The Holocaust was a horrific t…
The Holocaust was a horrific time for the Jewish people. Six million Jews were murdered, and it is difficult to reconcile why it happened. This essay will analyze the approach of a great Orthodox thinker on the Holocaust which will shed light on this dark moment in Jewish history. In his book “In This I Trust,” Rav Shach’s devotes a chapter to the Holocaust.
Rav Shach’s approach comes from the theological point of view that Hashem has an accounting system. Hashem accounts for everyone, for each person’s actions good and evil. Over time Hashem kept track of the good and the bad and when the Jews sinned their account became full of sins, and then Hashem punished them with the Holocaust. As Rav Shach states, “God kept count of each and every sin, in a running count over hundreds of years, until the count amounted to six million Jews, and that is how the Holocaust occurred. So must a Jew believe, and if a Jew does not completely believe this, he is a heretic, and if we do not accept this as a punishment, then it is as if we don’t believe in The Holy One, Blessed be He…” (Shach 91). If someone didn’t believe that the Holocaust was a punishment then, they were considered a heretic. The fact that we think that the Holocaust was a punishment proves that we have a G-d because it means that we believe in Hashem’s ways including His cheshbon. Many things filled up the account such as a terrible spiritual situation, the Haskalah ripping through the yeshivos and affecting the boys, the children being brainwashed in secular public schools, and not learning basic Jewish knowledge and Torah. The people didn’t know the account was full of sins. Therefore, they did not realize the severity of their situation and that a tremendous punishment could happen at any moment.
Many values inform Rav Shach’s opinions. The first value is the divinity of Torah as a proof of its legitimacy (Torat Hashem emet). Rav Shach says that a simple man can change his point of view because his view isn’t dependent on anyone or anything. However, a gadol who is paskining something for the entire generation cannot change his point of view once he already stated a particular perspective. Furthermore, Hashem cannot change his point of view because He created the world with His words. If reality has been absolute for thousands of years, Hashem cannot suddenly switch what He said. The “yud” and the “hey” that make up Hashem’s name and refer to the two unique worlds He created. The “yud” refers to Olam Haba, the eternal world and the “hey” to Olam Hazeh, the present world as we know it. Hashem dictated his words of the Torah to Moshe, and he wrote them down, this is known as Torah Shebichtav. Since the origin of Torah is directly from G-d and Hashem doesn’t change his words, we can be confident that Torah is entirely accurate.
Rav Shach’s second value is the truth of the words of Chazal as Torah Shebaal Peh. The words that Hashem passed down through Moshe also had an oral section given as the oral law called Torah Shebal Peah. The Tannaim and Amoraim later recorded these words which later became the Mishnah and Gemara. Rav Shach remarks that every single word, letter, vowel and crown on top of the letters written in the Torah has a significant and meaningful explanation. For example, the long neck of the “lamad” has a Kabbalistic meaning. However, simple people do not possess the unique wisdom to understand these subtleties. Rather, the Tannaim and Amoraim are the only individuals that can decipher the true meaning of these letters. They are able to provide deep explanations for the slightest deviation of spelling, seemingly extra words or the crowns on top of the letters. Chazal mention two important quotes from Torah Shebal Peah. The first is “anyone who is angry all the aspects of hell rule over him” (Shach 90). The second is “anyone who breaks vessels out of his anger it will be considered in His (Hashem) eyes as if he served idols”(Shach 90). These words aren’t arbitrary or superficial; however, they are complete and substantial. Rav Shach’s values that the above statements are the words of Hashem in Torah Shebal Peah therefore, they must be true.
Rav Shach’s analysis states that when a person sins Hashem will exact punishment for his actions. A person who is a disbeliever in Torah Shebal Peah is an outright heretic. This idea is similar to what Chazal says about a haughty person, “me (Hashem) and him (heretic) cannot live in one sphere (the world)” (Shach 90). Unfortunately, in spite of these harsh words, we do not think about the content of our actions, and we don’t take the time to delve into our inner desires and examine our deeds. Therefore we may not realize what is going on with us, if we have sinned or not. Hashem says that if you don’t believe in reward and punishment, then you are a blatant heretic according to the rabbis. Rav Shach means a person who did something wrong will be punished.
Rav Shach places value on the knowledge that Hashem is merciful, and He has a just accounting system. Someone could ask a question, doesn’t the Torah state that there is punishment for sin, why don’t I see the penalty? The answer is that Hashem is slow to get angry and collects sins one at a time. Meaning that Hashem has the characteristic of being slow to anger, but eventually over time accumulates what is his and will punish people who did wrong. Hashem has his account when and how much to collect, and he isn’t forgiving and doesn’t let it all go. Hashem accounts for everything. Sometimes the individual is avenged for his actions; sometimes the account is with the family, sometimes the generation is avenged. There will not be an illusion of relinquishment. Rav Shach states there is no cessation everything is accounted for Hashem is slow to anger and counts small actions like a cup of drops.
