Viewing the Holocaust through the prism of Pessah

IN PLAIN LANGUAGE: How can we reconcile the horrors of the Holocaust with the idea of an all-powerful, compassionate God of justice?

Hologram of Holocaust survivior 370 (photo credit: Courtesy USC)
Hologram of Holocaust survivior 370
(photo credit: Courtesy USC)
If anyone ever bothered to take a census, the most oft-asked question posed to Jewish theologians, by far, would be, “How can we understand the Holocaust from a spiritual perspective?" Put another way, how can we reconcile the horrors of the Holocaust with the idea of an all-powerful, compassionate God of justice? This is not a question asked only by laymen. Every rabbi, including the most learned, erudite philosophers among us, has attempted to unravel this Gordian Knot, with little success. Oh, theories abound, no question, but few are very satisfying. Some, trumpeting the sacred principle of Free Will, place the blame squarely on Man – after all, it was men of flesh and blood who planned the atrocities, who built the gas chambers, men who herded the Jews into cattle cars and operated the death camps. But leaving God out of the equation invariably creates many more questions than it answers. After all, if God is unwilling or incapable of stopping the mega-destruction of His people, then to whom, exactly, are we praying?
Then there are those who would put the onus on the victims, the Jews themselves, maintaining that it was our multitude of sins which brought this catastrophe about. (Along the way, they debate whether it was our passion for Zionism or, conversely, our stubborn refusal to come to Israel, that kindled God’s anger.) But if we accept this theory, how do we explain the deaths of so many righteous people? In particular, how can we possibly justify the murder of close to two million children who never tasted sin at all? And do we really want to shift the blame away from the Germans, the perpetrators? So this approach, as well, does little or nothing to soothe the soul.
I agonized over this issue for many years. Although, on the one hand, my immediate family did not suffer greatly in the Holocaust, my in-laws were caught in the thick of it, my mother-inlaw having spent her 16th birthday in Auschwitz. And, through leading six trips to Eastern Europe and what remains of its concentration camps, I came face to face with the physical evidence of this greatest crime in history, seeing the piles of human hair and shoes, standing in front of the ovens still surrounded by the ashes of human remains. I found myself, at the very least, “theologically challenged.”
That is, until one particular Passover Seder.
I WAS sitting around the table, dressed in a new white kittel, surrounded by family and friends. We were sipping glass after glass of fine wine from goldedged crystal goblets, dining on a meal fit for a king, being served on the best china. The mood was upbeat, the songs exhilarating, the spirit buoyant. And then it hit me: What, exactly, was I celebrating? True, this was certainly the Festival of Freedom, the grand liberation of our people from slavery and our emergence as a sovereign nation. But at such a price! We suffered every form of degradation and torture during our sojourn in Egypt. For more than a century (the Sages say we spent 117 years in actual bondage) we were subjected to demonization, humiliation, slave labor, beatings and, ultimately, genocide. When we did not meet our quota of bricks, the Egyptian taskmasters stuffed our children into the walls. The first plague – the turning of water into blood – was a measure-for-measure punishment, say the Rabbis, for Pharaoh having literally bathed in Jewish blood.
Rashi, the greatest of all commentators on the Torah, declares that a full 80 percent of the Israelites never made it out of Egypt – roughly the same percentage of European Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
So why, I asked myself, is Passover such a joyous holiday? Are we callously, cavalierly glossing over the tragedy that befell our people in Egypt? Is it enough to say a few words about the slavery in our Haggada, momentarily dip a vegetable in salt water – reminiscent of our tears – and then eat some bitter herbs in haroset to simulate the mortar the Jews worked with? Is that the sum total of our grief, before we move on to the spirited song of “Dayenu” and the sumptuous banquet? Is this really dayenu – enough for us? The answer, of course, is that we are no longer living in Egypt, nor in the shadow of our degradation. We have 3,325 years of perspective through which to view and review the Exodus.
And so we no longer focus on it as one specific era or event, but rather as a chapter in a long and generally glorious book. When we look at the entire continuum of events that sprang from Egypt, a very different picture emerges.
We see the striking scenario of the Splitting of the Sea; the Revelation on Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments.
We watch as our nascent nation moves through the wilderness, protected by God’s twin pillars of cloud and fire. And we see the triumphant entrance of our people into the Land of Israel, where we miraculously defeated the nations arrayed against us and created a commonwealth.
Viewed in this fashion, the centuryplus of slavery takes on a markedly different mood. While we do not in any way dismiss or diminish its trauma, we now see the whole picture, rather than one isolated snapshot. We know that slavery gives way to salvation and suffering morphs into statehood. The bitterness of our bondage is followed by one sweet miracle after another, and that leaves a whole other taste in our mouths.
Fittingly, the Torah portion we read during Passover perfectly reflects this concept. Moses asks God to “show him His glory,” i.e. to explain to him why it is that good people suffer and the wicked seem to prosper. God answers, somewhat cryptically, “You shall see My back, but My front you shall not see.” God tells Moses that “from the front,” looking only at the present, human beings cannot hope to understand history or fathom the master plan of the universe. But from the back – with hindsight and perspective – one can begin to appreciate the fullness of the tapestry, seeing the events of the past from a different angle and with a different attitude.
This, I suggest, is the way we must approach the Holocaust. We still live in its dark shadow, far too close to the horrendous events to be able to look beyond them. The stench of the crematoria still fills our noses and we remain fixated on the cruelty, the inhumanity, the inexplicable destruction that we endured.
But the time will come, I truly believe, when we will see the Holocaust in a different context, as part of a chain of events that ultimately brought about our Renaissance and reunification as a people and the reclamation of Israel as our ancestral homeland – all of which result in bringing unparalleled glory to Jews and to Judaism.
That day is fast approaching, and we are blessed to be living in truly miraculous times. May God gives us the vision to see it. ■
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;,