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Parshat Devarim - Gaining Faith From The Holocaust

Tisha B'Av and G-d

Parshat Devarim is customarily read in synagogues the week of Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. This fast day is a culmination of three weeks of communal mourning and is in itself a full day of sadness and remembrance. In the Kinot, the liturgy that is recited for hours on Tisha B'Av morning, references are made to the many travails that Jews have suffered throughout history — the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, the Chmielnicki massacres, and many more. It is, however, particularly striking that a religion would designate a specific date with a complete liturgy whose entire purpose is to repel people away from G-d. "Look at all the times that we've been mistreated without any help from G-d," we seem to be saying. Is that not proof that G-d does not exist? What other conclusion can one draw from all the terrible things that have happened to Jews throughout history?

In the last few decades there have been additions to the Tisha B'Av liturgy. These new kinot are poems of mourning over the Holocaust written by such rabbinic luminaries as Rav Shimon Schwab and the Bobover Rebbe. To the contemporary Jew this only highlights the question that embodies Tisha B'Av — why would G-d allow innocent men, women, and children to die painful and tragic deaths? For many people this question is so powerful as to demand a denial of G-d's existence. Is Tisha B'Av, then, the holiday of atheism?

The explanation to this paradox of Tisha B'Av can be found when we modify our perspective. Instead of concentrating solely on those who perished we must focus on those who survived. Given the extreme methods and persistence of the Nazis, how did any Jew escape their grasp? We must not and cannot ignore or judge those who died; but we must also not ignore the evidence of those who survived. Without saying that those who survived deserved to live while those who perished did not, we can still say that G-d had a reason that we do not understand for protecting some. As one survivor put it:

People ask, "How can you believe in Hashem after the Holocaust?" In response, I say, "How can you not believe in Hashem after the Holocaust?" I doubt that any survivor would deny that he survived only because of an unending string of miracles that accompanied him day in and day out.

(R' Ezriel Tauber, Darkness Before Dawn, p. 17)

But we need to go one step further. We have already pondered the experiences of those who survived but we must also consider the survival of the Jewish people. After 3500 years of holocaust after holocaust the Jewish nation remains strong and vibrant against all odds. Is not the extremely improbable survival of the Jewish people against insufferable opposition evidence of a G-d who preserves them?

Surviving History

We must change our question from "why" to "how". Instead of asking why G-d would allow tragedy after tragedy to befall His people we must ask how it can happen. How can this people still be around to suffer again and again? How can a nation that has been targeted for destruction so many times manage to survive for so long? It is inexplicable without G-d.

Where are the Hittites and the Philistines? Where are the Babylonians and the Greeks? Even the great Roman Empire is no more. But tragedy after tragedy, destruction after destruction, the Jewish nation continues.

Approximately 3500 years ago the Jews became a people when they left Egypt. They entered the land of Israel which was populated by a number of nations. Of those nations, none remain today. Certainly some of their descendants became part of other nations and are still alive today. But from that era only the Jews remain as a people.

In Israel, Jews were constantly battling the Philistines. Eventually, the Assyrians conquered and exiled half of the Jews and almost sacked Jerusalem. Not too long after, the Babylonians succeeded in conquering Jerusalem and exiling the rest of the Jews. How is it that today there are no Philistines, Assyrians, or Babylonians while there are millions of Jews?

The Jews made it back to Israel and reestablished their country. However, they were soon dominated by the Greeks who tried to suppress the Jewish religion and turn the Jews into Hellenists. This, of course, quickly grew into a bloody war. Almost 2500 years later there are no more Hellenists but the Jewish people remain strong.

Centuries later the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the Jews. Within a century the Jews rebelled again under the leadership of Bar Kochba and were devastated by Rome. Yet, 2000 years later the Jews are still here and the Roman Empire is a distant memory. How can it be?

History continued and there were more pogroms and massacres. Almost every major European country expelled the Jews at some point. Murders, inquisitions, blood libels and much more were inflicted on the Jews. But here we are today, little more than 50 years after the most brutal, calculated, and organized massacre of Jews, and the Jewish people is still strong.

Sociologists and historians cannot adequately explain the phenomenon of Jewish survival. While they may try, their theories ring hollow when compared to the sheer improbability of 3500 years of survival against the fiercest of foes. The only adequate theory is that G-d has save His people.

The uniqueness of Klall Yisroel is perhaps as much evidence in its long history of catastrophe and persecution as it is in its remarkable record of rebirth and deliverance from the brink of annihilation... Surely we must see in this ever-recurring cycle of churban and binyan — destruction and deliverance — which the astute observer will recognize as the continuing pattern of Jewish history, the fulfillment of a Divine plan.

(R' Zechariah Fendel, Anvil of Sinai, p. 7)

We do not know why G-d allows people to suffer and philosophers would be well-advised to recognize and acknowledge the difficulties of horrific suffering. We cannot explain it. But the existence of tragedy does not in any way disprove the reality of G-d. Questions about G-d's existence and providence may be left unanswered but the continued existence of the Jewish people answers at least one of those questions. As Mark Twain wrote:

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

(Mark Twain, "Concerning the Jews," Harper's Magazine, 1897)

The implied answer to this puzzle is G-d. Despite massacres, pogroms, and the Holocaust G-d has ensured the survival of the Jewish people.

G-d's Awesomeness

This idea is nicely summarized in the following talmudic passage:

R' Yehoshua ben Levy said: Why were they called the Men of the Great Assembly? Because they returned [G-d's] glory to its place. Moshe came and said, "The great, the mighty, the awesome G-d" (Deut. 10:17). Yirmiyahu came and said, "Gentiles are revelling in His sanctuary. Where is His awesomeness?" and did not say "awesome" (cf. Jeremiah 32:18). Daniel came and said, "Gentiles rule over His sons. Where is His might?" and did not say "mighty" (cf. Daniel 9:4). They [the Men of the Great Assembly] came and said, "It is the opposite. This is His might that he overcomes His desire and is slow to anger [even] over the wicked. This is his awesomeness that if not for the fear of G-d how could this one nation survive among the nations?"

(Yoma 69b)

Yirmiyahu, who lived through the destruction of the First Temple and witnessed the terrible devastation and exile, could not see G-d's awesomeness. Certainly he knew that G-d was awesome. But living at that tragic time he could not bring himself to testify about something that seemed to be contradicted by everything he experienced. How could G-d be awesome with all the wanton destructin of His people?

Similarly, Daniel lived at a time in which the Jews were humiliatingly subjugated by the Bablyonians. Indeed, he was sentenced to be executed for practicing his religion. Where was G-d's might?

Only a few decades later, when the heat of the moment had abated and a more objective view was possible, the Men of the Great Assembly were able to offer an explanation. Those living through times of suffering do not need theological explanations; they need sympathy and commiseration. But after the fact, when emotions have calmed, we can try to understand.

Where was G-d's might? In allowing the wicked to choose their paths. Where was G-d's awesomeness? In ensuring the survival of His people.

Tisha B'Av is not a celebration of the denial of G-d. Rather, it is, among other things, an acknowledgement of G-d's awesomeness in ensuring the survival of a nation who, by the strict rules of nature, should have disappeared thousands of years ago.

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Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 7/15/02
Aishdas 2002