"Our Own Flesh and Blood" Part 2 of 2

Not “Why?” but “For what purpose?”
The main lesson to be learned from the above words of Rabbi Tzvi
Yehudah is that the Holocaust was not a chance event; God presides
over the world, and we, for our part, fall short of understanding
everything that transpires therein. Simply put, we have not yet
reached a level which makes it possible to grasp the Holocaust, to
study the Holocaust and to understand it, to ask the so-pressing
question, “Why?” This is generally the initial response of one who
experiences some tragedy – to ask, “Why did this happen to me?” But,
in truth, it impossible to deal with experiences of this sort in such
a manner. The question “Why?” is not relevant, at least not initially.
And even if there is an answer – and there is one – it is impossible
to understand it in the midst of the storm of emotions that continues
to rage. It is deeper than man’s intellect. To such a person we say,
“Do not ask ‘Why?’ but, ‘For what purpose did this tragedy occur?'”
When something devastating happens we are called upon to learn a
lesson from it about ourselves. This, then, is the real question: What
can be gathered from the tragic event? And when an individual
discovers how to learn from what happens to him – to improve, to
ascend – he arrives at a level which allows him to understand “why” it
happened. The reason for this is that now, as a result of the energy
he has invested because of the push that the tragedy gave him, his
point of view is altogether different. Now he understands that these
deaths were not “deaths” as such, but life: death, through which we
received life.

“A generation comes, and a generation goes…” Every generation, after
it has provided its share, must make room for that which follows, for,
were this not the case, life would be stagnant; history would come to
a halt. Therefore, we bear the duty to continue and to advance, to
ascend one more level in relation to the preceding generations. And
even if our progress be tiny compared to what the previous generation
achieved, our donation is nonetheless important. If we were worthy we
would be able to see the complete and all-encompassing picture, but,
because this is not the case, we must gather together all of the
individual pieces generation after generation; therefore, the next
generation is also necessary. This is the sort of explanation which
can be given when one looks at things from a distance, with an all-
encompassing view of history.

Regarding advice for an individual who is suffering from either
personal or national trauma, it must be remembered that tragedy is not
punishment. In essence it is not punishment. People generally fear
Divine punishment for their actions. This is what is known as
“reverence of God’s punishment.” While this is a correct notion, it is
not the most desirable approach. The healthiest approach is that which
calls for “reverence of God’s majesty,” and this should be seen as the
fundamental approach. Things happen in order that we are able to learn
from them. Sometimes the learning process is of a speedy nature, via
the intellect, the consciousness. Sometimes a person merits
internalizing the lesson, and understanding with the help of his
intellect why all of this has happened, and how, in a very real sense,
through these painful deaths, additional life was created. Yet, even
if it takes some time to understand such things, one necessarily
matures as a result of the tragedy he has been exposed to – even if he
is not aware of it. It takes root in his heart and will be handed down
to future generations. They will inherit the recognition that this
world harbors difficult and painful events. In this manner their world-
view will be richer, and their lives will receive a more responsible
and serious dimension. When all is said and done, then, these
tragedies can be said to have had a positive effect, even though they
were not fully understood.

“When a person experiences hardships, he should examine his
actions” (Tractate Berakhoth 5a). The true goal of self-examination is
not to answer the question, “Why?” – i.e., to discover the cause of
the punishment, but, “For what purpose?” – to discover what sort of
rectification this punishment was intended to prompt. Such a person
may perhaps not have previously been on the sort of spiritual level
which would have made his actions deserving of such serious scrutiny.
Having ascended to a higher spiritual level, hardships have come upon
him. This has happened in order that, as a result, he is caused to
reflect upon his behavior and hence continue to grow. This, then, is
the true meaning of examining one’s actions. It is not the sort of
analysis which is aimed at uncovering the underlying cause of the
tragedy, leading one to moan about not having been awakened to it in
time so as to be spared of the wrath of God. Examining one’s deeds
should be done in a constructive manner, with an eye to the future in
an attempt to decide in which manner to advance. By adopting such a
philosophy one changes his way of viewing hardships; his approach to
them and to God becomes completely different – mature, more positive
and joyful. The more a person manages to advance as a result of what
happens to him in life, the more his hardships become hardships with a
lesson, and hardships of love, the kind that involve no interruption
of Torah study or prayer.

