A couple weeks ago, while visiting the Old Country, an old friend brought up a certain famous rabbi who believed he knew why the Holocaust happened. I don’t believe this rabbi’s opinion is worth anything, and given that he is already dead, I will not darken the doorstep of this blog with his name. Unfortunately, he is not the only one to hold this opinion, and in any case, I’d rather discuss the idea, rather than the person.
The concept of reward and punishment, in general, is fundamental to Judaism. We suffer for our sins. For some of our troubles, we can easily see the connection to an earlier flaw – like getting lung cancer after smoking 12 packs a day for years. But this only works when there is direct causality, and even then, it is often not the entire story. After all, non-smokers die of lung cancer and some smokers never get cancer.
Were a punishment to exactly match the crime, this would be called in Hebrew, “midah k’neged midah”, or “measure for measure” in English. The only time I know of in Jewish tradition where our sages tell us this was visible was when the Egyptians drowned at the sea. Our sages say that the Jewish people, who knew well the individual Egyptians who were chasing them, could tell that those who were crueler died a crueler death and vice versa. In addition, we saw that the punishment was drowning in water, which is what Pharaoh had decreed against the Jewish male children. This sight, of the Egyptians suffering in exact proportion to their crimes was so astounding that “What a maidservant saw at the Splitting of The Sea, Yechezkel ben Buzi (the prophet Ezekiel) didn’t see!”
Other Biblical heroes, like King David, had to have a prophet tell them when a punishment was meant to correspond to a particular sin. In other words, we believe that G-d runs everything “midah k’neged midah”, but we almost never get to see it. Moses, our greatest prophet asked G-d to show him His Face, meaning how everything runs via “midah k’neged midah”. G-d refused him.
But “midah k’neged midah” is not only suffering, it refers also to reward. And “midah k’neged midah” is not the only reason good or bad things happen. Our sages also describe “issurim shel ahavah” – “suffering out of love” – and G-d having mercy – giving us more than we deserve. In addition, others have free will, which can undo what one would otherwise deserve, at least in this world, as one can see from the Biblical story of Joseph’s brothers deciding to throw him in a pit rather than kill him outright – had they tried to kill Joseph, they would have succeeded because G-d would honor their free will; since they didn’t, he survived. I do not believe this is an exhaustive list of the factors.
In the past 100 years, we have had two huge worldwide events that focused on us, the Jewish people. The Holocaust and our return to found State of Israel. Isn’t it interesting that much of the Orthodox world is ready to dismiss the latter as a fluke, but are eager to not only recognize G-d’s Hand in the Holocaust, but to justify it too?
If we believe that G-d causes everything, then He caused the Holocaust. There is no way around that. But he has also restored us to the Land of Israel and granted us the sovereignty we now enjoy. Since we believe that G-d has intelligence and will, He must have had reasons for both. I would not believe anyone who says he knows why G-d did anything unless he is prepared to explain everything – the good and the bad.
Some in the Orthodox world dodge this issue by saying the State of Israel is just another form of punishment. They point to public Torah violation, the Yemenite children scandal, an openly secular government and the early attempts to make new immigrants drop their religion. There is a term for this – ingratitude (כופר על הטוב)!. Someone tried this already – Adam in the Garden of Eden, when he said “The woman You gave me, gave me [the fruit] to eat.” It did not end well for him. The State of Israel is the way it is because it is what we Israelis want. God creates everything, but He does not usually interfere with man’s free will unless He has an overriding reason.
Living in Israel is a blessing. The Holocaust was a curse. We need to be mad at G-d for the Holocaust, because otherwise we diminish its value, but we need to be grateful for the State of Israel too, for the same reason.
I was born long after both the Holocaust and the founding of the State. My family had long been in the United States before either, so we were spared the trials of both aspects of that period. I have not directly suffered from the bad side of Jewish history – and honestly, if I had, I don’t know that I’d be Orthodox today. I try my best to connect to it, but it’s not the same as lived experience, B”H.
On the other hand, I have benefited directly from the ingathering of the exiles to the Land of Israel. I live in a beautiful city, with plenty to eat and a comfortable place to live. I get to experience the good side of Jewish history. I have no idea why I would “deserve” what I have and someone in the Holocaust would “deserve” what they had. I cannot really believe either is true. But I do believe that G-d causes everything. I should feel pain and be mad at the bad things, but I can only do that if I am truly grateful for the good.