraham's having made use of Torah scholars in his war with the four kings (cf. Deuteronomy 32a), even so, neither the Torah nor the sages present us with plain historical facts. The reason for this is that they were aiming more in the direction of answering the question: "For what purpose?" - i.e., what needed to be rectified as a result of this tragedy? Tosefoth Yom Tov's claim that the Chmelnitzki pogroms erupted because Jews made a practice of prattling about mundane affairs in the Synagogue must be understood in a similar light. What this eminent rabbi desired was for people to abandon this practice, that this be the lesson that they gather from the tragedy - or one of the lessons at any rate.

It is possible to understand this idea on an even deeper level if we take a look at the course of Jewish history: One thousand years ago, in the time of Rashi, Sephardic Jewry was ten times the size of Ashkenazic Jewry. Then, Ashkenazic Jewry was almost completely destroyed as a result of the Crusades; of the one- or two-hundred thousand Ashkenazic Jews, fifty thousand were ruthlessly killed. What was the result? The result was a very strong awareness of the importance of sanctifying God's name through self-sacrifice. Within five or six hundred years the Sephardic population was only three times as large as the Ashkenazic. At the outbreak of the Chmelnitzki pogroms the number of Ashkenazic Jews had reached almost a million. Once again this Jewish community was struck by a devastating slaughter. Entire communities of pure and holy Jews were wiped out with great cruelty. And once again, in the wake of this disaster, it became clear to just what extent the Jewish faith is a question of life or death, and to just what extent the Jews as a people were willing to sacrifice their lives for their religious convictions. This left a great imprint on the generations that followed, and within a span of no more than three hundred years, reaching up to the period just prior to the Holocaust, the Jews as a whole had swollen in number to between 15-16 million. In retrospect, it is possible to see quite clearly how the act of sanctification of God's name through death provided a great impetus to the generations that followed, pushing them a number of levels higher. Who amongst us is really capable of coming to accurate conclusions regarding long-term effects based upon the present? We might interpret the words of the Tosafoth Yom Tov "that they not chatter in the Synagogue" to mean that they should appreciate the sanctity of the synagogue, the "miniature Holy Temple" that it is, and recognize the value of prayer. In addition to the above we can say that the shock of these tragic events caused a sense of added responsibility regarding the study of Torah. Because so many Jews were willing to literally give their lives for the Torah, the generations that followed felt a great desire to attain new heights of strengthened Jewish identity. Now the value of Torah study was understood, now it was clear why they hate us. The same is true of the Holocaust, only that this time we are talking about the entire Jewish people as opposed to a particular community. The Holocaust is also meant to provide added consciousness of just how much our lives as Jews must be full of meaning. We must be made aware of just how much responsibility rests on our shoulders - we who survived and carry on after the destruction of that generation.

There are numerous tales about the first waves of settlers to arrive in the Land of Israel and the sort of self-sacrifice that they demonstrated in order to reach and settle Israel. We ought to emulate these builders and carry on their work.

The first wave of immigrants, the Aliya HaRishona, for example, was composed for the most part of pious Jews whose coming to Israel was the outgrowth of what they had absorbed in the Yeshiva study halls. The founders of Zikhron Yaakov made their way to Israel after having already purchased a portion of land, but the Turkish administration did not allow these new arrivals to disembark at any port in the area from Alexandria to Beirut. Finally, after great effort, they managed to land at Haifa, and from there they made their way in carriages pulled by oxen until eventually arriving at their destination. So difficult was the way that the travelers were forced to send the oxen on ahead of themselves in order to render the path travelable. Their allotted plot of land was full of snakes and scorpions, and far from any other Jewish settlement (two days journey from Yaffo, and a day and half from Haifa). From where would they receive their necessities? To where would they deliver their products? When the officials of Baron Rothschild arrived they demanded to know who was responsible for the injustice that had been done to these settlers by having them sent to such a horrid location. Yet, despite all this, when the officials offered to have them relocated in a more central site, the settlers' response was notably straightforward: We are not budging from this place, even if its means eating the stones themselves.

Large waves of Jewish immigration to Israel did not necessarily begin as a result of the First Zionist Congresses in Basel (in the manner that secular Zionism has attempted to portray). Long before this, in 5637 (1878), Jews of the Old Settlement began to set out beyond the walls of Jerusalem. One such pioneer was Yoel Moshe Solomon. He belonged to the third generation of a family of pioneers. His grandfather, Rabbi Zalman Tzoref, was murdered in a skirmish with Arabs while trying to reestablish the Churvah Synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City. In his remembrance the family name was changed to Solomon. His son was the "first Jewish 'Fellah' (field laborer) since the days of the second Temple," or at least so he was called. It was in such a home that Rabbi Yoel Moshe grew up. He presented Moses Montefiore with a detailed plan for creating a Jewish agricultural settlement. He was also a serious Torah scholar, the editor of a newspaper, a journalist, and completely steeped in Torah. He left his newspaper work in order to establish Petach Tikvah. This young settlement too had its share of difficulties; there was a period in which it was completely destroyed due to the great hardships that came upon it. The settlers left and went to Yahudiyeh, and only later did there arrive a group of Jews from Bialystok (the hometown of Rabbi Mohilever, the leader of the Zionist organization "Chovevei Tzion") and reestablish the settlement.

