Struggling to Understand the Holocaust

By: Rabbi Elchonon Baron

               On a recent organized tour to Poland, one of the places I, along with the group, visited was the infamous Auschwitz extermination camp. This visit presented me with an opportunity to contemplate and delve into the spiritual significance of
the Holocaust. The main question I encountered “over there” went something like
this: “How can you rabbis claim that the Holocaust took place as a result of
the non-fulfillment of Torah and Mitzvoth (as predicted in the sections of the Torah
warning of the misfortunes that would befall the people
of Israel), behold a large percentage of those who perished in the Holocaust
were observant Jews who feared G-d and scrupulously followed His commandments, observing
even the more lenient commandments in the same spirit  as the stricter ones?”

               The conventional answer to this question is that in order to ensure free choice,
there has to be a balance between good and evil. If, for example, each time a
person performed a mitzvah a voice would ring out from heaven praising
him and telling him that he is invited to enter the World to Come, or the
reverse scenario: each time a person committed a transgression lightning would
immediately strike him, and a storm would engulf him, there would be no notion
of free choice. Therefore G-d created a situation where even righteous people
suffer, in order to avail others of the opportunity to exercise free choice.
There is another explanation that postulates that there are certain situations where
the community is deserving of punishment, and therefore the individual in his
capacity as member of the community is also punished, even if his personal
conduct was exemplary and did not warrant a punishment. [See in this regard Rashi
Shmos 12, 24 on the pasuk “And you shall not leave, each the
doorway of his home until morning,” who brings the explanation of our Sages
(Tractate Bava Kama 60a) that when the Angel of Death is given
permission to wreak havoc he does not distinguish between the righteous and the
wicked, and see also Nachmanidies there.] However, both answers may suffice
those who are immersed in the fundamentals of Torah and mitzvoth, but
may not suffice for the layman at all.

My revered father, may he continue to be blessed with a good and long life, relayed a wonderful idea on
this matter: Imagine a person who was raised in a remote jungle and is then
taken to a population center in order to learn the rules and customs of
civilized man. On this voyage of discovery he is taken, among other places, to
a hospital in order to learn about an institution that is founded upon the
principles of kindness and lifesaving. When they escort him to the central hub
of the hospital – the operating theater, he is shocked to discover that they
are taking a man, seemingly a specimen of fine health, and operating upon him,
using a scalpel to make incisions into his body and remove limbs from his body,
and afterwards they send him off to the “recovery room” leaving him dangerously
ill and close to death! Immediately this ignoramus will scream: Is this really
happening? Did you just take a man who looked completely healthy in order to
harm him and to pluck out his limbs; is this what you call kindness? The
hospital staff then explains to him the following: The man whom you saw was in
a life threatening situation as a result of a serious disease that afflicted
his body, and had we not operated upon him he would certainly have died in the
near future. Surgery was performed on him and limbs were taken from him, even
if superficially it looked as if he was being injured, for the sole purpose of
saving his life. My revered father shlit”a continued and explained: When
we have difficulties understanding the Holocaust we are in the same situation
as that wild savage who visits an operating theater, since we are only exposed
to a very small part of a much bigger picture, and therefore we cannot
comprehend precisely what is going on.

Let us therefore reflect upon the condition of the Jewish People during the interwar years, when our people endured
one of their most difficult periods, especially from the perspective of the deterioration
of the Jewish spiritual lifestyle, and the wholesale abandonment of Torah and Mitzvoth.
The consequences of such deterioration, had it been allowed to continue
unchecked, would have led, G-d forbid, to the extinction of European Torah
Judaism, and thus there was a need to create a situation where “surgery” was
performed in order to save the sick patient, i.e. the Jewish People. However if
we follow through with this analogy, one has the sense that even if indeed the
“surgery” was successful in putting an end to this downward spiral, it is
stretching the truth to say that the sick person has actually recovered.  Indeed if we look at the demographics of the
Jewish People in 2006 compared to that of the post- World War Two years we see
that there is no increase, and their number remains between 11 and 12 million
souls, only a minority of whom observe the Torah and Mitzvoth.

            To assist us in clarifying this idea let us refer to the words of Our Sages (Yevamoth

“They said about Rabbi Akiva that he had 12,000 pairs of disciples spanning from Geveth to Antipres, all of whom suddenly
died at the same time because they did not show honor to their fellow, and the
world was desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to the Rabbis of the South and taught
them: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar the
son of Shamua, and they reestablished the Torah in their time.”

