A Torah Insight Into The Holocaust




When I speak "live," a question that I often repeatedly get (no matter what subject the lecture was about) is "If there is a G-d how could there have been a holocaust?" My answer (based on solid traditional sources such as Chumash, Meshech Chochma, Midrashim, Chofetz Chayim, etc.) is accepted as providing a rational and solid understanding of why there could have been a holocaust and how the Torah prophesied it. One of the main justifications for publishing this (even though it veers from marriage-related subject matter that is typical of my column) is that it gives Torah-based insight into why there may be so much trouble in our time; and the importance of tshuva, Torah, shalom, good attitude, improved relationships and maasim tovim (good deeds).

Admittedly, no mortal can second guess G-d's infinite "thoughts." But, Pirkei Avos (ch. 5) tells us to "Go through and through the Torah because everything is in it, and through it you shall see." And, since there is very much suffering in our day - and much serious trampling on the rules of the Torah - from talking in shul to immorality, from chilul Hashem (profaning G-d) to interpersonal (bain odom lechavairo) mistreatment, it can serve as a "wake up call" to realize that Hashem exacts a serious price for violations of His Torah. Hashem sends "collectors" constantly to take "payment for debts," whether a person knows or not; the justice is always perfect; and reward is apportioned for all proper fulfillment of one's duties (Pirkei Avos ch. 3).

The Jewish people are in a covenant [a treaty, a solemn mutual promise] with G-d that basically makes Him our G-d and the exclusive object of our devotion and service in all aspects of life, and makes us His special people who He will bless and take care of us like a compassionate and loving father will for his children. The Torah instructs us what to do so that we do our part. The Torah makes very clear in several places (e.g. the two "tochachos/admonitions [Leviticus and Deuteronomy] and the second paragraph of "Shma") that the Jewish people are to be generously rewarded in material and spiritual terms if we actively and loyally obey the Torah properly. We will have happiness, comfort, health, protection, peace, well-being and success in all aspects of life. On the other hand, G-d will seriously punish for violating the Torah; or for despising the Torah; or for not obeying the Torah with diligence, happiness, good-heartedness and appreciation of G-d's gifts. Even bad attitudes or views will be held against us and punishable!

We are told, for instance, that if we abandon G-d and His Torah, He will abandon us. We will not have rain or crops. We will lack food to such a serious extent that mothers will have to eat their babies. The sky above us and the earth under us will be as metal. We will be so sick and terrified that when it is day we will wish it to be night and when it will be night we will wish it to be day. Others will take and dwell in our homes. Enemies will sweep down on us like an eagle (a symbol of the Nazis was the eagle) and conquer and kill and brutalize us. Those who survive will be faint and pine away from what they experience. The sound of a shaken leaf will terrorize us. We will have no power, no where to go and no one to turn to or save us. G-d will hide Himself from us and destroy our cities. We will farm, bake, raise animals and do work, and others, and not us, will reap the benefits. Life will be in doubt and our hearts will tremble. We will marry women but others will lie with them. Few of our enemies will chase thousands of us. Hashem will cut us down and cast about our carcasses on the idolatry which they left Hashem for. Animals and birds will eat the carcasses and no one will chase them away. Hashem will make our sanctuaries and land desolate. We will be stricken with serious disease, injury, confusion, failure and insanity. If we have crops or materialism, it will be cursed. Our coming and going will be cursed. Whatever we do will be destroyed. We will be killed by our enemies, we will flee in many directions from them and be a horror to the nations of the world. Many of us will be destroyed and few in number will remain. These Torah statements describe the Holocaust.

In the Aseress HaDibros ("Ten Commandments"), G-d tells us that He will wait for up to four generations for those who leave Torah, and for their descendants who continue abandonment of it. A Biblical generation is forty years, so four generations is 160 years. The reform movement started IN GERMANY 160 years before the beginning of World War Two. Jews left Torah in droves so that there were only a small minority who remained frum in Germany by the onset of the war. The Reform Jews abandoned and ridiculed Yiddishkeit. A favored expression was, "Be a Jew in the home and a man on the street."

The Meshech Chochma (a commentary on the Torah written about 1870) wrote on the tochacha in Leviticus that German unreligious Jewry was making Germany and its culture their idolatry, and it was making Berlin for them what Jerusalem is to Torah Jewry, and that the punishments written in the Torah will come against them from Berlin for their defection from Torah and its commandments. The unreligious German Jew stood by his belief in the culture, civilization and alleged progress of Germans. Hashem cut them down and cast their carcasses on the idolatry which they left Hashem for!

