Va’etchanan: Where Was God during the Holocaust?

(Wikipedia)
Killing of Jews in Ivanhorod, Ukraine, 1942. A woman is attempting to protect a child with her own body just before they are fired upon with rifles at close range. (Wikipedia)

Having seen many Holocaust movies in my life, nothing prepared me for what I was going to see in Netflix’s Eizengruppen: the Nazi Death Squads. The scenes of people being forced to dig their own mass graves, the interviews with the monsters who did the shootings, and the images of the aftermath– were to difficult to bear. The question cries to the Heavens: where was God during the Holocaust?

This is not an intellectual question. Although this question was asked countless times, there is something about seeing the horrors for yourself that strikes the depth of the heart of any person who believes in a good God. Last year a viral video about Megachurch pastors Lisa and Michael Gonger, who lost their faith after visiting Auschwitz. Yes, they knew about the Holocaust, studied it, and understood much of the loss, it was seeing the little shoes, the hair, piles of glasses, belongings, and walking through the gas chambers that changed it all. It is an entirely different question. It does not come from an academic or intellectual place, it is a question that cries from the pictures and hollers from the mass graves.

As I was watching the images of young Germans, Latvians, and Ukrainians shooting defenseless children and stepping on their bodies, making sure they are dead, I came to another realization: that is exactly what they believed. Those who committed the most horrific crime in human history—a crime of cruelty for the sake of cruelty—believed the might made right. They believed that the strong would dominate the world. They believed in Macbeth’s definition of life being “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This is why they went after the people who symbolized the exact opposite of that.

The perpetrators of this greatest crime in human history followed the inspiration of a madman who said: “Conscience is a Jewish invention; it is a blemish like circumcision.” They followed a hedonistic materialist who said “If one little Jewish boy survives without any Jewish education, with no synagogue and no Hebrew school, it [Judaism] is in his soul. Even if there had never been a synagogue or a Jewish school or an Old Testament, the Jewish spirit would still exist and exert its influence. It has been there from the beginning, and there is no Jew, not a single one, who does not personify it.” That is what motivated Nazi criminals and collaborators to chase down even the most innocent Jewish child.

While there is an unanswerable emotional question evoked by seeing the side of the perpetrators of the horrors of the Holocaust, there is also an undeniable emotional answer given by those who suffered it most. The people who went down to those pits which were only allowed to choose between monstrous torture and death, or just death alone, did not believe that might made right. They believed in a life in which virtue and meaning made all the difference. They believed it is better to die as a martyr than to live as a murderer. They knew they won the test of history. They were not the ones who would mercilessly and indiscriminately kill others just to live a life of hedonism and self-gratification. They believed in a life worth living.

In Parashat Va’Etchanan the Torah introduces the Shema to us. This central statement of Jewish faith, is conveyed to us:” Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Lord Jonathan Sacks points out to a fascinating, yet often forgotten aspect of this statement:

Judaism is the supreme example of a culture not of the eye but of the ear. A great nineteenth-century historian explained the difference: The pagan perceives the Divine in nature through the medium of the eye, and he becomes conscious of it as something to be looked at. On the other hand, to the Jew who conceives G-d as being outside of nature and prior to it, the Divine manifests itself through the will and through the medium of the ear. He becomes conscious of it as something to be heeded and listened to. The pagan beholds his G-d, the Jew hears Him, that is, apprehends His will….

The polytheistic imagination, ancient or modern, sees reality as the clash of powerful forces, each of which is fundamentally indifferent to the fate of mankind. A tidal wave does not stop to think whom it will drown. The free market makes no moral distinctions. Global warming affects the innocent and guilty alike. A world confined to the visible is an impersonal world, deaf to our prayers, blind to our hopes, a world without overarching meaning, in which we are temporary interlopers who must protect ourselves as best we can against the random cruelties of fate. Today’s secular culture – dominated by television, video, the Internet and the computer screen – is a visual culture, a world of images and icons.

It is so because the patriarchs and prophets of ancient Israel were the first to understand that G-d is not part of the visible world but beyond. Hence its prohibition against graven images, visual representations and icons.”

When we look at the world around us we see so many conflicting, unfathomable phenomenon; we see so much good and yet so much evil. The only way the ancient world can come to terms with such terrible contradictions was to conclude there is a god of light and a god of darkness. They could not think of another way around it. A god of light and a god of darkness, heat and cold, good and bad, there was no way to reconcile everything in this world. Judaism came and taught us to listen. To take everything in. To take these contradictions into account altogether.

“I am the Lord and there is no other. Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil; I am the Lord, Who makes all these. (Isaiah 45)

Commentaries add to this that while we do seeing on our own, when it comes to listening, we need others so we can hear. The message of the Shema is one that opens us to hearing, to information being imparted to us, not assuming that we know it all.

The Jewish custom is that we cover our eyes when we say the Shema. Many wonder where this comes from. Why do we cover our eyes? And if needed why don’t we just close them. A beautiful explanation I heard once is that we cover our eyes, because if you look at this world it makes no sense at all. There is no way for us to begin to comprehend all these contradictions simultaneously.  We cover our eyes and say “hear, O Israel.” Yes, God is one. We won’t always understand it, nor will we be able to reconcile everything in our lives. We can only remind ourselves that we are part of Am Yisrael. A people who could have lost faith thousands of years ago yet chose not to. A people who could have lost faith in humanity so many times yet keeps on seeking to build friendships, form alliances, believe in others, and hope for better.

We will never know why God allowed the pain and suffering that took place during the holocaust to happen. We will be able to continue the flame of faith and hope, carried by the victims until their final moments.

As the time of Tisha Be’Av reaches its end, we are called on by the prophet Isaiah(chapter 45):” “Console, console My people,” says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her, for she has become full [from] her host, for her iniquity has been appeased, for she has taken from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.” The pain we suffered is beyond what we could have imagined, yet as the people of faith and hope, we wake up to another day, yearning for comfort and a less broken heart.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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