In Hadera there was a very green area, and the local Arabs warned the Jewish settlers that the place was infested with malaria. During the course of the first seven years, 230 of Hadera's the 512 settlers died of this disease. It is told that on Yom Kippur, there were just enough settlers present for the prayer services to take place in the room adjacent to the hospital room. During the course of the day one of the members fell ill and expired leaving the settlers short of their quorum. They were uncertain as to whether or not they should to continue, yet, in the end, they decided that God Himself would be counted in order to complete their quorum. When the fast was over it was announced that before eating it was necessary to bury the deceased. In order to overcome the near-unbearable sadness which accompanied the loss, one of those present, himself a Torah scholar, advised the people to rejoice in the burial. And they did just that - they danced by the grave of the deceased. At a later date, the very same individual, who had always said that joy is the cure for everything, also died of malaria. Today, when traveling along Israel's coastal road, which runs between Haifa and Tel Aviv, we must remember the great self-sacrifice of the early settlers which gave birth to such settlement, all by virtue of a love for the land which they passed down to the generations to come. Such self-sacrifice shakes all existence and sets the machine in motion. They initiated it all.

This, then, is an example of a "for what purpose" lesson which we must carry with us. There is a principle here which must be remembered: The world is a unified whole, and the actions of one individual make waves which shake the entire community. Torah is the heart of the world and fills existence with vibrancy and meaning. When an individual attaches himself to the Torah, studies with all of his might, and applies his studies in all spheres of his life, his behavior has a great and powerful impact. This, then, is the chief lesson one should gather from the Holocaust: to be a thousand times more serious; to know how to appreciate eternal values, such as Torah and settlement, and to be ready to sacrifice oneself for such things. This is what the previous generations handed down to us through their demonstration of courage.

Could the Holocaust ever be Forgotten?
No. This could never happen. No doubt there is a need to educate toward awareness, to study the facts and to retell what happened. But such steps are carried out on an individual basis, in relation to specific individuals or groups. As far as the collective memory of the nation of Israel is concerned, there is no chance of forgetting. As we have noted, the Holocaust is deeply etched into our memory and influences our national behavior in ways that we are not always aware of. Once again, the emphasis is not to be placed on understanding things - we are still at too early a stage. The true goal is recognizing those values which are important to us as a nation, and reinforcing them. The Holocaust was an attack upon Israel's eternal nature; its victory will find expression in a strengthening of our eternal Israeli values.

The Exodus from Egypt
An example of a difficult event that has been completely internalized and is today understood by us is the Exodus from Egypt. Here too we find horrific acts: enslavement, slave labor with bricks and cement, the male newborns being cast into the Nile or plastered into the walls of buildings. Appalling. Yet, enough time has past in order to understand why all of this happened, and today the enslavement is not so painful. We are now able to look back at it and to recount the various events therein and to confidently state why this had to be the foundation upon which the Jewish people would be built. We have managed to digest this.

The Midrash teaches us that when the Egyptians threw the Jewish babies into the Nile, God commanded the ministering angels to look after them. "The children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are being thrown into the Nile and all you do is stand by and watch?" God accused the angels. They immediately came to their senses and went down upon their knees on the banks of the Nile to receive the babies. They placed them on the stones, which turned into kinds of breasts from which the babies then nurtured" (Shir HaShirim Rabbah).

It appears to me that the message of this Midrash is that the babies were received by the angels on these rocks, not in this world, but in the World to Come. They were received. They did not die in vain. They entered into the eternal consciousness of the Jewish people and pushed it a number of levels forward. Without a doubt, all of the innocent babies who were killed in the Holocaust were also received by angels who made sure that they be nurtured upon honey from the rock - not in this world, but in the eternal world. We, the Jewish people, are like this. We are an eternal people. In the true and absolute world everything works out and everything is clear. In this temporal world of ours there are complications and troubles. Regarding the Exodus from Egypt we were first of all called upon to understand for what purpose - i.e., what is demanded of us as a people who suffered such a brutal enslavement and was redeemed through miracles and wonders. Later we also merited understanding the Why which accompanies all of this. Our goal is to attain a similar level of understanding with regard to the Holocaust, to the point where it provides us with stories similar in nature to those of the Exodus from Egypt. We must strive to understand such stories in the most profound manner possible, the way we do at Passover when the bitter Maror, which serves to remind us of Egyptian enslavement, is eaten together with the Matzah, which represents freedom.
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