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Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Where was G-d in the Holocaust?

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 74


We always have interesting guests at our Shabbos table.  Last week, Jay was sitting at our table and mentioned in passing that he is a direct descendant of the great Chasidic master, the Chozeh of Lublin.   My ears suddenly perked up.  “Why, just last night in shul, I gave over a d’var Torah from your great-grandfather!” I told him, “That’s a miracle!”
“From our side,” his mother added, “did you know that we’re descended from the Maggid of Mezritch?”
“That’s crazy!” I replied, “Just this morning I offered a vort (teaching) from the Maggid!  What are the chances that on the one Shabbos that you guys are here I would teach some Torah from both great-grandfathers?!”

Later, I was curious to see the odds of that occurring randomly.  There are over a hundred famous Chasidic Rebbes on Wikipedia.  The chances that I would teach both of those Rebbes on the same Shabbos is one in a hundred, times one in a hundred, which equals one in ten thousand.  Now, I don’t remember the last time (if ever) that I taught some Torah of the Chozeh or the Maggid.  And so, what was the chances that I would teach both of them on the Shabbos that their grandson happened to be sitting at my Shabbos table?  I’ve been a rabbi for close to twenty years.  Each year contains about fifty Shabboses.  In other words, I’ve preached about a thousand times.  And so the probability that I would teach both the Chozeh and the Maggid on the Shabbos that Jay was there is approximately one in ten million!  If that’s not the hand of Hashem, I don’t know what is!

A judge is trusted to say, ‘I ruled in favour of this litigant, and against that one.’
When are we talking about?  When the litigants are still standing before him.  But if the litigants are not standing before him, he is not trusted.
The Gemara asks: Why don’t we just check who is holding the merit slip?
Rashi explains: That is, who is holding the certificate of favourable ruling?
The Gemara answers: We’re dealing with a case where their merits were torn up.

Our Gemara deals with the case of an unclear judgment.  The litigants are still standing in the courthouse, but the winner has already ripped up his favourable ruling.  Why, on earth, would a litigant tear up the merit note, when he has not yet even left the room and is still standing in front of the judge?!

Every day, many of us stand before the Judge of the universe and tear up our merit notes.  Day in, day out, He shows us that He is present, playing an active role in the world.  Miracles happen before our very eyes!  But sadly, either we choose to ignore them – putting it down to mere luck and chance – or else we accept that G-d is playing a role, but then forget about it five minutes later. 

Some things are just impossible to attribute to mere coincidence.  There was more chance that I would win the lottery than offer the divrei Torah I gave last Shabbos!   Miracles like that happen to each and every one of us, every single day.  When they happen, how do you respond?  Do you acknowledge the Almighty’s presence and activity and rededicate yourself to His service, or do you just shrug it off?  The more you recognize Hashem’s hand, the more He will reveal His hand to you with further open miracles in your life!

But some people simply cannot accept the fact that G-d plays an active role in their life.  Why not?  Because recognition demands reciprocity.  If you acknowledge that Hashem cares about your life, then you in turn must care about His mission for you in this world.  People who aren’t interested in fulfilling their mission prefer to look away when Hashem sends them miracles.

Once, on the way back from Israel, I was chatting with the fellow sitting next to me, when we got to talking about Divine Providence.  I explained to him that the Almighty plays an active role in every little thing that happens in this world.  He responded that that was not possible, because “Where was G-d during the Holocaust?”  He went on to argue vociferously that G-d is clearly not in control of what goes on in the world; otherwise He would not have let such a terrible thing happen. 
“Therefore,” he concluded, “I don’t think it makes a difference if I perform mitzvos.  G-d doesn’t care what happens in this world.”

This is called “holocausting” and is totally off-limits in polite conversation.  Generally speaking, the Holocaust is a highly inappropriate example to harness in support of your position.  If you get upset at someone, call them whatever you like; but the second you refer to them as a Nazi, you’ve holocausted and crossed the line.  Likewise, this fellow and I were talking about G-d when he holocausted.  For most Jews, the Holocaust is an off-limits, ‘sacred’ subject, treated with the utmost reverence.  The Nazis murdered six million Jews.  No situation may be compared to such an atrocity.  It’s extremely poor taste to simply holocaust when you’ve run out of rational arguments, because most people assume that means ‘Game Over,’ and there’s nothing more to say.   

When it comes to the question of faith in G-d, why is holocausting so vile and inappropriate?

