Horror and Hope: the Holocaust and the Redemption

Publisher's Foreword

This article was born of a commitment to intellectual honesty, an openness to confront the theoretical issues which arise in the mind of a Jew - and for that matter a gentile - when thinking of the Redemption.

Unfortunately, some of these issues have become current events, as a wave of neo-nazism has engulfed Germany and has threatened Europe as a whole.

One might think that after the Holocaust, and after the communications revolution which prevents history from being ignored, humanity would shrink in contempt from anything that resembles nazism. But it does not.

And you would think that when the cry of Heil Hitler! resounds in Crown Heights, the news media would condemn it. But they don't.

If we don't remember history, warns an old cliche, we will be forced to relive it.

But whether we do or do not remember, our environment is reminding us that the Holocaust is a possibility that mankind is not horrified by.

So how can such a mankind hope for a redemption?

And why did many great Sages see the Holocaust as indicating a process of change that will culminate in the ultimate Redemption?

These and related questions are dealt with in the following essay.

5 Teves, 5753

Horror and Hope: the Holocaust and the Redemption

Some subjects are not pleasant to mention.

Failing to take note of them, however, does not make them go away.

And therefore, an intellectually honest person is required to confront them.

For these reasons, when thinking in terms of the Redemption, although one is tempted to avoid the subject of the Holocaust, the issue cannot be ignored.

Although almost fifty years have passed, for Jews and for that matter, for gentiles, the Holocaust still poses the single greatest question in regard to the belief in G-d.

It is natural to ask: Where was He, and why didn't He do anything to stop it from happening?

More particularly, in regard to the Redemption, the question arises:

If the Redemption did not come then, when mankind needed it most, when will it come?

And others go further, saying that if Moshiach didn't come then, then they don't want him to come at all [1].

To help understand why Moshiach did not come then, it is useful to go back in history.

The Romans who once ruled the land of Israel, did not have guns and gas chambers, but they oppressed the Jews severely, and our people yearned for Mashiach's coming.

The Talmud relates: [2]

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi encountered the prophet Elijah as he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai's cave,... and asked him: "When is Moshiach coming?"
Replied the prophet: "Go and ask him."
"But where is he to be found?"
"At the gate of Rome."
"By what sign shall I recognize him?"
"He is sitting among paupers, stricken by wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at once, and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one wound at a time, and straight away binds it up again. For he says, "Perhaps I shall be called upon [to appear as Moshiach], and I must not be delayed!"

So [Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi] went to him and said, "Peace upon you, my master and teacher!"
He answered him, "Peace upon you, son of Levi!"
Then he asked him, "Master, when are you coming?"
He answered, "Today!"
Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah, who asked him, "What did he say?"
He replied: "...He has deceived me! He told me, "I am coming today," and he has not come!"
Said Elijah, "What Moshiach had in mind was this [verse] [3]: "Today - if you would only listen to His voice!"

What the Talmud is telling us is that Moshiach wants to come, perhaps even more than mankind wants him to [4]. Why then doesn't he come? Because the world is not ready for him.

Could not G-d take care of that problem?

Could He not perfect the blotches of evil, strife, and injustice that mar our world?

Yes, G-d could, but He does not want to; He wants this task to be fulfilled by man, through "listening to His voice."

To explain: G-d created the world because He desired a dwelling in the lower worlds [5], i.e., that our material world should be His home.

Implicit in this desire is that the dwelling be fashioned by man himself.

G-d created a world that was fit to become His dwelling, but only fit.

He left the world - and for that matter man himself - unfinished, and entrusted the task of putting the finishing touches to this creation, to man [6].

What is man supposed to contribute?

An old Chassidic adage says, "G-d made something out of nothing. And man's task is to make from the something - nothing."

The world G-d created is material and by its very nature encourages self-concern and indulgence - this is the "something" the Chassidim meant.

