Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Holocaust, Middas Ha-din And Our Task Today

Rav Shlomo Volbe [From a talk given when a Nazi criminal went on trial]

Forty years after the event, we are again being forced to visualize all the dreadful experiences of the Nazi death camps and ghettos. We must understand that this is but a means for Divine Providence to remind us that Midas HaDin-uncompromising justice is an active force in the world. Just exactly what is this attribute of Din? In Devarim ( 32:29 and 30 ), the Torah describes it: "If they were wise, they would understand this, they would discern their destiny. How can one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, if not that their Protector had given them over, and G-d had delivered them!" This is literally what took place: Small numbers of members of the Third Reich brought millions of Jews to the gas chambers, and this could only have been possible because, "... their Protector had given them over and G-d had delivered them"-Midas HaDin in its strongest form. At the Eichmann trial, a generation ago, witnesses were asked why no one resisted the Nazi murderers - a ridiculous question that could only have been posed by people who were not there. The diabolic inventiveness and obsessive devotion with which the Nazis virtually stripped their victims of their defenses is without parallel in history. How were the murderers able to muster up such reservoirs of efficiency and cruelty? There can be no explanation other than G-d's attribute of unyielding din. He decreed it thus, or they could never have so succeeded.  

The Amora Rav describes how when Moshe ascended to file Heavens to receive the Torah. he found G-d sitting and connecting crowns to the letters. Moshe said: "Master of the Universe, for whom do You do this?" Replied G-d, "There is one man that is destined to live many generations from now -Akiva, the son of Joseph who will expound mounds of halachos on each point (of the crowns)." Said Moshe, "Show him to me." Said G-d, "Step back." Moshe retreated and sat at the back of eight rows [of disciples listening to Rabbi Akiva]. He did not grasp what they were saying, and he lost his composure. At a specific point, his students asked Rabbi Aklva: "Rebbe, how do you know this?" He responded: "It was passed on as a halacha to Moshe from Sinai." And Moshe was relieved. He returned before G-d and asked, 'You have shown me his Torah, please show me his reward." Said G-d: "Step back." He retreated again and this time saw I the Romans I selling Rabbi Aklva's flesh in the meat market. Said Moshe to G-d: "Master of the Universe. this Is Torah and such is its reward?" Replied G-d: "Be still! This has risen in thought before Me." (Menachos 29b) G-d's final response to Moshe needs explanation. Which "thought" is G-d referring to that can explain such suffering? Sacred literature records that when G-d created the world, He originally "thought" to govern it with Midas HaDin-under a regime of strict justice. But He recognized that the world would not be able to exist under so unyielding a governance, so G-d tempered justice with mercy-rachamim G-d's response to Moshe, then, was that Rabbi Akiva was of so lofty a station that he would not need the measure of mercy. He could be expected to conform to G-d's original plan. When governed by Midas HaDin, Man is constantly evaluated as to his merit. If found worthy. he will receive whatever G-d chooses to provide him with. But if found unworthy. he must forfeit whatever would be in the offing; he may even be found unworthy of life itself. By contrast, a world governed by mercy always makes alallowances for man's failings. This is not to say that now. in the post-Midas HaDin mode, G-d simply overlooks man's misdeeds. Rather, G-d governs the world with both justice and mercy. Initially, man is granted life, its amenities and its joys, and continues to enjoy them without deserving them. But such allowances are granted with the expectation that ultimately, through personal repentance or by virtue of bringing righteous children into the world. he will eventually demonstrate that G-d's seemingly indiscriminate generosity was not misplaced. He will prove himself a worthy investment of G-d's largesse. And if, Heaven forbid, he does not prove himself, no concessions are made. He must receive his punishment in this world or in the World-to-Come, since after all, the primary thought was to establish the world on the basis of justice, and ultimately this remains a condition of creation. 


The Jewish Nation's special relationship with G-d is of such closeness that it demands of them a higher awareness of Divine involvement in the affairs of man. This should result in a more perfect level of conduct, much more in line with G-d's demands. Failure to maintain such perfection would result in swift and exacting punishment. as is inherent to a relationship of Midas HaDin. This is expressed by the Prophet: "Only you have I known [an expression of love-Rashi] from all the families of the earth. therefore will I visit upon you all your sins" (Amos 3,2). That is. because I loved only you, and because I have chosen only you from amongst all the nations, I must respond to the dictates of justice, which require that I visit all your sins upon you. Just as a mortal master is more demanding of the servants who are constantly in his presence than he is of those who are distant from him, so too does G-d deal more strictly with His people, the Jewish Nation, employing Midas HaDin, demanding an almost faultless perfection from them. Thus do the People of Israel suffer more than all other nations. 