The midrash says that during the ninth plague in Egypt (thick darkness), 80 percent of the Jewish people died. This was because they were satisfied with the culture, convenience and civilization of Egypt. They had no wish to be the people of the Torah. G-d, therefore, had no wish to have anything to do with them. They died in Egypt during the days of darkness. By the onset of World War Two, 80% of European Jewry was no longer religious. This matches the midrash. Eighty percent seems to be a "breaking point" in population, while 160 years is a "breaking point" in time. Those who converted, intermarried or denied Yiddishkeit were fooled. Hitler declared death for anyone who was one-eighth Jewish (one great-grandparent). This is especially chilling because this means a person of the FOURTH generation would be killed for his and his ancestors' attempt to flee G-d and Torah!

In Parshas Va'Airo, Avraham told Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, that Sarah was his sister and not his wife. Avimelech abducted her and G-d told Avimelech to let Avraham's wife Sarah go or be killed. Avimelech asked Avraham why he said she was his sister. Avraham answered, "There is no fear of G-d in this place and I feared you would kill me to take my wife." The Malbim explains that any secular civilization with man-made laws can be corrupted to suit itself. A king or legislature could pass laws that make murder legal if the government so desires. The "civilized" Germany passed laws permitting mass murder with the facade of legitimacy BECAUSE THERE WAS NO FEAR OF G-D IN THAT PLACE! One of the things which Hitler, yemach shemo, told the German people was, "The world will call you barbarians. Take it as a compliment!"

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Socialism, Communism and the Haskala (secular enlightenment movement) spread through much of Europe and made a large majority of European Jews leave Torah, more and more as time went on. One "alter Litvak" once told me that he remembered that during World War One, the daily inter-city bus did not stop at his town on Saturday because too much of the population was shomer shabos, so no one rode the bus. By the onset of World War Two, the bus stopped there on Saturday because only a negligible portion of the population was still shomer shabos. The Saturday bus had ample customers in this Jewish town.

Further, the Chafetz Chayim said at a shalosh seudos in 1929 that there is a fire that hangs over the world at all times which seeks to come down from the sky and consume the world. The only thing which shields the world is the vapor which comes from the breath of innocent young children who are starting to learn Torah. Since the Communists, Socialists, secularists and Reform Movement were taking the children out of yeshivos; the shield which saves Jewry was disappearing and within ten years the fire is going to come down and consume European Jewry. The Chafetz Chayim said that the troubles and killing that the Jews have suffered till then will be, by comparison, "a kinder shpeel - child's play." Ten years later (1939) the "fire came down" - World War Two started! And, everything else was indeed dwarfed by comparison.

This sends a profound and frightening message to us. G-d demands, in the most serious of terms, that we Jews serve Him; and do so with happiness, a good heart and attitude, diligence and appreciation for G-d's gifts to us. This means that we today must "clean up our act," especially in the most fundamental and serious areas, such as chilul Hashem (profanation of G-d), anything punishable by death or korais, all sinful interpersonal behavior, weak midos and derech eretz. Chazal tell us that G-d has infinite resources and emissaries. He responds to us "measure for measure" for everything that we do. His infinite wisdom enables Him to match a perfect and just response to any and every situation.

The good news is that Chazal tell us that the measure of reward for our obeying G-d, and doing what is correct and good in His sight, is at least 500 times the measure of punishment. If widespread evil in His sight is met with such brutal, devastating and destructive consequences; the enormity of reward for loyalty to G-d's will is so enormous that we cannot fathom it. One of the reasons why reward is saved for the righteous till afterlife is because a limited and finite physical world cannot contain all the good that G-d has in store for his loyal and devoted ones.

This is nothing new. Tanach tells us that G-d does not want the death of the wicked. He wants tshuva (repentance) so that G-d can give goodness and blessing to all of us (Yechezkiel ch. 18). G-d wants us to know and understand what He wants from Him; and to value and emulate His practical, generous and abundant kindness, justice and charity to His people (Yermia ch. 9). Hashem seeks of us that we behave lawfully, love doing kindness (not just DO it but to love doing kindness!) and to walk modestly with G-d (Micah ch. 6).

Shortly after Israel was taken by G-d out of Egypt, the belligerent, evil nation Amalek ambushed and attacked Israel unprovoked. In the recounting of this war, the Torah is revealing vital information that does not appear readily to the naked eye. Upon deeper study, a lot of very important information comes to light about life, G-d's management of the world, what G-d wants from us, what G-d does for and to us.