We see in these words of our Sages that because of a defect in the Torah values of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples,
G-d was forced to perform painful surgery, and in effect to completely
eradicate that era’s “Torah World” to the extent that the situation was
described as “the world being desolate”. In the end, Our Sages teach us, that “Rabbi
Akiva came to the Rabbis of the South and taught them etc., and they reestablished
the Torah in their time,” which indicates that what followed was a better and an
improved reconstruction of the Torah World. The idea that Rabbi Akiva
reestablished the Torah can also be seen from Rashi’s words at the beginning of
Tractate Megillah (2a) where he writes that Rabbi Akiva was also known
as “Rabbi Akiva the Anonymous One” because all the anonymous Tannaim
were his disciples, as it is stated: “An anonymous Mishnah is authored
by  Rabbi Meir, an anonymous Tosefta
by Rabbi Nehemiah, an anonymous Sifra by Rabbi Yehuda, and all these
anonymous rulings follow the opinion of Rabbi Akiva.” It therefore becomes
clear to us that at the end of the process that surgical operation was indeed

            As we give this matter more thought we realize that the same process described
above occurred during the Holocaust, especially if we take into account that
for the fifty years preceding it an elaborate course of events was unfolding in
Eastern Europe (then the nerve center of Jewry) that witnessed the wholesale abandonment
of Torah and Mitzvoth in exchange for alien ideas that were gaining momentum
during that period: communism, bundism, socialism, Zionism and the like.
A direct consequence of the Holocaust was the total collapse of these alien ideologies,
Zionism being the only one that survived (and flourished), and over the course
of the last decades even this last “golden calf” has become weaker and weaker
to the point that it has almost completely disintegrated. In contradistinction,
the Torah World has grown in leaps and bounds in a very short period of time in
a completely unnatural and miraculous way.

            I also heard from my father shlit”a, as well as from other Torah scholars
who survived the Holocaust, that after the war they did not believe that there
was a possibility that the Yeshiva World would once again flourish, and had
someone then whispered in their ears that within a short time there would be a rural
community in the United States (i.e. Lakewood, NJ) that would become an
international Torah center that would accommodate thousands of observant and
learned people who would send their sons to Cheders and to Yeshivas, and
their daughters to Beth Jacob schools and seminaries, that whisperer would have
been regarded as a hopeless dreamer. And behold the unbelievable did in fact
happen, and G-d spared us refugees from the Torah World who revived and rebuilt
Torah life both in America – like Rabbi Aharon Kotler of blessed memory, and
the refugees of the Mirrer Yeshiva (like my father shlit”a) who
escaped to the United States – and in the Holy Land – like the Ponevezher
, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman and Rabbi Elazar Menacham Shach of
blessed memory, who through their unending toil replanted the Torah world in
the Land of Israel.

            This reformative process was so successful that it is now fashionable for a Jew to
be a “Ben Torah,” and the problem is no longer a lack of meticulous
observance but precisely the opposite: that the lifestyle has become one of habitual
performance of the mitzvoth, as predicted in the verse in Isaiah (29:
13) “and their fear towards me has become as men performing a commandment by
rote.” With reference to this verse I heard a frightening explanation of the
idea of “performance by rote,” that it refers not only to the physical observance
of Torah and mitzvoth, but even Heaven Forefend to our Fear of G-d which
in fact can become habitual! However for the purposes of our discussion we can
confidently say that the surgical operation was indeed successful, since in
practice in today’s world it is very easy to be a Torah observant Jew,
especially considering the fact that a vacuum has been created within the western
world, which fails to offer any credible alternative to a lifestyle of Torah
and mitzvoth, especially after all the various idolatrous ideologies
have disappeared, and we are in the situation that our sages described as “…and
we have nothing left but this Torah alone.”

            Indeed the only thing that prevents all of the Jewish people from living in a realm
where the prophecy of “…the land is filled with knowledge of G-d” is fulfilled,
is the fact that we have not yet delivered G-d’s message to the rest of Jewry.
Yet each one of us who is endowed with the ability of reaching out and influencing
those who have not yet tasted the word of G-d can work wonders with relative ease.
Not long ago I met a young Torah scholar living in a remote town in the United
States who succeeded single-handedly in returning 70 families to the Torah fold,
and in setting up truly magnificent Torah institutions – all this thanks to the
labors of a “a solitary Torah scholar”!