This approach is, on the whole, applicable to any sort of tragedy. It
is true regarding the Holocaust: The most important question is not
“Why?” it happened but “What” can we gain from its having happened?
What lesson can we learn from it insofar as our own lives are
concerned? To what sort of new plane are we being called upon to lift
ourselves as a result of it? We are familiar with the common claim
that it is difficult to imagine the State of Israel having come into
existence without the Holocaust. I once mentioned this in a talk I
gave on the Holocaust. Afterward, an old man who had lost his entire
family in the Holocaust approached me and asked, “Is the state really
worth all of those who died? After all, our state lacks the sort of
Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.” He continued to ask me,
weeping, “Do you even know what sorts of Jews were killed in the
Holocaust? So pious, so holy – impossible to describe!” True,
comparing the punishment of the Holocaust with what came in its wake –
the State of Israel – does not always appear “fair,” and the old man
was to a large degree justified in his claims. In some of the towns
where Jews resided there were literally roads upon roads of pious and
holy Jews, genuine Torah scholars. In Poland, in Galicia. In the city
of Warsaw alone there were a million Jews! This is even more than the
amount of Jews who live in Jerusalem today. In smaller towns, like
Bialystok, there were 150,000 Jews. In Boisk there were 50,000 Jews.
And there were plenty more like towns which were not considered
particularly large. Is it possible to even think about forfeiting all
this for the State of Israel with all of its problems?

Indeed, when one looks at the “Why” – the reason – it is difficult to
accept that these millions of Jews had to die for the sake of the
birth of the State of Israel. But when one considers to what end,
toward what goal the Holocaust was meant to propel us, it is possible
to accept such a viewpoint. Everybody acknowledges that the Holocaust
shook the Jewish world to its very foundations. The question of Jewish
identity changed completely after the Holocaust. Every Jew, no matter
how religious, became a living sanctification of God in the world as a
result of his very existence. The intention had been to wipe out the
entire nation, every one of us, regardless of religiosity. If prior to
the Holocaust it had been widely accepted that only observant Jews
were capable of sanctifying God, today it is clear that the very
survival of the Jew as a Jew is regarded as an act of sanctification.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, has written words to this
effect as has Rabbi Chaim Druckman: “Every Jew is an expression of the
immutability of Israel.” This is without a doubt a completely new
level of understanding with regard to Jewish identity.

In a more general sense, a revolution in Jewish consciousness was
affected, and every Jew, no matter where he was, began to clarify who
we are as a people and what is our purpose. We must continue this
process. We are still in the midst of this first stage — still in the
midst of the trauma. The more relevant question continues to be “For
what purpose?” and not “Why?”

The Holocaust is not a personal, individual issue. It is very
difficult for a lone individual to arrive at any kind of estimate of
what the Holocaust means to him personally, no matter how much time he
invests considering it. It is a large, all-embracing, national issue
which has left its mark on a deep inner layer of each one of us, such
that even we are not always aware of it. Accordingly, it finds
expression in a more general, national level, and relates to the
public as a whole. Hence, one hears important voices in the non-Jewish
world making statements to the effect that the behavior of the Jewish
people must be understood in light of the fact that they have a
“Holocaust complex.” It is easier for one who looks upon the Jews from
the outside to sense that something in us changed as a result of the
Holocaust. Yet, it is possible to discern clearly enough by examining
the attitude of the public that the concept of the Holocaust, like the
Exodus, has been permanently etched upon the Jewish soul. If we
understand the term “redemption” to mean a spiritual world revolution
of the sort which results in life being seen in an entirely different
light, it is possible that the Holocaust has in fact laid the
foundation for such a thing. Such an approach can be discerned in the
words of the verse, “As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a
mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with anger poured out,
will I be king over you” (Ezekiel 20:33). It clears the path for a
period of searching for something else. And though it begins in a
rather harsh manner, it must nonetheless be considered a new and
higher level. It is impossible at present to look for the cause of the
Holocaust. Such a search yields no practical fruits and is not the
correct approach to dealing with tragedy at this early stage. We are
still in a state of mourning – an all-encompassing understanding is
still far from us.

And while it is true that in the Talmud we find Sages searching for
the cause of Israelite bondage in Egypt, and concluding that it was
the result of Abraham’s having made use of Torah scholars in his war
with the four kings (cf. Deuteronomy 32a), even so, neither the Torah
nor the Sages present us with plain historical facts. The reason for
this is that they were aiming more in the direction of answering the
question: “For what purpose?” – i.e., what needed to be rectified as a
result of this tragedy? Tosefoth Yom Tov’s claim that the Chmelnitzki
pogroms erupted because Jews made a practice of prattling about
mundane affairs in the Synagogue must be understood in a similar
light. What this eminent rabbi desired was for people to abandon this
practice; that this be the lesson that they gather from the tragedy –
or one of the lessons at any rate.

