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Is God Punishing Ukraine?

I was speaking with someone last week who told me that she had mixed feelings about the situation in Ukraine.  Some, she said, claim that during the Holocaust, Ukrainians were even worse than the Nazis.  In a sense, then, the argument goes, maybe we should be happy because they are being punished for what they did to our ancestors 80 years ago.

Others argue that President Zelensky of Ukraine himself is Jewish and all three of his paternal grandfather’s brothers were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, so we should support this country in its fight against the Russians, despite Ukraine’s history in the Holocaust.

Where do I land?  First, the fact that Zelensky’s family was murdered in the Holocaust is irrelevant to the discussion.

The question, essentially, is:  Should we be grateful that modern-day Ukrainians are suffering because of what their ancestors did to the Jews?  It is very clear that our halachic tradition (Sanhedrin 27b) believes that children should not be punished for the sins of previous generations when they do not follow in their footsteps.  Rav Soloveitchik quoted his grandfather, Rav Chaim Brisker, that, based on an inference from the Rambam, Amalek not only is a physical nation but is also an ideology and the ideology of Amalek exists in every generation by those who wish to destroy the Jewish people.

Rav Soloveitchik specifically applied this principle to the Nazis.  Could we apply this principle to Ukrainians?  If Ukrainians had a similar or worse ideology vis-a-vis the Jews during the Holocaust, then I think that it is plausible to assert that Ukrainians who possessed that ideology would be characterized as Amalek under Rav Chaim and Rav Soloveitchik’s definition.  Would that mean that modern-day Ukrainians have the status of Amalek?  Certainly not.  If we argue that Amalek is a nation with an ideology to destroy Jews and the Jewish nation, then how can we say that about the current country of Ukraine whose president is Jewish?

Let me be clear.  Sometimes we must not simply forgive and forget what a nation has done to the Jewish people.  In 1952, when West Germany and Israel signed an agreement whereby the former agreed to pay the State of Israel for the costs of “resettling so great a number of uprooted and destitute Jewish refugees,” and to compensate Holocaust survivors for the “suffering and losses resulting from Nazi persecution,” not only was opposition leader Menachem Begin opposed to such an agreement, but a number of Rabbinic leaders opposed the terms of the agreement.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky announced at a rabbinical conference that “the majority opinion sides with the opinion of Rav Aharon Kotler, who opposed all negotiations with Germany even if large sums of reparations can be obtained.”  In his sefer Nefesh Harav, Rav Hershel Schachter writes that Rav Soloveitchik opposed the agreement for two reasons.  First, doing this might create the erroneous perception that the Jews have forgiven the Germans for the atrocities that they committed.  Second, since the Germans of that generation had the status of Amalek, we may not enjoy any benefit from them.  Rav Schachter also writes that in later years, Rav Soloveitchik admitted to a student that he may have been wrong because the reparations may have saved a financially struggling Jewish state.  The Chief Rabbi of Petach Tikvah, Rav Reuven Katz, also argued against accepting reparations.  Among his other arguments, he said that accepting money from the Germans would constitute a disgrace and a chillul Hashem because it would seem to the world that Jewish blood can be bought and sold.

The issue of Israel accepting reparations from Germany is a complex one, but I don’t think any of the arguments against it justifies any feelings other than love and concern for Ukrainians in 2022 whose lives are in jeopardy.  They are not ideologically an Amalekite nation, and it is very hard to argue that caring about innocent Ukrainian men, women and children 80 years after the Holocaust creates a perception that Jewish blood is cheap and can be bought or sold.

Perhaps what drives some people to have mixed feelings is a misplaced understanding of divine retribution. The concept of divine retribution is a fundamental principle of faith in the Jewish tradition and it also serves a psychological need that each one of us has.  We believe in a sense of fairness and justice and we want to see justice operate in the world.  The argument goes that if we can connect the sins of Ukrainians during the Holocaust with some punishment in the form of a Russian invasion, then that will provide us with some feeling of justice in the world.  In reality, though, belief in divine retribution does not mean that we know why certain things happen to people.  Certainly, it does not mean that we know that Ukrainian grandchildren and great-grandchildren are being punished for the sins of their grandparents and great-grandparents.

When the Gemara in Sota (14a) and the Midrash (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu #24) state that we should imitate God and walk in His ways, our Sages assert that we do so by being merciful and charitable and by engaging in acts of kindness.   Rav Ahron Soloveichik once explained that the principle of imitating God is restricted to attributes of mercy, charity and kindness and not vengeance because only God can apply the attributes of vengeance properly.  And this responsibility of mercy, charity and kindness applies whether the recipient is a Jew or a non-Jew.  Indeed, the Gemara in Gittin (61a) states that we should engage in acts of kindness to non-Jews because of “darchei shalom,” or ways of peace.  Rav Shimon Sofer explained that we shouldn’t just view “darchei shalom” as a practical means of avoiding hatred.  Rather, the Torah values helping everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, and this is why we must engage in acts of kindness to Jew and non-Jew alike.  Rav Ahron Soloveichik expressed similar sentiments in a letter that he wrote about getting involved in charities to support non-Jews.

Of course, we should pray and provide support first and foremost for our Jewish brethren who are in Ukraine, because they are a part of our family.  But we have a broader responsibility beyond praying for and helping our Jewish brethren.  We must not suggest that we know how divine justice operates such that we are convinced that God is punishing innocent men, women and children for sins of their grandparents and great-grandparents.  Rather, we should imitate God’s traits of mercy, charity and generosity and pray for and do our best to assist every individual, Jew and non-Jew, who finds himself or herself in peril.

Let us hope and let us pray for their safety.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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