However, I thought of a different way of resolving the paradox of how it can be claimed on the one hand that the
Holocaust was wrought due to the lack of fulfillment of Torah and mitzvoth,
and on the other to grapple with the knowledge that many of those who perished,
scrupulously observed all the mitzvoth. The answer may be found in the
words of the Talmud in Berachoth (61b) which quotes Rabbi Akiva’s comment
on the commandment to love G-d “with all your soul” (recited in the Shema
prayer), explaining that loving G-d applies even in situations where He takes away
your soul. Further on in the same section of the Talmud it juxtaposes this
teaching with the following story:

When Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution it was
the time for the recital of the Shema and while they combed his flesh
with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingdom of heaven [by
reciting the Shema]. His [bewildered] disciples asked him: “Our teacher,
even up to this point?” He answered them: “All my days I have been troubled by
the verse “[And you shall love Hashem your G-d] with all your soul” which
I interpret as “even if He takes your soul,” I [have always] said: When shall I
have the opportunity to fulfill this? Now that I have the opportunity, shall I
not fulfill it?” He prolonged the word Echad (one) until he expired. A
celestial voice went forth and proclaimed: “Fortunate are you Akiva that your
soul has departed with the word Echad.” The ministering angels said before
the Holy One Blessed Be He: “Such is Torah, and such is its reward? [He should
have been among those who] ‘die by Your hand, O Lord’” (Psalms 17). He replied
to them: “Their portion is in the everlasting life”. A celestial voice went
forth and proclaimed:  “Fortunate are you
Rabbi Akiva, that you are destined for the life of the World to Come”

If one pays close attention to the words of the Talmud one notices that G-d did not really answer the question
of the angels: “Such is Torah, and such is its reward?” Similarly, we see in
the words of the “Eileh Ezkerah” [These I will Remember] prayer that is
said during the repetition of the Musaf service on Yom Kippur, that the Holy
One Blessed be He replied to the angels that if they continue to complain he
will return the world into nothingness, and I have always wondered, is this
really an answer? The truth is, as we see from our holy sages, to the question
of “such is Torah and such is its reward?” even the ministering angels, whose
comprehension of spiritual matters is infinitely superior to ours, have no

It appears we may detect a certain pattern in the way the Talmud first cites Rabbi Akiva’s comment, without
any special context, that “with all your soul” means even if He takes
your soul, and then repeats it when relaying the story of Rabbi Akiva’s
martyrdom, quoting him as saying “All my days I have been troubled by the verse
“[And you shall love Hashem your G-d] with all your soul” which I
interpret as ‘even if He takes your soul,’ I [have always] said: When shall I
have the opportunity to fulfill this? Now that I have the opportunity, shall I
not fulfill it?” It seems from a plain reading of the entire story that the celestial
voice’s words: “Fortunate are you Akiva that your soul has departed with the
word Echad” is associated with Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation of the
commandment to love G-d “with all your soul”. Therefore it behooves us
to understand what is the special praise of “Fortunate are you Akiva that your
soul has departed with the word Echad,” and what is the connection
between this praise and Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation of loving G-d “with all
your soul”

            On a number of occasions we have mentioned that the numerical value of the Hebrew words
“love” (ahava) and “one” (echad) are the same. One explanation
for this is that the only real love one can have is for oneself. If that is the
case you can only love someone else if you are so close to that other person
that he becomes an inseparable part of your existence, so that your love for
that other person can be called true love because in fact you are just loving

Yet I see things in a completely different light. It is stated in Ethics of Our Fathers (Chapter 5,
Mishnah 19):

Love which is conditional upon a specific cause will cease once that cause is no longer there, but love which is
not conditional upon a specific cause will never cease. Which love was conditional
upon a specific cause? The love of Amnon and Tamar. And which love was
unconditional? The love of David and Jonathan.

From the words of our Mishnah it appears that love that is not dependent upon any specific cause is the only
true and eternal love, like the bond between David and Jonathan. However the Mishnah
does not offer any evidence for the assertion that the love between David and
Jonathan can be considered to have been unconditional love? I therefore brought
a proof from Samuel I (20: 33) which relays that after Jonathan’s father King Saul
tried to strike him, “[Jonathan] was grieved for David, because his father
had put him to shame”
(ibid., verse 34). I noticed that the
commentaries on this verse explain that at that time Jonathan was in a
situation where his father, from whom he was destined to inherit the mantle of
kingship, “cast his spear at him to smite him” i.e. wanted to kill his
own son, and had also cursed him in public. Amidst this massive flurry of
emotions, the only thing that occupied his mind was being “grieved for David,
because his father had put him to shame,”
he could think only of his
beloved friend David. Therefore the explanation for the difference between
these two types of loves is that with love that is conditional on a specific cause,
the essence of this love arises from that ‘cause’ which is the thing that he
gains from the other person, and that ‘cause’ is really what he loves, thus his
love is not really for the other person, but is in fact love for himself.
However love that is not conditional on a specific ‘cause,’ is love that is
unmotivated by personal desire or gain, and that is true love – the
unconditional love of one for another. Jonathan first thought about what
would happen to his beloved friend before thinking of what would
happen to him. This is why our Sages declared that the bond that existed
between Jonathan and David was genuine love, a love that was not conditional on
anything else.

