In Israel this evening on Holocaust Memorial Day, restaurants, bars, and cinemas will all be closed in respect for the millions who were murdered in the gas chambers of modern enlightened Europe. At ten o’clock in the morning, a memorial siren will blare out for two minutes all over the country. Hearing it, everything will stop. Schoolchildren will stand quietly in school playgrounds; pedestrians will stand frozen on sidewalks; motorists will stop their cars in the middle of highways. For those two minutes, the hearts of all the country are united. There is nothing like it in the world. True, in some of Israel’s institutions for the insane and mentally handicapped, some patients won’t notice the siren, and there are some mentally deranged still at large who will continue about their business, detached in their psychopathic cocoons from the real world around them, but the overwhelming nationwide feeling is one of profound respect and remorse. Our Sages tell us that it is the person who shares in the sorrows and struggles of Jerusalem who shall merit to share in its joys. May the memory of the martyrs be for a blessing.
Many writers and scholars have put forth theories which attempt to explain the Holocaust. One Haredi point of view focuses the blame on the reform Jews in Germany who broke away from the Torah. Another attitude blames the secular Zionists for having brazenly established a non-religious settlement in the Land of Israel before the Mashiach’s coming. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook had a different understanding. These theories, he said, failed to embrace the whole sweep of history. The workings of Divine Providence cannot be isolated to any one moment, or group, but must be seen in the context of the Divine historical plan which spans generations. Accusations that blame this group or that group, fracture the unity of the Jewish Nation. Just as G-d is One, the Nation of Israel is one. Only from this encompassing perspective, which embraces all of Jewish history, can one hope to fathom the Divine Will in the horror of the Holocaust. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda spoke these following words on Holocaust Memorial Day at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I took the trouble to translate his lecture because of its incredible depth and poignancy. Yes, it is long. Yes, it is serious. But for readers searching for understanding in the darkness and confusion which the Holocaust caused, the answer lies in his teaching:
“Everything that happens in the world is a Divine mystery. The understanding of Divine Providence, in all of its complexity, is not revealed to us. Analytical studies of the Holocaust are a juvenile activity. Only with great sensitivity, and with a mature spiritual perspective, is it possible to approach this awesome topic. First, one must remember that there is a difference between human comprehension and Divine reckoning. The true understanding of the world, and the true understanding of faith, demand an understanding of the Torah verse, ‘Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations’ (Devarim, 32:5.) This sweeping historical perspective includes a deep faith that everything comes from G-d. But along with this, one must remember that, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts; My ways are not your ways, says the L-rd. For My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts are higher than your thoughts’ (Yishayahu, 55:8-9.)
“A weakness of faith, and a narrow world outlook, causes one to measure Divine Providence according to the yardstick of our understanding, which is limited. Human understanding is finite and cannot grasp the workings of ‘Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom’ (Tehillim, 145:13.) Our reckoning is a reckoning of the here and now, whereas the Divine reckoning is an accounting of ages. Sometimes, man forgets that matters are not dependent on, nor begin with him. In truth, events are connected by a Divine historical plan. Thus our comprehension of them is dependent upon our ability to elevate ourselves and recognize the overall Divine reckoning.
“Rising to this level is not easy. Therefore, there were people who abandoned their faith on the heels of the Holocaust, because they did not succeed in lifting themselves up to the knowledge of the true G-d. Obviously, one sympathizes with them. As our Sages said about Job, ‘A man is not blames for what he utters in his agony’ (Baba Batra 16B.) There is room to understand errors committed in an hour of suffering. Yet difficulties do not justify abandoning faith. One must not subject G-d to our reasoning and perception. Only with this understanding is it possible to approach, in fear and awe, a comprehension of a tiny part of the Holocaust. In our generation, we have seen an awesome new form of destruction (the Holocaust) and an incredible new revival and building (the State of Israel). There are people who don’t agree with this order of Divine Providence. They become confused when they encounter these events. But nothing happens randomly. There is not a thing which transpires that isn’t carried out according to the Providence of the Almighty. Not only the good events, but also the things which appear evil to us, they all happen according to the Divine plan.
“There are not words to describe the shocking, frightening, and horrifying atrocity of the Holocaust. It will remain this way forever. It is impossible to stop the anger one feels against the Nazis, may their names be erased. They not only perpetuated an unspeakable evil against us, they also damaged our psyches, leaving us psychologically scarred. All of our national identity and pride was uprooted by them. This is even more pernicious than the killing and murder. All of the national, social, and political uncertainty we now experience, all of our confusion in our world outlook and lifestyle, follow from this destruction of the Israeli community. The Holocaust caused an upheaval in our attitudes and worldview, and it damaged our faith in G-d.
