Understanding the Holocaust? (Part I)

As a child growing up in suburban, assimilated Jewish America, I was always curious about the Holocaust.

I saw movies and gory pictures, and the phrase ‘Never Again’ was impressed deeply into my cerebral cortex.

But I always felt that there was something very strange here. First off – what happened to my people in the Holocaust always seemed surreal. I found myself asking what was the WHY behind the Holocaust?

I knew it had something to do with the unique qualities of the Jewish People itself. After all, it became clear to me that mini-holocausts had been happening to the Jewish People for more than 2,000 years. It didn’t seem to matter when the period was, and, even stranger, geography was meaningless in this equation: the sorry and violent fate of the Jews was pretty much the same, whether we were talking about 19th century Poland, 4th century Greece, or 10th century Iran. What the hell was going on here? I asked myself.

I reported to my elders something very heretical. If being Jewish meant eventually being expelled, or massacred, or forcibly converted to either Christianity or Islam, I verbalized at one point in my adolescence – WHY should I have any part of it? Who needs this Jewish stuff, anyway? Someone tell me why it wouldn’t make more sense to become, say, Mongolian?

I verbalized at one point in my adolescence – WHY should I have any part of being Jewish? Who needs it, anyway?

My Jewish role models were aghast. Why, they said, the Holocaust was something sacrosanct! We’re not allowed to ask questions about the MEANING of the Holocaust!

I never got a straight answer to my questions. So after a number of years, I packed up my things and made my way to a yeshiva (an ancient form of Orthodox Talmudic academy) just south of Bethlehem in Israel. After a few weeks of delving deep into our ancient texts, such as the Hebrew Bible and the word-of-mouth traditions that were painstakingly recorded thousands of years ago, I felt that I was for the first time getting some answers.

Finally – Some Answers

In order to make this work, one must understand a few things. First, Jewish tradition (and that of other faiths) purports that the Jewish nation does not exist in the same way that other nations do. According to the Biblical narrative, God actively selected a family of individuals, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their wives and their descendants for a unique role in history. This is the meaning of the often used phrased, ‘Chosen People’. But chosen for what?

The ‘Chosen People.’ Chosen for what?

Well, it turns out that from the beginning of the nation nearly 4,000 years ago, God groomed this family and its descendants to be His servants of the world. Our role was to teach the rest of humanity about God and His ways by living a collective national life according to His commandments. By setting an example in this way, the Israelite nation was set aside as God’s personal shepherds to the rest of the world.

This idea, this ‘chosenness’ was stipulated at first to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. We descended to Egypt and became slaves to the king, and we were redeemed from servitude in order that we would take on a pact, the Covenant, that was presented to the entire nation in the howling wilderness surrounding a mountain called Sinai.

Once we were all assembled at the foot of that mountain, God Himself presented us with the Torah which was nothing less than a detailed agreement how were supposed to behave in order to merit the status of his special people.

This agreement stipulates the following: if the Jewish nation would keep God’s laws, then He would personally guarantee us an ideal national life in a special land, the Land of Israel, which God explicitly promised the Patriarchs as an eternal inheritance for them and their descendants.

So far so good. But God’s agreement (also known as our Covenant, or Pact) involved our own national free will. If we followed the agreement then all would be well, but if we were to throw off the yoke of the agreement and behave just like the rest of the nations of the world, then God promised to send us reminders to get back to the straight path. If we were to listen and return to the agreement, again all would be well. But if we were to harden our hearts and continue to do what we felt like, then God promised to turn up the heat more and more.

If we still didn’t return to God’s laws, then God explicitly promised that He would expel us from our land, and that we would suffer in exile – until the point where God had mercy on us for the sake of our ancestors, and returned us to our original home. At that point, God promises as part of the agreement that he would stir up in us the will to return to the Land of Israel and behave according to our side of the bargain.

In short, history followed the script of the agreement. After some time as a nation in the Land of Israel, we dropped the ball – and after a long decline, we were finally expelled completely some 2,000 years ago. True to His promise, God created little pockets of exile communities where we led hard lives and were harassed by our host nations everywhere we settled.

It should not be difficult to see that our Exile has been long and painful, but that God never forgot that we were His people. We struggled to keep the Covenant as best we could, but it could never be complete so long as we were outside of the Land that God had set aside for our ancestors and for us.

It is this common experience that makes all Jewish communities throughout the world essentially equal in fate.

Then, around 200 years ago, a great awakening happened amongst the Jewish people in exile. All the years that we were outside, we retained a longing to return, but we were essentially unable to do so since the land itself was barren wasteland and no economy could flourish there. Then, the situation began to change, and the Jewish nation began flocking once again to the Land of Israel, first in small numbers and then in larger migrations. Most of the time we came as refugees, since God directed the host nations to embitter our lives and finally expel us from the Exile.

The final stage of the Exile was the Holocaust, which raged just before the Jewish nation proclaimed its independence in its promised land after 2,000 years of absence.

Virtually all of the Hebrew prophets present visions of the final end of the Exile and the beginning of the Return. In many places, they compare the rebirth of the Jewish nation in its native land to a birth. In this light, one can see the Holocaust as the final ripping away of the infant from its womb, the entire Exile. Just as a birth involves great pain – so too did the end of the Exile. And just as a birth is usually accompanied by blood – so this final phase of the Exile, the Holocaust, was the greatest bloodletting in world history.

That is one take on the Holocaust – in a nutshell. When seen against the backdrop of thousands of years of Jewish history, as hard and unfathomable that it is, the Holocaust becomes almost understandable.

Now ,to get an insider’s glimpse of what the Holocaust really was all about – we need to wait for Part II.

About the Author
Yisrael Rosenberg is a former New Englander who made aliyah 30 years ago. He lives with his wife and four children in Jerusalem.