Rabbanit Batya and I are third generation survivors.  After enduring the horrors of Auschwitz and Mauthausen, but losing almost every one of their loved ones, my grandparents forsook their Judaism.  They were so angry at G-d – undecided as to whether He existed but didn’t care, or simply didn’t exist at all.  Determined to make sure their offspring would never be carted off by the next Hitler, they moved out to rural Australia – far away from Judaism, the Jewish community, and G-d.   After everything they’d been through, who could blame them? 

The Rabbanit’s grandparents were scarcely different.   After losing everyone in the Holocaust, they stopped observing the mitzvos.  Curiously, however, they sent my father-in-law to Yeshiva University high school (MTA).  Why?  They said to themselves, ‘Just because we’ve chosen to reject G-d doesn’t mean we should impose our decision upon our son.  We’ll provide the traditional education and let him make his own choices!’

In both cases – my grandparents and wife’s grandparents – I admire them for their emes, their commitment to the utter truth.  If you really don’t believe in something, don’t do it.  Alternatively, if you choose to reject it, make sure that you’re only impacting yourself with your decision.  Our grandparents were ‘all or nothing’ kind of people.  They didn’t believe in half-hearted Judaism.  Hashem had rejected them, they felt; now they were rejecting Him.

Far be it from us to ever judge someone who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust.  However they responded after leaving the camps, we can never fathom their sense of Heavenly betrayal.  What made no sense to me, however, was how could my fellow air traveller use the Holocaust as an excuse for his religiosity, or lack thereof?  It was a chutzpah of him to hijack my grandparents’ suffering for his own purposes!  Let me illustrate what I mean with a couple of examples.

Let’s say your neighbour, Dovid, got laid off.  He’s pretty upset at G-d and has stopped coming to minyan every day.  You hear about what happened and you say, ‘He’s right!  How could a good G-d allow him to lose his job?  That’s it, I’m also on strike from minyan until Hashem gives Dovid another job!’

Would anyone do that?  Does it make any sense?  Certainly, you cannot judge Dovid for choosing to stay in bed.  But that doesn’t give you the right to defy G-d in sympathy with him!

‘Seriously?’ you say, ‘That’s a little extreme!  How could you compare someone losing their job to the murder of six million innocent Jews?’  So let’s take the analogy a step further. 

Your friends, Sally and Bob, have just given birth.  Sadly, however, the baby was born with a heart defect.  They spend months and months in the hospital and tragically, the baby dies.   Understandably, Bob and Sally are devastated.  They’re angry at G-d and don’t even show up to shul on Yom Kippur!  ‘They’re right,’ you think to yourself, ‘what kind of kind G-d would take the life of an innocent baby?  That’s it, I’m eating on Yom Kippur.  Clearly, G-d doesn’t care!’

Once again, does that make any sense?  Sure, you absolutely cannot judge Sally and Bob.  Whatever religious reaction they have to their pain and suffering, we totally can’t fathom.  But that doesn’t give you the right to drop everything in sympathy with them!

‘But,’ you say, ‘there’s a big difference between one child who dies and six million!  How could you compare?’  So my question to you is: At what point does G-d lose control?  According to Harold Kushner, if one child dies, it means G-d is not in control.  We can’t judge Kusher, because sadly he lost a child.  For those of us who did not, does the death of one innocent child lead us to believe G-d has no power in the world?

And if it’s not the death of one, how many is it?  When three thousand innocent people were killed on 9/11, did you conclude that G-d has no control?  When millions are slaughtered in Rwanda, does that demonstrate G-d doesn’t care?  Or are you only concerned when Jews are murdered? 

What is it about the Holocaust that makes people think they can harness it to justify their behaviour?  If they themselves experienced the horrors of Auschwitz, then absolutely: we can never understand or question their subsequent decisions.  But if you weren’t there, who do you think you are to appropriate my grandparents’ pain and suffering? 

The question is not, ‘Where was G-d in the Holocaust?’  The real question for most people is, ‘Where were you in the Holocaust?’  If you weren’t there, stop using it as an excuse. 

My grandparents ultimately decided to make peace with G-d.  Once they did so, being emes (true) meant recommitting to Torah and mitzvos.  And so by the time he died, my grandfather had donated two Sifrei Torah and attended minyan and put on tefillin every day.  For them, the Holocaust wasn’t an excuse.  It was a reality.  And when they were finally ready, they chose to take control of that reality.


Hashem cares about you.  He plays an active role in your life.  Open up your eyes to the little miracles around you, you will be amazed.  May you let the Almighty into your life and experience revealed miracles every day!