It is possible to understand this idea on an even deeper level if we
take a look at the course of Jewish history: One thousand years ago,
in the time of Rashi, Sephardic Jewry was ten times the size of
Ashkenazi Jewry. Then, Ashkenazi Jewry was almost completely destroyed
as a result of the Crusades; of the one- or two-hundred thousand
Ashkenazi Jews, fifty thousand were ruthlessly killed. What was the
result? The result was a very strong awareness of the importance of
sanctifying God’s name through self-sacrifice. Within five or six
hundred years the Sephardic population was only three times as large
as the Ashkenazi. At the outbreak of the Chmelnitzki pogroms the
number of Ashkenazi Jews had reached almost a million. Once again this
Jewish community was struck by a devastating slaughter. Entire
communities of pure and holy Jews were wiped out with great cruelty.
And once again, in the wake of this disaster, it became clear to just
what extent the Jewish faith is a question of life or death, and to
just what extent the Jews as a people were willing to sacrifice their
lives for their religious convictions. This left a great imprint on
the generations that followed, and within a span of no more than three
hundred years, reaching up to the period just prior to the Holocaust,
the Jews as a whole had swollen in number to between 15-16 million. In
retrospect, it is possible to see quite clearly how the act of
sanctification of God’s name through death provided a great impetus to
the generations that followed, pushing them a number of levels higher.
Who amongst us is really capable of coming to accurate conclusions
regarding long-term effects based upon the present? We might interpret
the words of the Tosafoth Yom Tov “that they not chatter in the
Synagogue” to mean that they should appreciate the sanctity of the
synagogue, the “miniature Holy Temple” that it is, and recognize the
value of prayer. In addition to the above we can say that the shock of
these tragic events caused a sense of added responsibility regarding
the study of Torah. Because so many Jews were willing to literally
give their lives for the Torah, the generations that followed felt a
great desire to attain new heights of strengthened Jewish identity.
Now the value of Torah study was understood, now it was clear why they
hate us. The same is true of the Holocaust; only that this time we are
talking about the entire Jewish people as opposed to a particular
community. The Holocaust is also meant to provide added consciousness
of just how much our lives as Jews must be full of meaning. We must be
made aware of just how much responsibility rests on our shoulders – we
who survived and carry on after the destruction of that generation.

There are numerous tales about the first waves of settlers to arrive
in the Land of Israel and the sort of self-sacrifice that they
demonstrated in order to reach and settle Israel. We ought to emulate
these builders and carry on their work.

The first wave of immigrants, what was called the “Aliya HaRishona” in
Hebrew, for example, was composed for the most part of pious Jews
whose coming to Israel was the outgrowth of what they had absorbed in
the Yeshiva study halls. The founders of Zikhron Yaakov made their way
to Israel after having already purchased a portion of land, but the
Turkish administration did not allow these new arrivals to disembark
at any port in the area from Alexandria to Beirut. Finally, after
great effort, they managed to land at Haifa, and from there they made
their way in carriages pulled by oxen until eventually arriving at
their destination. So difficult was the way that the travelers were
forced to send the oxen on ahead of themselves in order to render the
path travelable. Their allotted plot of land was full of snakes and
scorpions and far from any other Jewish settlement (two days journey
from Yaffo, and a day and half from Haifa). From where would they
receive their necessities? To where would they deliver their products?
When the officials of Baron Rothschild arrived they demanded to know
who was responsible for the injustice that had been done to these
settlers by having them sent to such a horrid location. Yet, despite
all this, when the officials offered to have them relocated in a more
central site, the settlers’ response was notably straightforward: We
are not budging from this place, even if it means eating the stones

Large waves of Jewish immigration to Israel did not necessarily begin
as a result of the First Zionist Congresses in Basel (in the manner
that secular Zionism has attempted to portray). Long before this, in
5637 (1878), Jews of the Old Settlement began to set out beyond the
walls of Jerusalem. One such pioneer was Yoel Moshe Solomon. He
belonged to the third generation of a family of pioneers. His
grandfather, Rabbi Zalman Tzoref, was murdered in a skirmish with
Arabs while trying to reestablish the Churvah Synagogue in Jerusalem’s
Old City. In his remembrance the family name was changed to Solomon.
His son was the “first Jewish ‘Fellah’ (field laborer) since the days
of the second Temple,” or at least so he was called. It was in such a
home that Rabbi Yoel Moshe grew up. He presented Moses Montefiore with
a detailed plan for creating a Jewish agricultural settlement. He was
also a serious Torah scholar, the editor of a newspaper, a journalist,
and completely steeped in Torah. He left his newspaper work in order
to establish Petach Tikvah. This young settlement too had its share of
difficulties; there was a period in which it was completely destroyed
due to the great hardships that came upon it. The settlers left and
went to Yahudiyeh, and only later did there arrive a group of Jews
from Bialystok (the hometown of Rabbi Mohilever, the leader of the
Zionist organization “Chovevei Tzion”) and reestablish the settlement.