One of the things that is very disturbing and intriguing about the story-line is where this story occurs in the chronology of events in the Torah.

The Jewish people had been enslaved in Egypt. Hashem said to Moshe to go to Paro to tell him, "Let my people go that they will serve me." Paro said, "No." There were ten plagues and then G-d opened the Reed Sea miraculously and the Jews fled to safety. The Egyptians who were chasing them were drowned, and the Jews were totally free.

Then, after this, the Jewish people said to Moshe that they needed bread, meat and water. G-d replied that He would take care of them, and He gave Mon (manna, miraculous bread that fell from Heaven in the morning), He blew quails birds into the camp every evening (so that the people would have meat) and He provided water from a rock that would follow them around through the desert and produce water miraculously wherever they would go in the desert.

Now after all of this, the Jews are traveling forward through the desert from Egypt towards Israel. This nation Amalek, with no provocation or justification, ambushed and attacked the Jewish people from behind, killing the stragglers - the elderly, those weak from the effects of slavery, the sick, women and children. Israel rallied and there was a war. Moshe held up his hands and when the people looked at Moshe holding up his hands, Amalek was beaten and the Jews won.

This is a strange story, especially when we consider that on the surface it appears that you have an innocent, weary nation, who have just been oppressed and brutalized for many, many years. After finally being freed, they just want to get going with their lives, and all of a sudden, Amalek bashes them, doing so from behind and killing the most defenseless and vulnerable, for no discernable reason. It doesn't seem to make sense.

Let's look through the eyes of the sages and add material from them, beyond the purview of the Chumash alone. Then, this fuller story becomes extremely and profoundly instructive, especially in a context of having hardships in life in general and in finding a mate in particular. A lot is going to be disclosed about what G-d does and what we need to do, so that G-d (hopefully) will be more inclined to provide our needs, save and help us.

The Torah tells us that Amalek's attack occurred in a place called "Refidim." We know that the Torah is not a geography book. The Torah does not tell us locations of the events recorded within the Torah for the purpose of letting us know geographic information. It is not in the interest of advising readers of the event's location. There are eternal, profound Torah messages whenever the Torah gives us any information - geographical information or otherwise - about any of the events recorded in the Torah.

One of my main Torah teachers and inspirations, Rav Avrohom Asher Zimmerman explained this attack by Amalek at Refidim. The Midrash Mechilta tells us that when the Torah records the attack by Amalek, and that the ambush occurred in "Refidim," this is a "code word." What does "Refidim" stand for? It is short form of the phrase, "Rofu yidayhem midivray Torah (The Jewish people weakened their hands [i.e. grip] on words of Torah)."

We see, then, that there was a "cause and effect" which the midrash is telling us, that because the Jews let down their grasp of the Torah, that caused that Amalek should attack the Jewish people savagely from behind, ostensibly unprovoked.

An element which is significant is seen in the Torah, after the depiction of the battle. G-d says that his throne is not complete as long as Amalek will not have been erased and exterminated from the world. Those are pretty harsh terms. There is a mitzva in the Torah for the Jews to annihilate Amalek. They are a nation fully entrenched with pure evil, with no redeeming quality. G-d wants Amalek erased and eradicated from the face of the earth, so that Amalek is not even remembered. Rashi says that G-d was furious and hateful towards Amalek. G-d said that his name and his throne cannot be complete because of the degree of hateful evil that Amalek brings into the world.

If we study who Amalek is, we learn that Amalek, stands for complete hefkairus (wildness, freedom from any kind of structure or discipline, abandonment of all law and order) and Amalek is antithetical to G-d and what G-d wants in this world. G-d wants the world to have teaching, system, obligation, behavior standards, morals, submission to greater and higher authority and law. Amalek is the complete absence and opposite of everything that G-d stands for.

In Hebrew, every name has meaning. A name always represents the essence of the one named. So there is some intrinsic, deep meaning about the name of anyone who has a Hebrew name. That name has a tie to the essence of the personality of the person to whom that name is assigned. An angel puts the idea for a name into the mind(s) of the parent(s) so that the name will correspond to the essential personality of the person being named.