In his essay on “Loving-kindness” in the classic Mikhtav M’Eliyahu Rabbi E. E. Dessler poses the question whether
giving is a consequence of love, i.e. do we give to others because we love
them, or is the reverse true, viz. that as result of giving to others we
come to love them. The author innovatively concludes, in what by now has become
a well known principle of his, that it is the latter proposition that is true,
and in fact love is nurtured by the act of giving, and is actually sustained by
this deed. As he states there: “In conclusion, when a person will give to his
fellow, he will not lose from this transaction, but rather he will extend his own
self because he will feel as if he has a stake in the friend to whom he gave, [and]
this devotion of man to his fellow is called love.” Many understand Rabbi Dessler’s
words to mean that the moment one gives to his fellow he has acquired a share
in him, so that the latter becomes a part of one’s own self, and this ipso
causes love to flourish.  

It would appear that this idea is given concrete expression in the words of the saintly Rabbi Shimon Shkop zt”l
in the introduction to his Talmudic work Sha`arei Yosher

Even if at first glance it appears that feelings of self-love and feelings of love for one’s fellow have diametrically opposing
characteristics, it behooves us to delve into the matter to find the special
ingredient that is common to them, because both of these feelings are what Hashem
requires of us, and it is this special ingredient that clarifies and verifies
for man who he really is, because through it the greatness of man is measured, everyone
according to his level. In the case of a crude and lowly man his “me” is limited
to his body and his material surroundings, on the next level up are those who
feel that their “me” includes both body and soul, then on an even higher level
are those who see their “me” in terms of themselves and their family. Yet there
is an even higher level which includes those who tread the path of Torah, and
who thus see their “me” as inclusive of all the Jewish People, because in truth
every Jew is merely a limb of the body that comprises the Jewish Nation. Yet
the ultimate level is attained by the “complete person” who is able to implant
in his soul the idea that his “me” includes all the realms (olamos), and
he is a mere limb in the whole of creation, and in that case his self-love
helps him to love both the People of Israel and all of creation.

It would appear from his remarkable words that the power of love is built on the foundations of one’s ego, and the more
encompassing one’s ego is the wider will be one’s capacity to love and to
give.  This is indeed surprising for it boils down to saying that the whole concept of love for one’s fellow is dependent
exclusively upon selfishness?

I think it is possible to explain things in a different manner: When I asked the renowned Gaon Rabbi Moshe
Shapiro Shlit”a how to understand the idea that Ahava has the
same numerical value as Echad he explained succinctly that the essence
of love is oneness. In order to understand the concept of oneness
I need to preface my comments by drawing attention to two verses in the Torah
where the concept of oneness appears: “Hear O Israel The Lord is your
G-d, the Lord is One” (Devarim  6: 4), and “therefore shall a man leave
his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife: and they shall become one
flesh” (Bereshis 2: 24).

When Rabbi Yosef Irgas wants to prove in his classic Shomer Emunim that one is required to study the Kabala,
he states that it is impossible to properly fulfill the commandment of unifying
G-d’s name when reciting the Shema prayer, without a basic knowledge of Kabala.
We know that each of the ten Sephirot (lit. numbers) of the Olam
[World of Godliness], or as they are also known as midot
(lit. measures), are called thus because they may be counted and
measured – they are finite and have an assigned purpose, so that none of them
encroaches on the borders of the other, and yet we also know that Hashem
has no limitations whatsoever? The crux of this paradox is that even though certainly
the “ten sephirot of atziluth” are considered Divinity, where G-d
so to speak “limits” Himself, nonetheless we should not think Heaven Forefend
that these midot are in fact disparate elements of the Divinity. This
confusion led to the well-known Halakhic response of the Rivash (chapter
157) who questions the Kabalistic method, expressing himself quite sharply by quoting
others who make the shocking comparison between Christians on the one hand, who
believe in the trinity, and Kabalists on the other, who believe in the idea of a
“ten part God,” i.e. a God composed of the ten sephirot¸ as if the
Divinity is – Heaven Forefend – divided into ten different entities.

