Jonathan Muskat

Yom Hashoah: Divine Concealment or the Worst Expression of Free Will?

It is very difficult for some of us to fully embrace the day of Yom Hashoah from a theological perspective.  Is this tragedy that we commemorate on Yom Hashoah the worst example of mankind’s behavior or does this event shake our faith in God and if it doesn’t shake our faith in God, then should it?  Should we put God on trial for the horrors of the Holocaust on this day?  Now that’s a blasphemous statement, but let us consider the following Gemara.

The Gemara in Masechet Chullin 60b comments on the fact that on each holiday we are commanded to bring a sin-offering as a sacrifice just as we bring a sin-offering on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the month.  However, the sin-offering brought on Rosh Chodesh is described not merely as a “chatat,” a sin-offering, but as a “chatat laHashem,”  a sin offering for God.  The Gemara provides a remarkable explanation for this distinction.  God asks that a sin offering be brought each month to atone for God’s sin, the sin of diminishing the moon.  At this time of the month, when there is only darkness at night and no light, we experience “hester panim.”  We can experience terrible bouts of existential loneliness and this is the will of God for some reason.  There will be times that we don’t understand and God’s response is “Pray for Me. Bring a sin-offering for Me.”  This Gemara introduces the possibility that at times it seems as if God is on trial and He has no excuse that is understandable to mankind.  There is no plausible human rationale to justify the Holocaust.  At best, God tells us to pray or bring a sacrifice for Him.

While the import of this Gemara is astounding and may resonate with many of us on Yom Hashoah, others have taken a different path in relating to this day.  In 1979, Dr. Yaffa Eliach, one of the preeminent Holocaust historians, was in the Rema’s synagogue in Cracow on Erev Tisha B’Av with a group of Holocaust historians.  They had just come from visiting Auschwitz.  One of the members of the group walked up to the bimah and demanded that God be summoned to a din Torah, to a Jewish court, for the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust.  He then walked over to Dr. Eliach and asked her to say a few words. She writes:

“Was I being called as a witness by the prosecution? I declined. No, not I. I have no quarrel with God, only with men! I, too, want a trial, but not at the Rema’s synagogue, not at Nuremberg nor at Frankfurt. I would put on trial each Western university and library, for harboring millions of malicious words written against an ancient people, words like murderous daggers hidden beneath the cloak of science and truth — the propaganda of conceited little men. I want to bring to trial the pulpits of countless churches where hate was burning like eternal lights … I want to bring to trial a civilization for whom man was such a worthless being. But to bring God to trial? On what charges? For giving men the ability to choose between good and evil?”

In 1979, Yaffa Eliach did not ask where God was in the Holocaust.  She looked at the Holocaust as a time when, to quote from the end of Parshat Breishit, mankind committed horrific sins so much so that “vayinachem Hashem ki asah et ha’adam ba’aretz vayit’atzev el libo.”  God, as it were, regretted having created man and it grieved Him at His heart, figuratively.  According to this approach, man was created with free will and the Holocaust was the absolute worst expression of that free will that was given to man.

So how do we approach Yom Hashoah, like the approach of the Gemara in Masechet Chullin or the end of Parshat Breishit?  Should the Holocaust be seen as an exercise of human will or a Divine act of some sort?

In an article from a few years ago in Commentary magazine, Rabbi Meir Yaakov Soloveichik argued that in the creation of the state of Israel we find both a triumph of the human will and a miracle.  This is seen from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s seemingly contradictory descriptions of the creation of man in the Parshat Breishit.  In the first chapter of Breishit, Adam and Chava are created in the image of God Himself and are commanded to fill up the world and conquer it, whereas in the second chapter, Adam is made from the dust of earth as a sign of his mortality and he is told to reside with God in Gan Eden.  As such, both human majesty and humility, the Adam who strives for conquest and greatness (Adam I) and the Adam who is in awe of his Creator (Adam II), are an inherent part of mankind and both are willed by God.  Therefore, Rabbi Meir Yaakov Soloveichik argued that the creation of the state of Israel was an exercise in both human will of Adam I and Divine will through Adam II.

Similarly, it seems that we should view the enormity of the Holocaust as both an exercise of human and Divine will and that’s what makes Yom Hashoah so sad and so painful.  I can personally grapple with understanding how mankind can descend to such a level, but I cannot even begin to try to tackle this question theologically.

So why do we do this?  Why do observe Yom Hashoah if it becomes so painful to us by observing it?  The answer is that we have no choice.  In his opening speech in the case of Israel v. Adolf Eichmann in April 1961 in Jerusalem, the Honorable Gideon Hausner, Attorney General of the State of Israel and lead prosecutor, said:

“When I stand before you here, Judges of Israel, to lead the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I am not standing alone. With me are six million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger towards him who sits in the dock and cry, “I accuse.” For their ashes are piled up on the hills of Auschwitz and the fields of Treblinka, and are strewn in the forests of Poland. Their graves are scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Their blood cries out but their voice is not heard. Therefore, I will be their spokesman and, in their name, I will unfold this awesome indictment.”

The Holocaust is an example of how seemingly cultured people were able to cultivate complacency, ambivalence, ignorance, hatred and antisemitism amongst their so-called cultured citizens and we have a responsibility to speak for the victims, whether we are philosophically uncomfortable or not, because if we don’t, nobody will and Holocaust denial and ignorance will persist as the years go on.  Just last week, a UK court sentenced an anti-Semite to eighteen weeks in prison for spreading Holocaust denial on social media.  Additionally, a few weeks ago, the head football coach at Duxbury High School in Massachusetts was fired for using the words, “Auschwitz,” “Hitler” and “Holocaust” for some of his audible football calls during a game.

We have no choice but to speak for the victims and once we do that, then Yom Hashoah becomes not merely a day of shoah, of the tragedy, but it also becomes a day of gevurah, of strength.  The real name of the day is Yom Hashoah V’hagevurah.  We must have the strength to continue to speak out and to educate our children so that our children can educate the world around us.

Personally, I have a lot of difficulty dealing with the theological component of the day and I try to focus on the gevurah, the spiritual strength of Torah giants like Rav Elchanan Wasserman who boldly told his students to purify their thoughts as they were being led to Fort Nine to be gunned down in the summer of 1941.  He told them, “We must not contaminate our offering through any impure thought, which would render it unfit, just like a korban.  We are now about the fulfill the greatest commandment that exists.  The fire that consumes our bodies will be the very fires which will revive the house of Israel.”  And I try to focus on the gevurah of neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who kept himself alive by developing a purpose in the camps, to keep other prisoners from committing suicide, by encouraging them that they had to survive in order to return to a daughter that was safe in a foreign country or to return to their profession to finish the work that they had begun.

These stories inspire hope that we have within us the capacity for good even under the worst circumstances.  More than that, these stories inspire us to engage in gevurah, year after year to mark this tragedy and broadcast it to the world because the world is starting to forget and we cannot let that happen.

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