G-d also has his names. The Torah says that G-d's name and throne will not be complete. The word throne (Kisay) is written incompletely (Kais - missing the alef, the last consonant), so that it only has two of the three main (consonantal) letters of the word throne. And, instead of using the four letters of G-d's name (yod kay vov kay), the Torah here only says two letters (yod kay). The very way in which the Torah expresses the idea that G-d's throne and name will not be complete (as long as Amalek is not exterminated) is by writing "throne" and His name in incomplete fashion. And, since a name is the essence of the one named, G-d is telling us that His essence that He wants in this world and prevailing in this world cannot be complete as long as Amalek - and the wild abandonment (i.e. no law, morals, authority, structure, discipline, etc. in the world) that Amalek stands for - is in this world. Amalek hit the weak ones FROM BEHIND under a brutal sun in the desert. Until someone who can be so merciless, cruel, evil, self-centered and purposelessly destructive, is erased from the face of the earth, G-d's purpose for the world cannot be completely achieved, and what G-d wants from humankind cannot fully happen. Until the Jews, who stand for what G-d wants and for manifesting His essence on earth, who stand for G-d's system, values and authority, eradicate what G-d doesn't want, His name and throne - His essence on earth - can't be complete.

It's not like Amalek didn't know, either. The sages tell us when G-d opened the Reed Sea, G-d made the miracle of splitting all the water everywhere in the whole world. If a man was drinking a cup of water in China, the water in his cup separated. So everyone in the whole world knew about the miracle of G-d opening the waters of the Reed Sea. Everyone in that generation knew there is a Creator. Amalek knew what he was doing.

Rashi adds something else that is very intriguing and important, that contributes to the unfolding message. The Torah placed the story of Amalek right after the story in which the Torah tells us that G-d miraculously provided the mon (bread from Heaven), the quails and the water every day in the desert to the Jews.

G-d provided the needs of the Jews. When the people were hungry, thirsty and scared, G-d miraculously saved them and provided all their needs. G-d provides our needs today. When we pray for our needs, G-d is willing to save and help us.

When, however, the Jewish people weaken their grasp on the Torah, G-d cannot respond with what we pray to Him for. What was worse, G-d saved them (from hunger and thirst) and the Jews did not respond with gratitude. They kept complaining against G-d. G-d withdrew His protection and the Jews were, to use the words of Midrash Tanchuma, like a little impudent and ungrateful child thrown off the protecting shoulder of his father, whereupon the boy was bitten by a dog. When the boy was "good," he had his "father's" protection. His father provided all the boy's needs and exerted himself to give and to give to his child. Then the child said that he does not know where his father is. He was sitting on the shoulder of his father! The father put the boy down to be bitten by the dog.

If the Jewish people learn and practice the Torah, are committed and devoted to the Torah, then G-d will provide every last one of their needs. G-d will save the loyal one from hardship, provide needs, save from troubles, will help and take care of him/her, He will be benevolent to him/her. But, if a person weakens his grip on the Torah, weakens his attachment and involvement, his devotion to the Torah, G-d brings Amalek.

The Jew, in essence, brings upon himself the forces of wild abandonment, the relinquishment of the "system," by letting go of his grip on the Torah, his involvement with and loyalty to the Torah. Instead, he takes on the "system," the attitude of Amalek. It is the antithesis of the Torah. It is abandonment of what G-d wants, teaches, of what His essence and name and throne stand for, which is the Torah and G-d's sovereignty. When a Jew lets go at all of the Torah, there is no more G-dly law or authority. So, abandonment by G-d is "mida kinegged mida" (measure for measure) and is perfect justice.

In the book of Esther, the Jews were threatened with annihilation by Haman, who was from the nation of Amalek. When Esther sent a messenger to Mordechai to find out about the decree, the verse (4:7) says, "Vayaged lo Mordechai ess kol asher korohu (And Mordechai told the messenger about all that happened)." The Midrash (Esther Rabba 8:5) says that the verse's use of the word "korohu" [happened] is significant. It could have said another term (e.g. asa, done; instead of korohu, happened). The difference is: korohu refers to Amalek, asher korcha baderech [Deuteronomy 25:18], who happened to meet you on the way out of Egypt (again, the term "happened").

Reference to Amalek is consistently worded in terms of "happening," meaning, that in Amalek's worldview, things happen by chance. This is a reference to the fact that Amalek has no recognition of Hashem, divine supervision of the world, absolute authority, right and wrong, law and order. Things "just happen." One may do whatever one wants. There is no meaning or rule. There is no boss or director of the world. This wild abandon and rebellion against all which G-d stands for is at the essence of Amalek. To Amalek, the world is a free-for-all. Anything goes, do what you want. Like John Dewey said, "If it works, it's good." That's Amalek. G-d is at constant war with this.

