Pesah and the Holocaust: A Response to My Father’s Question
For many years at my seder table, the following scene would play itself out. I would be going on (and on) about how we need to be thankful for all of the miracles that occurred to us, that we need to see ourselves as if we too were redeemed from Egypt, and that we need to relate this to the wonderful miracles that were occurring in our lives, especially here in Israel, where I have lived for my adult life. My father would then intrude on my utopian, theologically benign and banal picture and zing me right there with the biggest Jewish stumper ever invented — If God is so great, why did He (yes, my father refers to God as He) allow the Holocaust to happen? If God rescued the Jews from Egypt, how come He didn’t rescue them from the concentration camps? And Josh, if you’re so damn smart and you learn Talmud all day, why don’t you have the answers to those questions? ZING.
I would try to wiggle myself out of the question by admitting the obvious — I don’t have the answer to the question of why evil exists in the world — or by trying to be smart and stupid at the same time — well, God didn’t rescue all of the Jews in Egypt, think of those who suffered there for hundreds of years. Be comforted dear father, by knowing that God also let thousands of baby boys drown in the river before bothering to hear their cries. Find solace, Abba, by realizing that just as God let millions of Jews die last century, so too He let them die en masse in days of yore. Halleluyah, let’s eat. Mostly I resorted to the usual tactics precious to centuries of clueless rabbis (but I remind you, I’m not a rabbi)–with a whack on the wrist with the ruler. Abba, please do not ask that question any more. It makes seder very difficult for me and the rest of the family.
Maybe I’ve matured, maybe I’ve given more thought to the question (I do think about it every year) but I’d like to take a stab at it this year. I still do not have an answer, but maybe I’m starting to work out a response. Abba, I know you won’t read this (hard to read the internet on a dumbphone that sits unused in your pocket) but Ima will read it (TGFFB) and I’m sure she’ll tell you (and all the other Jewish mothers) all about it.
There are two texts I relate to in thinking about the connection between the seder and the Holocaust, as well as the holiday of Pesah and Yom Hashoah, which follows only a week later. The first is an incredible work called, The Survivors Haggadah, which was published about fifteen years ago. This Haggadah was written by Yosef Dov Sheinson, a survivor, the artwork was executued by another survivor, Mikal Adler, and the books was published by an American army chaplain, Rabbi Abraham Klausner. The Haggadah contains some traditional text, but most of it has been transformed into words that speak directly to the experiences of the survivors themselves, who used this Haggadah in the first seder held in Munich after liberation. Most of the anger and bitterness in these texts is directed not at God, but at the Jews themselves, who had remained in exile despite the many signs of the doom to come. For instance, the text concerning “maror” the bitter herbs, reads, “Why do we eat this bitter herb? Because we were intoxicated by the incense of Galut (Diaspora). Because we fled from one Galut to another. Because we reassured ourselves saying: Ours will not be the fate that befell our people before us. Because we did little to help ourselves and reestablish our destroyed homes and country.”
The second text is the collection of responsa (answers to Jewish legal questions) of R. Ephraim Oshry, a work written by a rabbi in the Kovno ghetto. In these responsa R. Oshry answer some of the most difficult halakhic questions that arose during the Shoah, some of which are connected to Pesah. One of the most poignant questions is asked by a man who had risked his life to steal some flour so that the Jews of the ghetto could bake matzot for Pesah. Such matzah would provide them with the hope to survive the darkness of those years, and to be able to live long enough to celebrate a proper Pesah when the evil Nazis were destroyed. In a calamitous turn of events, days before Pesah this heroic man’s teeth were broken by the Nazis when they discovered him smuggling some flour into the ghetto. With broken teeth he could not eat regular hard matzah. His question was whether he could eat soaked matzah, even though this would violate his strict family tradition not to eat any matzah that had come into contact with water.
Neither of these texts focuses on God–they both focus on human beings. Yosef Dov Sheinson does not ask the question where was God during the Holocaust. He asks the question why Jews continued to tolerate such difficult conditions. The Jew who asks R. Ephraim Oshry whether he can fulfill his mitzvah with soaked matzah does not dwell on whether it is worth adhering to the rules of a God who allows suffering to happen. His soul reverberates with the desire to observe the commandments as a sign of resistance to evil in the world. His teeth may be taken away, but his will to live and celebrate remains.
Abba, I don’t have a theological answer to how can God exist but people suffer so much. All I can say with surety is that people do suffer, then in Egypt, seventy years ago in Europe, and still now all over the world. But what I can say is that human beings are at their best when they strive to rectify the mistakes of their past and when they toil today for the joy of the future. The survivors and American chaplain who composed that Haggadah broadcast the message that Jews would never again allow themselves to be seduced by the false safety of exile. Jews could no longer allow their survival to be at the whim and mercy of others. While there certainly is room to disagree with the particulars of how Jews should ensure that they are no longer persecuted, the larger lesson remains–when Jews do not protect themselves, they will be left unprotected. These Jews learned from the past, so that they could create a safer future. And they have succeeded. The Jews who smuggled matzah into the ghettos, and those who did so more recently into the USSR, taught the lesson that current difficulties and pain can be resisted by focusing on the spiritual meaning and hope of a better future. Just as there were Israelites who resisted Pharaoh by continuing to have babies and to hide them in the reeds, knowing all too well that those who survived would likely become slaves, so too there were Jews in ghettos and labor camps who persisted in eating matzah under conditions of slavery on Pesah, with the hope that some day they would eat them as free people.
On Pesah we celebrated their redemption, here in the land of Israel. On Yom Hashoah we remember their failures which we must never repeat. And we remember their resistance, for without it, we too could not persist.