Everyone was affected by the tragic murder of six million Jews. There wasn’t a family left unaffected whether it happened to be parents, siblings, children, distant relatives, friends or neighbors. We should ask ourselves, why did this decree happen? Heaven forbid that Hashem is acting with cruelty, He is kind, full of mercy and favor. What did Hashem do this to us, it cannot be that He performed extreme judgment for free (just because)? Does a person like Hitler (may his name be erased) have the power to wipe out six million Jews? If we assume that the Holocaust was for no reason, then we lack in our emunah and bitachon, and involvement of Hashem in His unique creations (our lives). Rav Shach’s message is that there is an accounting for all actions, we must believe that G-d is just, and therefore we can reconcile the Holocaust as a punishment (a tikun).
In class, we learned about Rav Elchanan Wasserman who has a similar approach to Rav Shach. Both believed that the Haskalah and outside influences caused the Holocaust and that Hashem made a judgment when bringing the Holocaust. He differs from Rav Shach on his process of how the cause led to the Holocaust. Rav Elchanan Wasserman believes that Judaism should be taken in its correct, pure form. He thinks that mixed multitude, outside ideas, and approaches changed the legitimacy and efficiency of Torah, Judaism, and Mitzvot. He says that because Torah wasn’t pure and was being watered down by the Haskalah and other European influences caused the Jews to sin. Hashem justly made the Holocaust happen to separate the Jews from secularism and other ideas mixed with Judaism. Rav Shach says that the Haskalah and outside influences caused the Jews to sin and overtime these sins accumulated a spiritual account. When the account was deemed full, then the Holocaust was allowed to happen as a divine punishment for exacting judgment.
Later on in his work, Rav Shach mentions the cause of anti-semitism with an approach very similar to Rav Elchanan’s approach. They both agree that the assimilation of Torah with culture causes evil and that the push to separate us was masked as coming from the nations. Rav Shach says when Jews get close to European culture or the Haskalah, as a direct effect anti-semitism is increased in that location. Unfortunately, before the Holocaust, places like England and Germany had anti-semitism because the people there were strongly influenced by the Haskalah. Rav Shach then quotes the famous Beit Halevi, who says that Hashem made a clear distinction between the Jewish people and the nations. When a Jew wants to get close to other countries that will increase anti-semitism.
Fortunately, I had the fantastic opportunity to recently hear a panel face-to-face between Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Lau spoke about how anti-semitism and assimilation are real problems today and will continue until Moshiach comes. Rabbi Sacks talked about hope and that we can combat the problem of assimilation with educating Jews. “To defend a country you need an army, but to defend your identity you need education. Education is the ministry of defense (Sacks).” In regard to anti-semitism, “the victim cannot cure the crime by themselves. Hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews (Sacks).” Other people are also attacked because of the same hate. “If it is not safe to be a Jew on the streets, then it is not safe to be European on the streets (also said in front of the European Union) (Sacks).” He believes that getting all the allies on our side is extremely beneficial. Get other countries to realize it is also their problem as well. When somebody calls you a Jew, how do you view the term? Do you look at it as an insult or something that you are really proud of/a compliment? “Anti-semitism is as much their problem as it is ours! We will fight and we will win! We should be proud to be jews and never give the enemies comfort that they intimidated us! (Sacks)”
I agree with Rav Shach, Rabbi Lord Sacks, and Rabbi Lau, we should be proud to be Jews, sending our children to Jewish day schools. We should be careful in our observation of Torah and mitzvot holding them closer to our heart! Using them as our spiritual protection, to stay mostly separate as Rav Shach said from the non-Jews. We must be watchful so we do not become too influenced by outside cultures and the complacency of galut. I feel that we have to strive for the ideal, to be living in Israel at the time of Moshiach, but balancing our practical lives as Jewish people in America.
In conclusion, I think we need to follow the Torah and rely on Hashem’s protection. However, it is imperative to actively do our hishtadlut, and make allies for the Jewish people with other nations. Another way to proclaim we are Jewish proudly is to have public events for Jewish Holidays, like a kumzits for the State of Israel in Times Square. When we do not feel proud of our heritage, we will look to other cultures for inspiration, like the generation of the Holocaust. Since we have faith in Hashem’s cheshbon, we do not want our sins to bring about a horrific punishment in our future. The best prevention of another mass genocide is to recognize our history as a Jew, make it relevant to our lives and our children’s lives, and permeate our lives with the mitzvot.