In the city of Hadera there was a very green area, and the local Arabs
warned the Jewish settlers that the place was infested with malaria.
During the course of the first seven years, 230 of Hadera’s  512
settlers died of this disease. It is told that on Yom Kippur, there
were just enough settlers present for the prayer services to take
place in the room adjacent to the hospital room. During the course of
the day one of the members fell ill and expired leaving the settlers
short of their quorum. They were uncertain as to whether or not they
should continue, yet, in the end they decided that God Himself would
be counted in order to complete their quorum. When the fast was over
it was announced that before eating it was necessary to bury the
deceased. In order to overcome the near-unbearable sadness which
accompanied the loss, one of those present, himself a Torah scholar,
advised the people to rejoice in the burial. And they did just that –
they danced by the grave of the deceased. At a later date, the very
same individual, who had always said that joy is the cure for
everything, also died of malaria. Today, when traveling along Israel’s
coastal road, which runs between Haifa and Tel Aviv, we must remember
the great self-sacrifice of the early settlers which gave birth to
such settlement, all by virtue of a love for the land which they
passed down to the generations to come. Such self-sacrifice shakes all
existence and sets the machine in motion. They initiated it all.

This, then, is an example of a “for what purpose” lesson which we must
carry with us. There is a principle here which must be remembered: The
world is a unified whole, and the actions of one individual make waves
which shake the entire community. Torah is the heart of the world and
fills existence with vibrancy and meaning. When an individual attaches
himself to the Torah, studies with all of his might, and applies his
studies in all spheres of his life, his behavior has a great and
powerful impact. This, then, is the chief lesson one should gather
from the Holocaust: to be a thousand times more serious; to know how
to appreciate eternal values, such as Torah and settlement, and to be
ready to sacrifice oneself for such things. This is what the previous
generations handed down to us through their demonstration of courage.

Could the Holocaust ever be Forgotten?

No. This could never happen. No doubt there is a need to educate
toward awareness, to study the facts and to retell what happened. But
such steps are carried out on an individual basis, in relation to
specific individuals or groups. As far as the collective memory of the
nation of Israel is concerned, there is no chance of forgetting. As we
have noted, the Holocaust is deeply etched into our memory and
influences our national behavior in ways that we are not always aware
of. Once again, the emphasis is not to be placed on understanding
things – we are still at too early a stage. The true goal is
recognizing those values which are important to us as a nation, and
reinforcing them. The Holocaust was an attack upon Israel’s eternal
nature; its victory will find expression in a strengthening of our
eternal Israeli values.

The Exodus from Egypt

An example of a difficult event that has been completely internalized
and is today understood by us is the Exodus from Egypt. Here too we
find horrific acts: enslavement, slave labor with bricks and cement,
the male newborns being cast into the Nile or plastered into the walls
of buildings. Appalling; yet, enough time has passed in order to
understand why all of this happened, and today the enslavement is not
so painful. We are now able to look back at it and to recount the
various events therein and to confidently state why this had to be the
foundation upon which the Jewish people would be built. We have
managed to digest this.

The Midrash teaches us that when the Egyptians threw the Jewish babies
into the Nile, God commanded the ministering angels to look after
them. “The children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are being thrown into
the Nile and all you do is stand by and watch?” God accused the
angels. They immediately came to their senses and went down upon their
knees on the banks of the Nile to receive the babies. They placed them
on the stones, which turned into kinds of breasts from which the
babies then nurtured” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah).

It appears to me that the message of this Midrash is that the babies
were received by the angels on these rocks, not in this world, but in
the World to Come. They were received. They did not die in vain. They
entered into the eternal consciousness of the Jewish people and pushed
it a number of levels forward. Without a doubt, all of the innocent
babies who were killed in the Holocaust were also received by angels
who made sure that they be nurtured upon honey from the rock – not in
this world, but in the eternal world. We, the Jewish people, are like
this. We are an eternal people. In the true and absolute world
everything works out and everything is clear. In this temporal world
of ours there are complications and troubles. Regarding the Exodus
from Egypt we were first of all called upon to understand for what
purpose – i.e., what is demanded of us as a people who suffered such a
brutal enslavement and was redeemed through miracles and wonders.
Later we also merited understanding the why which accompanies all of
this. Our goal is to attain a similar level of understanding with
regard to the Holocaust, to the point where it provides us with
stories similar in nature to those of the Exodus from Egypt. We must
strive to understand such stories in the most profound manner
possible, the way we do at Passover when the bitter herbs, or ‘maror’
in Hebrew, which serves to remind us of Egyptian enslavement, is eaten
together with the Matzah, which represents freedom.

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