            However, the proper understanding is that we believe that the Holy One Blessed be He,
clothed in the entire ten sephirot of the Olam HaAtziluth (which
as a collective are referred to as “The Divinity”), is based on the same model
as the soul of man, just like the body is but a garment for the soul, as it
says in the verse (Job 19: 26) “and from my flesh shall I see (i.e. understand)
G-d.” We have discussed on another occasion the way in which the soul is
clothed in the body, based on the Gemara in Tractate Berachoth (10a)
and on the Medrash of Psalms (103) which elaborate on the five times King
David said “Borchi Nafshi” [Let My Soul Bless the Lord], where our sages
point out that the soul and the body are so different that there is no common
ground between them whatsoever and nonetheless the soul is clothed in the body
like a hand in a glove, living together in perfect harmony, so that each and every
limb of the body works harmoniously in tandem, and wonderfully fused, with its
soul. The body and the soul appear to be complete opposites, as noted by the Rema
(Rabbi Moshe Isserles) in the First Chapter of the Shulhan Arukh Orakh Hayyim,
yet they jointly become a nefesh chaya, a living being, and are together
considered an entirely unified single entity.

If we delve into this matter a bit further, we see that in the ordinary course of events, what prevents two
distinct entities from becoming one are the barriers that separate each
entity, and which also define each one’s independent character and unique individualism.
In contradistinction, when it comes to the amalgamation of the body and soul, there
is no force or demand on the part of the individualism of each of the disparate
entities to break away, rather each entity completely nullifies itself to the
other, thus enabling perfect union, and they are in harmonious agreement that
there be no separation between them, allowing them to fuse into one.
This state of affairs is equally applicable to the system of the ten
so that there is no separation between them, because, for
example, the mida or attribute of kindness (Chesed) does not rebuff
or oppose the attribute of might (Gevurah), and all the forces are
weaved together in all different ways. They do not function as disparate entities
but each combines with the other to form One “Divinity” so that this is
now the primary example of the concept of “oneness” in the world.

I think this adequately explains the profound idea behind the late Rabbi Dessler’s words, since the selfless act
of giving
is instrumental in removing the barriers that divide me from my
fellow, and ensures unity, perfect devotion, and love. This then is also
the understanding of the Torah’s concept of man and woman becoming “one
which is the other instance where the Torah refers to the concept
of oneness, teaching us that the recipe for genuine domestic harmony is
the removal of any barriers or separations that divide husband and wife, allowing
them, in turn, to “become one flesh.”

It also seems to me that this is what Rabbi Moshe Shapiro meant when he told me that the essence of oneness
is love, because love is the only way to completely remove barriers and thus
produce the closeness necessary for two entities to meld together and become one.
It appears to be no coincidence that the first word mentioned in the Shema
after accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven through uttering “G-d is
One,” is “VeAhavtah,”And you shall love, to tell us that the whole
concept of “you shall love G-d” is dependant upon us attaining the level
where we can tear down the barriers that divide us from our Maker, and thus
cleave to Him until we are one with Him, for this is the whole purpose of
our existence as it says in the beginning of Mesilat Yesharim (Pathways
of the Just): “Man is only created to delight in G-d.”

            It appears according to this explanation that this is the meaning of Rabbi Akiva’s
words that [one must love G-d] “even when He takes away your being and soul”
which means that the love is so strong and powerful that it enables total
giving – even of one’s soul, the most precious thing that a person desires and
yearns for, and yet when one takes this and presents it to the Almighty, the
person, in turn, attains the highest possible level of closeness  to the Divine.

While I was in the gas chambers during the tour of the death camps, I closed my eyes and pictured the holy martyrs
who at the moment of their deaths there and with their last breath cried out
O Israel, the Lord our G-d the Lord is One,”
as did so many Jews throughout
the generations when they sacrificed their lives in the sanctification of G-d’s
name. I then understood and tangibly felt that this is the real point of
performing the greatest act of giving – the act of surrendering one’s soul to
the Almighty – so that one achieves the ultimate state of “
one – and you shall love,” unity with, and love of, G-d.

Now we are able to understand the response to Rabbi Akiva’s disciples who asked him “Our teacher, even up to this
point?”, to which he answered: On the contrary, there is no limit to giving.
For this in fact was Rabbi Akiva’s lifetime desire – that
when He takes your soul He is still “the Lord our G-d the Lord is One, and you
shall love G-d!”
And this is the meaning of “Fortunate are you Akiva
that your soul has departed with the word Echad [One],” which we
understand to indicate that with his final breath Rabbi Akiva was able to
fulfill the ultimate devotion to G-d that can be achieved on this earth, and
through this he attained the level of “
oneness”- total unity and complete fusion
with the Holy One Blessed Be He, thereby wholly fulfilling the commandment of
“and you shall
love G-d.” It was to these lofty levels of spiritual attainment that the holy martyrs of the
Holocaust reached.