And yet, with all the pain one endures, there is a vast benefit in being dealt with in keeping with Midas HaDin. The result for the Jewish People has been that the nation of Israel is eternal, for G-d exacts punishment on the people of Israel as they sin, in a piecemeal fashion which is to their benefit. If He would wait for an appreciable amount of time before punishing Kial Yisroel, the impact of the accumulated weight of their evil would be so devastating that they would suffer total annihilation l"n. The short-term approach means frequent, intense suffering; but each occasion of chastising punishment is meant to goad Jews to repentance, and serves to spare them total destruction. By contrast, other nations build empires of evil and appear to thrive and even achieve dominance, without suffering even minor setbacks. But eventually, after their quota of evil has been filled, so to speak, G-d removes them from the world scene, without so much as a trace of their once overwhelming glory. When is that point reached? We can perhaps find an indication of this from the Seforno's comments on the verse, "He visits the sin of the fathers on their children" (Shemos 34,7): "[This takes place I when a person is so depraved that there is no chance that he will change for the better-a stage that usually is reached when patterns of wickedness have been maintained over a number of generations, and have become ingrained in the people's character-when evil has become second nature, and repentance is no longer feasible].

Because of His constant judgment of the People of Israel. G-d does not wait until their wicked practices become entrenched in their national character. Thus Kial Yisroel remains eternal, in contrast to so many nations that, over the ages, have disappeared from the face of the earth.


During the year 5604 ( 1844), the leaders of Reform Jewry convened in Braunschweig. Germany, and decided to permit all that the Torah had restricted, to forego all that the Torah had required: kashrus, circumcision. restrictions against intermarriage all went by the wayside. The Malbim describes this gathering in his introduction to his commentary on Vayikra, and writes that their radical abandonment of all that is sacred had prompted him to write his commentary on Tanach (Scriptures). Rabbi Yisroel Salanter also took note of this convention and remarked: "They created a new Shulchan Aruch and permitted mixed marriages. There will come a time when the Gentiles will also draft a new Code of Laws; how bitter and woeful it will be for Jews when that time arrives!" And so it was. Ninety years after that convention, the infamous Nuremberg Laws were enacted, where among other things, the death penalty was inflicted upon any Jew who married a non-Jewess or vice versa. ushering In the era of heightened Nazi persecution. How apparent it is that G-d employs Midas HaDin in His dealings with Israel! Midas HaDin involves a constant testing of Klal Yisroel. This is indicated in a comment in Yalkut Shimoni Shoftim, 41 ): "Let us compare the early generations with the later ones. The early ones were tested directly by G-d, as the Torah says, 'And G-d tested Avraham.' and in regard to the Generation of the Wilderness, 'In order that I test them,' 'And in order to test you.' But the later generations were tested at the hands of the nations. as Scripture states, 'And these are the nations that G-d left in the Land to test the Jews.'" And so it has been in each generation tests of one sort or another. as part of Midas HaDin. 


Ramban explains that whenever an individual or our nation as a whole undergoes a trial, it is designed for his benefit, so that ultimately he will be rewarded. Throughout history. the Jewish people have been tested with temptations to embrace the customs and rites of various nations. These trials have prevailed from the time that Yehoshua led the Jews into the Land of Israel until this very day. These trials challenge every faction of our people, and require great strength to withstand them. The Chassid Yaavetz was among those banished from Spain during the expulsion in 1492. 1t was during this era that Spanish culture had peaked. The Chassid Yaavetz writes that at the time of the expulsion, Jews were faced with a choice of either leaving their homes penniless and destitute, or converting to Christianity. Those who were pure in their convictions succeeded in overcoming this terrible challenge and left their homeland for centuries. But the "intelligentsia" had great difficulty in facing this choice and many of them succumbed to the pressure and converted. It would seem, then, that greater involvement in nonJewish culture can intensify the test. Indeed, throughout Jewish history, whenever Jews enjoyed cultural or intellectual ascendency, the period ended in catastrophe. So it was in "the Golden Age" of Spain, again in Renaissance Italy, and finally in Modem Germany. For one hundred and fifty years, the Jews of Germany enjoyed unobstructed access to full participation in German culture. These years also witnessed a dramatic-almost total estrangement from Torah amongst German Jewry. And who knows how complete it would have been, had it not been for Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, and Rabbi Seligmann Baer Halevi Bamberger of Wuerizburg. They managed to save but a relatively small handful of Jews. and even amongst these loyal few, Torah was in some measure forgotten .... Enthrallment with Haskalla and other departures from Torah thought and tradition, followed by estrangement from Torah and mitzvos, prevailed in other lands as well. 