Amalek is antithetical to G-d, Torah and, therefore, the Jew. The salvation in the Purim story came with "keemu vikiblu" (when the Jewish people reestablished their commitment to Torah as part of the Purim story). When they strengthened their grip, as it were, on the Torah, G-d rescued the Jews, turned events around and killed Haman and his family. Again, we see the direct correlation between how strong one's "grip" on the Torah is and how favorably G-d treat him; how weak one's "grip" on the Torah is and how punitively G-d treats him - through Amalek.

G-d is at permanent war with Amalek. The Jew must be antithetical to the essence of Amalek, which is wildness, abandonment of Torah and G-dliness, evil, immorality, cruelty, absence of order or right, lack of authority and law. When the Jew aligns with G-d and Torah, G-d will provide all his needs and not be "at war" with the Jew, all the while that he strengthens his grip on the Torah, attaches to the Torah, is devoted to and practices the Torah.

When the Jews were spiritually weak, G-d brought about the punishment through wild, barbaric and brutal Amalek; which hit the Jewish people in the place they were weak, falling, dependent, vulnerable and defenseless. When, as opposed to this, the Jews attach to and are strong with the Torah; that will increase merit to earn that G-d should provide our needs, to save and to help, and grant our prayers.

This can apply to all needs or troubles, whether finding one's soulmate, having peace with one's spouse, health or recovery, livelihood, a safe journey, the holocaust, or whatever it may be.

If one wants to be saved from suffering or hardship, if one wants G-d to provide needs and answer prayers; attach to the Torah, grab strongly to the Torah and do tshuva (repent in all areas that need spiritual correction). It is the opposite of the weakening of grip on the Torah which brought Amalek to attack the Jews in the desert. When Moshe held his hands up, the Jewish people looked up to G-d. By looking to G-d, we strengthen our grip on the Torah and are saved by G-d. By being strong and devoted to the Torah, that's the way to increase merit, that G-d should deem it justice to provide what one needs and to help and to save.

The adjacency-relationship between the story of Amalek and the provision of the food in the desert teaches us that the way to have G-d provide one's needs is to have a strong grip on the Torah: what it stands for and requires from you.

And remember that the trip from Egypt corresponds to the journey from singlehood. If the road from singlehood is travelled with a strong grip on the Torah, and looking up to G-d along the way, G-d is more inclined to supply the needs of that journey.

Remember also that the journey from Egypt to Sinai parallels the journey from singlehood to marriage. Sinai was the revelation of the Torah. G-d entered into a commitment bond with the Jewish people, which is analogous to a husband and wife entering into a commitment bond (marriage). Strengthening one's grip on the Torah also, then (in the mate-seeking or shalom bayis context), has the characteristic of being ready for a Torah-loyal and responsible commitment bond, the way the Jews were ready for commitment bond and accepting Torah when they stood at Mount Sinai.

The gemora in Tractate Megila refers to a descendant of Amalek as "Germamia." This ancient reference leads many Torah authorities to believe that Germany is a modern-age descendant and continuation of Amalek. This is as scary as it is reasonable; given the Nazi's wild, sadistic, unethical, arrogant, belligerent, anti-religious and barbaric ways. This is especially so, when viewed in combination with the holy Meshach Chochma's nineteenth century prediction that a catastrophe was going to emanate from Berlin, to punish Jewry's defection from Torah.

When we weaken in Torah, G-d gives Amalek strength which he uses against us and beats us with. When we are strong in Torah, G-d gives us strength that keeps Amalek beaten and on the sidelines. When Moshe lifted his hands up, we won against Amalek. We were reminded to look up to our Father in Heaven and re-commit ourselves to His Torah. When Esther led the people in a three-day long fast, we repented and re-committed ourselves to G-d's Torah. That is how we won against Amalek.

Let us learn from the good side. Let us use our free will; separate from sin; increase the quality and quantity of our merits and our service of Hashem so that He can give to us from His storehouse of good and blessing. Imagine getting AT LEAST 500 TIMES MORE GOOD than the holocaust was bad! It's up to each of us to do our best; to realize we have responsibility for everything we do, feel, think and say; to be uncompromisingly devoted to the will of G-d at all times; to all constantly keep learning Torah and growing spiritually throughout life; to be a Kidush Hashem (sanctification of G-d) through our lives; to treat His people with love, respect, compassion and goodness - particularly those in our closest relationships and those who are vulnerable; to obtain Torah instruction for all things in life and to apply it faithfully. "Do His will that He do your will (Pirkei Avos ch. 2)." Hashem wants to open His storehouse of good and happiness for us and our families (Deuteronomy ch. 28) and bless us with wealth, protection and peace (Leviticus ch. 26).