“We are commanded to rise up to a sublime vision, to ‘Contemplate the years of many generations,’ to rise up over trivial explanations, to peer beyond mere superficial perception. One must guard against thinking in a condensed and myopic fashion when clarifying the historic reckonings of Clal Yisrael. The nation of Israel is a single unity which arrives at its wholeness only after a continuum which spans all ages. The whole truthful vision beholds the entire Nation of Israel in all of its generations. It is true that there are many levels in the Nation of Israel, from the completely righteous, to people average deeds, to doers of evil. However, all of these categories compose one complete entity. Just as ‘The Torah of the L-rd is whole’ (Tehillim, 19:18,) so is the Nation of Israel whole. Like the body of a man that is made up of different organs having various functions and levels of importance, yet which together, each performing its task, constitute the complete man – so is the Nation of Israel, each tribe has its unique value, and all of them together make up the nation. A perspective of the Nation of Israel which divides the whole into parts (religious and secular, Zionist and anti-Zionist), without sensitivity to the overall oneness of the Nation, is a narrow-minded perspective that brings many divisions and crises in its wake. All of Israel’s millions are bound together, in one body, in one soul.
“This single, complete body of the Nation of Israel is whole only in Eretz Yisrael. In the exile, we are not in our normal national situation, nor in our vibrant state. The return to the Land of Israel is a return to national normalcy and to health. G-d’s presence among the Jewish People on appears in its true form in Eretz Yisrael. There is even a difference in the value of a mitzvah which a Jew performs in the Land of Israel, compared to the value of the same precept when performed outside the Land. The actualization of Israel in all of its wholeness is only in Eretz Yisrael. Outside of the Land, we are not healthy because the national component of Clal Yisrael is shattered, and we only exist as solitary individuals, the remnants of Israel. The exile causes a delay in G-d’s light on the Nation. Galut destroys our national format, and we remain isolated souls. However, the bones of Yechezkel’s prophecy do not disintegrate forever, and we wait the appearance of a new burst of life (Yechezkel, 37:3-5.) And now the time has come to return to health. The end of exile has arrived. Everything has stages, and the Redemption does not appear all at once, but gradually, a little at a time (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 1:1.) The Master of the World arranges history in such a way that for a certain time we are confined to exile, and afterwards He brings about historical events which cause the national body of the Jewish People to awaken in a developing process spanning generations. This awakening builds in momentum toward a complete revival.
“There are situations where it is difficult to separate from the galut. However, the time has arrived for our Nation’s revival, and for the Redemption of our Land. The Revealed End has come, the time when, ‘You O mountains of Israel shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they will soon be coming’ (Sanhedrin 98A.) The time approached for Israel’s return to Zion, and this caused the rebirth of the Land. But as the time arrives for our departure from the darkness of the exile, situations arise which resemble the Hebrew slave who rejects freedom and says, ‘I loved my master’ (Shemot, 21:5.. Jews fell in love with the exile and refused to come back to Israel. But the Diaspora cannot continue forever. The Diaspora is the worse Desecration of G-d that there is, as we find in Yechezkel: ‘And when they came to the nations into which they came, they profaned My holy Name, in that men said of them, these are the people of the L-rd, and they are gone out of His Land’ (Yechezkel, 36:20..
“When the time comes for Redemption, complications arise and large portions of the nation are embedded in the tar of the galut. The facts bear witness – multitudes of Jews grew accustomed to the impurity of the Diaspora, and refused to extricate themselves from it. Thus begins a Divine surgery, a deep inner, esoteric purification from this decay, a treatment of amputation and healing. All of Israel’s millions are one single body, an indivisible organism, and when it is delayed from returning to health because of its clinging to a foreign land, then a cruel Divine amputation is needed. The time came for the Jewish People to return to their Land, but since they refused, there was no way to bring them back other than, ‘He took me by the side-lock of my head’ (Yechezkel, 8:3,) in order to bring them against their will to Eretz Yisrael. When the end of exile arrives, and all of Israel fails to recognize it, there is a need for a cruel Divine amputation and severance. We are not speaking here about a reckoning against this person or that person, since this is a secret matter of G-d belonging to the secret world of souls. We are speaking of a reckoning that encompasses all of the Nation, which arises from a situation of, ‘They despised the desirable Land’ (Tehillim, 106:24.) This is an amputation which causes the Nation as a whole to separate from the Diaspora and return to its life in the Land of Israel.”
A Holocaust can transpire by mass murder, or a Holocaust can transpire by mass assimilation. One way or other, to save the Jewish People, it is time for our exiles to come home.