Many wars brought catastrophic disaster to the Jewish people, but in a sense they were wars with a different agenda. The Crusades, for instance. The target was the infidels. If Jews were infidels, so were others. It was a time of great tragedy for Jews, but not a war unleashed upon a philosophical doctrine that all Jews must be eradicated. Eytan says, “Every Jew felt that the struggle against Hitler was his crusade and that of his entire people”.
Eytan was right, but not only in regard to Jews. His statement applies both to Jews and to Judaism. It was a war against Judaism, not only in the sense that if there were no Jews there would be no Judaism. Indeed that in itself is neither logical nor true to history. If there were no Jews it would be tragic, at least from our Jewish point of view, but our books, our historical deposit of literature and culture, would presumably have been left behind.
Where Judaism was threatened was in the enemy’s determination to eradicate Jewish ethics – the right to live, the right to be oneself, the preciousness of every human being, the dignity of the other, the chessed, rachmanut and menschlichkeit (I cannot avoid using the Jewish words) that are marks of humanity.
The enemy tried, Babel-like, to unseat God and to remove Him from the Universe. They also – probably quite deliberately – insisted that the world would be better off without the ethical message of Judaism, regardless of whether it was thought to be a Heaven-given message or one that evolved amongst human society.
Crucial to that message is the word chessed. If it is Divine chessed that we are talking about, many Jews, survivors or not, might suspect it is a bad joke. Where was the chessed from On High in the midst of the horrors? Using the Psalmist’s language, we were lambs to the slaughter every day: indeed lambs to the slaughter were better off. Where was the Divine love when we cried from the depths? Where was the assurance that the Lord is nigh to all who call upon Him in truth? Divine chessed?
All we can say, even all these decades later, is that there came a time when the dark night gave way to a new day, when the sorely afflicted Jewish people, in pain and perplexity, found itself still alive, somehow still capable of loving and being loved, still capable of building a State and a new Jewish world, still capable of making a superhuman effort at faith.
Chessed was impossible on a human level in those days, or so one might think. To stay human was not always, or often, an option. Yet many did, thinking of others… even thinking of God, refusing the dishwater that was called soup in order to fast on Yom Kippur, refusing the crust called bread in order not to eat chametz on Pesach, refusing the potato that was called food in order to carve out a Chanukah menorah… The enemy might attack the Jewish body, but when they tried to destroy the Jewish spirit of ethics, decency and faith they would never prevail.