Suddenly the Yom-Tov is over. The themes of the festival try to linger, but the calendar does not stand still. An event that will not be shaken off takes hold of us. It’s Yom HaShoah, the commemoration of the catastrophe, the memorial day for the Holocaust.
Sombre thoughts, bitter memories. El Male Rachamim. Kaddish. In the words of Scripture, “The whole House of Israel bewails the burning which the Lord has kindled” (Lev. 10:6).
In terms of years the events of the Holocaust inexorably recede. It is many years since the carnage at last came to an end. Not one Holocaust survivor is young any more. All are fearful that the second and third generation will not know or understand or be moved by what has happened.
In every community, therefore, the survivors have spearheaded the plethora of programmes that have made the Holocaust known. These programmes have helped the survivors too, because they have helped them to bring some things out of their hearts and souls and to find, not the words, but some words, to verbalise the deep-down experience.
In addition, Holocaust culture – literature, art, drama and film – has built up on all levels. Public perception of the Holocaust has spread – due to many factors, not least the dishonourabIe expression of ultimate antisemitism and pernicious falsehood that has dared to deny or relativise the whole event.
Every Jew, no matter how young, is part of the Holocaust experience. He too was there; its trauma is his trauma.
In Chaim Grade’s story, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner”, the ascetic Reb Hersh is certain. “What happened,” he says, “is known to all Jews… All Jews mourn the third of our people who died a martyr’s death. But anyone with true feelings knows that it was not a third of the House of Israel that was destroyed, but a third of himself, of his body, his soul.”
Declares Reb Hersh, “And so we must make a reckoning”. The question is how, and with what emotion or instinct of our being?
Shall it be in a rarefied spiritual sense, with the mystical serenity that comes from sacrificing one’s soul for the Master of the World? Is it not said that when Rabbi Akiva was tortured by the Romans, he urged his followers not to weep? “All my life,” he explained, “I have tried to love God with all my heart and soul and might, but only now do I understand u’v’chol nafshecha, ‘with all thy soul’. Now I know it means, ‘even if He takes your soul’!”
Such perfect faith and trust is inspiring, humbling, but rare. It’s not for most people. Shall the more natural emotion, then, be stark despair – despair of God, of man, of life, of meaning and logic? Despair has its moments, but is that really a Jewish way?
Shall we, in terms that are not unknown in our literature and liturgy, turn in upon ourselves, beat our breasts, make a viddui, and say u’mipnei chata’ enu, “Because of our own sins did this calamity befall our people”? True, we are not a perfect people and we do, to our shame, commit sins against God, man and ourselves. But more than one Holocaust theologian has warned against the u’mipnei chata’enu mentality. To say it was the fault of all Jews, or of German Jews, or Zionist Jews, or anti-Zionist Jews, or any other segment of Jews, is sheer obscenity.
Shall our emotion be vengeance, or least an obsessive distrust of the nations of the world and of gentiles? This is far from Jewish ethics. “Vengeance is Mine,” says God (Deut. 32:35). And there are righteous amongst all the peoples, and the moral task is to discover the righteousness in people and encourage it to grow.
Shall we be angry, particularly with God?
Itzik Manger, in his poem “In Anger”, imagines a latter-day Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev:
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak in prayer shawl and phylacteries
Does not move from his place.
He stands behind the Reader’s stand in the Synagogue;
The prayer book is open,
But he does not utter a word.
He sees in his imagination the pictures of the Ghetto,
The agony of death, the pain and the ridicule.
He is stubbornly silent,
The old sage is wroth with his God…
Anger with God is daring, impudent, almost blasphemous. There is a whole literature of Jewish anger with God. I always recognised it existed, and knew some instances; but not until a few years ago when I prepared a series of radio programmes entitled “Confrontations with God” did I fully realise how often the historic interaction of God and Israel had seen Israel angrily accuse God of sinning against His people. Our instinct is, like Abraham, to say, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Gen. 18:25). But in the Divine-human partnership you can be rightly wrathful at your partner, but you are bound together to the end of time. Between God and Israel there can be no divorce.
Where then do we go from here? We have to say, “God, we are angry at You with just and adequate cause; as Moses said, ‘Why do You deal evilly with this people?’ (Ex. 5:22). Yet nonetheless, nothing You do will make us stop believing in You!”
Aaron Zeitlin says the question is not, “If there is a God, how can He allow such evil?” but “Since there is a God, what do I say and do about the Holocaust?”
Jewish tradition has blessings for every event in life. There is a blessing to be said when one sees a house of worship rebuilt. Based on the Book of Proverbs (15:25), it is, “Blessed art Thou … who establishes the border of the widow” (Ber. 58b).
From this we learn two things that are essential in the response to the events of the 20th century. First: we are not entitled, however severe the mourning, to sit back and leave our way of life, our people and our heritage, in a state of ruin and wreckage. We must stand up and salvage what can be salvaged, and rebuild.
Second: after the rebuilding, we must make a b’rachah, and thank God for the opportunity of new hope and new life.
Our generation will be adjudged by history a wondrous generation. Out of the ashes it began to rebuild. It established the State of Israel. It built up centres of Jewish life in new lands, often on unpromising ground. It re-established Jewish learning and piety. It failed in some ways; it did an imperfect job in others. But rebuild it did. And it did so in memory of the martyrs of the Holocaust, vowing, in Chaim Grade’s words, to “incorporate into ourselves the hidden inheritance of our people’s strength so that we can continue to live”.
We in our generation humbly bless God for the opportunity to bring about a rebirth. We do not leave it all to Him, for then man would become nothing. We do not insist on doing it all ourselves, for that would be impossible arrogance. We do not understand all the ways of God; our questions will remain to the end of time. Our anger may not abate. But we and God are bound up with each other as long as history lasts, and between us we must make sure that Am yisrael chai, “The people of Israel will live”, and Netzach yisrael lo yeshakker, “The Eternal One of Israel will not deceive” (I Sam. 15:29).