The pattern is uncontestable. Wherever there was high level of cultural development, wherever Haskalla (both in the broad sense and in the specific) gained a foothold, Jews failed to stand up to the tests-up to and including the Holocaust, which sealed the coffin on that entire era. And each day that brings us new tales of horror from that frightful era, reveals more starkly for us how severe Midas HaDin can be with the Jewish people in times of Divine wrath.


More on Midas HaDin: G-d tells His People, "If you are faithful to your vows, fine: and if not, I will make your flesh permissible" (Kesubos 111a). Rashi explains this to mean that the Jewish body becomes hefker-that is, of no value, as though ownerless. This is precisely what transpired during the Holocaust years-the Jews were deemed hefker. Concentration camp survivors who came to Sweden after the war had in their possession a poem that they shared with us. Written by a young girl, it described the horrors of life in the ghetto. She writes to an artist in search of a scene to paint: "Come, I will show you what to draw," she says. And she brings him to a dwelling where a mother lies in bed, having just given birth to a child The father and brothers of the child had been taken to their deaths, and soon the mot.her also dies. A surviving daughter looks on, watching her last relative dying, leaving her completely bereft of family .... Following this, the young poetess brings the artist to other places, each depicting a scene more tragic than the one before . ... Such were the conditions in the ghettos and camps. To young people, these stories must sound as if they come from a distant planet. Born after the war, they are incapable of envisioning either the suffering of those who died, or the agony of the survivors. Today, as we review these events, we gain insight into the meaning of Midas HaDin. This is described in the Torah as "the concealment of the Divine Face." "And I (G-d), will certainly conceal My face on that day" (Devarim 31.18). On the one hand, closeness to G-d and good fortune are associated with exposure to the Divine countenance. For instance, in Shmoneh Esrei we plead, "Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your face, for with the light of Your face You gave us ... the Torah of life and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing. compassion, life and peace" (Sim Shalom). Similarly, in the priestly blessings of the Kohanim, we find: "May G-d illuminate His face for you and be gracious to you ... May G-d tum His face to you and establish peace for you." By contrast, concealment of the Divine face means that G-d deals with us as if He does not see us, so to speak. The people of Israel are then left for hefker, ownerless, and they are subject to all sorts of troubles and persecutions. To better understand the implications of "concealed countenance," let us return to the passages that describe this phenomenon: "And My wrath will burn against them on that day and I will forsake them and I will conceal My face from them and they will be consumed and many evils and troubles will befall them: so that they will say on that day: 'ls it not because our G-d is not among us that these evils have come upon us?' And I (G-d), I will certainly conceal My face." The question arises: After they have come to recognize their sin, realizing that all of their suffering is an outgrowth of their estrangement from G-d, why is there need for further punishment, of ''.And  I will certainly conceal My face"? The Ramban takes note of this, and explains that there are two types of "concealment of the Divine face.'' At the outset, when Israel first sinned, they experienced a complete concealment of the Divine face. Following this, however, when they already denied idolatry but had not as yet returned completely In repentance, there still remained a hiding of the face of redemption, although not to the same degree as originally. 


We are currently seeking ways of assuring peace In the Land of lsrael between the Jews and their neighbors. One faction suggests this approach, another suggests that: this one supports an international conference, and that one opposes the idea "He who dwells in heaven laughs, G-d scoffs at them." In one of his last talks, the Mashgiach of Mir (Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz) said that it is impossible for violaters of Torah to build the Land of Israel. That is, transgressors can establish settlements, construct projects and build cities in the Holy Land, but these accomplishments are without the zechus necessary to merit continued existence. This is not only true in the concrete sense, it is also true in political realms: Until this very day, our enemies want to push us into the sea: in their eyes, the state still has no right of existence. Yes, we are still under the shadow of "the concealment of the face of redemption." Midas HaDin extends yet over us. All the disunity and internal strife that plagues us even within the Torah society-are offshoots of the Holocaust. The nation of Israel-including the Torah community-has by far not succeeded in raising itself to the spiritual level it had enjoyed before the Holocaust. No yeshiva today approaches the stature of the pre-War yeshivas-not in great personalities, not in Torah knowledge, not in Mussar. A humble beginning has been made, but Midas HaDin continues to prevail. A day does not pass without some tragic occurrence, some terrible loss taking place. We must open our eyes and recognize that these are all manifestations of Midas HaDin. an approach that still governs our condition. We may choose to ignore these difficulties, but then we would be living in a fools' paradise. Our day-to-day existence is peaceful enough. Thank G-d, the extreme poverty that had plagued us before World War II is gone. Life is relatively pleasant, so we can manage to ignore the Midas HaDin. After all, who wants to dwell on the fact that the same Divine approach that was responsible for the Holocaust still prevails! But the trials in Jerusalem and Lyons are here to remind us how the terrible destruction of the Holocaust actually came to pass. Yes, the Nazis were obsessed, deranged, but that is irrelevant. The lesson to learn from that epoch is that it was due to Divine Midas HaDin that these awful happenings took place, and that the same Midas HaDin is with us to this very day! 


Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. the great 19th Century Mussar personality, penned several lines, printed in Ohr Yisroel, that have the ring of prophecy. In his famous letter regarding the month of Elul (Letter 14 ). he wrote: 'With this has ended the era of great men distinguished by their fear of G-d, men whose fear was so awe-inspiring, that judgment was visible on their faces, making an indelible impression on the hearts of those who follow them .... And so if for the moment we remove from ourselves our soiled clothing and instead wrap ourselves in pure garments, we can see clearly that we have cause for fear." And now, each of us according to his own worth, should fear many times more, as compared to the past. After all, when Reb Yisroel wrote this letter some one-hundred-and-thirty years ago, was there reason to be more afraid of G-d's judgment than another generation or two earlier-two hundred years ago? The answer is that transgression increased in his lifetime, compared to seventy years earlier. We have no concept of what Jewish life was like two hundred years ago. I can never forget how an old Jew, close to ninety years of age, once approached me as a young man, pressed my hand warmly and asked me my name. When I answered him, he told me that he remembers from his youth, when one would meet a person that he had never seen before, how he would offer praise to G-d that there is one more Jew whom it is possible to love. Such was their Ahavas Yisroel-the love and endearment they had toward another Jew. Today, when two people meet, each one says his name, the other responds, "Nice to meet you," and they casually continue along their separate ways . ... Do we have any concept of the purity and sincerity of their fear of Heaven? Because of the dramatic drop in Yiras Shomayimin his day, Reb Yisroel called for a manifold increase in vigilance and awareness of the approaching Days of Judgment. Now, too, recent events are reminding us of the prevalence of Midas HaDin, but a generalized, undefined fear is inadequate. We must be keenly aware that Midas HaDin is currently hovering over the nation oflsrael and the Land of lsrael - now. And we must recognize that if there is any merit to our people's continued existence in the Land of Israel, it is the zechus of Torah and teshuva-return to Torah values. Once we recognize this, we are faced with a different kind of responsibility. Secularists accept Torah study begrudgingly, as a concession, a heedless luxury: 'We need colleges, not more yeshivas for 'the black hats'!" We for our part must not view Torah study as mere professional training, or another academic career. To whatever extent we enjoy a safe existence in our land, it is only because of Torah. A place of Torah study is a "factory" that produces kedusha (sanctity)-anyone who is in a House of Study knows what kedusha is! We must continue to grow-to endeavor to master Shas (the complete Talmud), to acquire Yiras Shomayim (fear of Heaven). to achieve perfection in Torah and mitzvos; only then will Israel be safe and secure. 


'And they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our G-d is not among us that have these evils have come upon us?' " These words signal recognition of the folly of a life estranged from G-d and His Torah. And we are hearing the echo of these words today in the steadily expanding Teshuva Movement, which is surely among the wonders of the world. How else can we describe the sudden awakening of masses of people to question their lifestyles, and then to apply themselves to Torah study with such devotion and commitment? Anyone who sees these people must envy them: It is truly a miracle, without rational explanation! A Russian Jew who has been in Israel for several years described how he recently welcomed new arrivals from Russia at the airport in Lod.. When he offered the travelers some cake and fruit their first questions were: "Is there a prohibition of sefichim. Shmittah growth, on this food?" And. "Does the food carry the hechsher of the Beis Din in Jerusalem?" How did they know of these things? How is it even fathomable that in Moscow there are two hundred families who keep Torah and mitzvos, and their children walk the streets with payos curling down their cheeks? Is it less than a miracle? Especially now, when Midas HaDin is being played out before us. and we are witness to tragic occurrences that strike both the nation as a whole and individuals. we must recognize that the Land can only survive in the merit of Torah and Teshuva. All political theories for safety, security. and economic plenty are mere speculation, hollow and worthless. In Heaven, where our destiny is determined. only Torah and teshuva are taken into account. I have found that since I began contemplating the trial and all the horrors that have been recounted there, l can discern in these events Midas HaDin, putting to rest a number of conflicts that I had been experiencing in my Divine service. Yiras Shomayim is not something left to one's discretion, an option that one can choose to pursue or drop. When Midas HaDin is so undeniably brought to the fore, as in recent times, then Yiras Shomayim is especially imperative. An insistent fact of life that one dare not ignore. We are impelled to serve G-d. to labor in Torah, and to pursue fear of G-d, for we see empirically that there Is Divine judgment In the world. And only in the merit of the lomdei Torah and baalei teshuva, who strive for perfection in thought and action, can we survive safely and hope for the swift advent of Moshiach.

[Jewish Obsever Summer 1987]