What G-d wants from man is to infuse a spiritual consciousness into the world, to spread selflessness and personal sacrifice - this is what they meant when they said that man's objective is to create nothingness.

Were these qualities also to have been contributed by G-d at the outset, i.e., were He to have made the world a spiritual Garden of Eden, then man's existence would have had little purpose.

And were He, at any point in history, to infuse these qualities into our world by bringing the Redemption independent of man's endeavors, then man's existence would be an exercise in futility.

What would he have lived for?

Man's purpose is to fashion G-d's dwelling, to create a setting for the Redemption within the world.

To enable man to fulfill this purpose, G-d entrusts man with the potential to create, granting him the ability to restructure his environment - both the inner environment of his mind and personality, and the external environment of the world around him.

And indeed, we see that man possesses a desire to create, and exercising this potential is one of our greatest sources of pleasure and satisfaction.

Nevertheless, because the contribution expected of man is not entirely defined, and it runs against his nature, it is difficult for him.

For these reasons, the possibility also exists that man will misuse this potential.

The very same energy that could bring the Redemption, if misdirected can lead to holocausts.

Instead of shaping an environment of peace and prosperity, man can use the unique gifts he has been granted to create hell on earth.

And yet G-d trusts man, and gives him free choice.

This - entrusting mankind with his future - is the most prodigious exercise of Divine patience possible. For G-d knows what is expected of man, watches him as he succeeds and/or fails, and allows him to continue without interference.

Nevertheless, though a psychologist might allow a child to experience the minor consequences of playing with matches, so that he will learn something about cause and effect, and about being responsible for his actions, no one would suggest letting him learn those same lessons when playing with a gun; a gun is dangerous.

Well, so are holocausts.

Still G-d lets man make them and watches without interfering.

Why? And how can He?

The question is twofold:

  1. Mankind can suffer harm, and if G-d is good and wants good, how can He let this harm be inflicted?
  2. How can He bear watching? We as humans are revolted by cruelty and brutality. Isn't He? How can He bear the pain?

To focus on the first question: In one of his confrontations with the communist authorities, one of their gendarmes threatened the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe with a gun, boasting of its power to influence people.

The Previous Rebbe replied that the gun could only influence "someone who has one world and many gods. I," he continued, "have one G-d and two worlds."

What the Previous Rebbe was saying is that we have to see the larger picture.

When we conceive of existence as being limited to the immediate here and now, then death - and the fear of it - are awesome.

When we are aware of spiritual reality and live with faith in the after-life, reincarnation, and the resurrection, physical death is not the end of our experience. And this changes the way we actually look at our lives.

Rav Aryeh Levine used to say that when a baby is born, everyone is laughing, but the baby cries.

When a person dies, by contrast, everyone cries, but perhaps the soul is laughing.

We are upset about death, because of our human condition.

When seen in an overall perspective, however, it is clear that the loss is not felt by the ones who die, only by those who remain.

And the suffering felt on this plane - awesome, unnecessary, and cruel as it is - is fleeting in nature.

What is important in our lives is the lasting contributions we make.

And in that context, the legacy of martyrdom and the sanctification of both life and death which the victims of the Holocaust left us looms colossal on our spiritual horizons.

In regard to the second question: How can G-d bear the pain suffered by His children? The answer is simple. He can't. Therefore, to cite the Bible's expression [7], He "hides His face."

But He allows the suffering to continue. Why? Because difficult as it is for Him to bear man's suffering, it is even more difficult for Him to abandon the intent He has for man. He refuses to condemn man to the status of a mere robot, and have him be come only a recipient of Divine influence. G-d wants man to be a creator, to exercise his free will, and to use that potential to fashion a G-dly dwelling in our material world.

We cannot explain the Holocaust.

Indeed, any explanations or rationales a man might offer seem vulgar and crass.

Observations, however, can be made.

And one thing is clear. Holocausts do not happen every day, or for that manner, every century.

The awesomeness of the tragedy and the utter collapse of the fabric of Jewish life that had nourished our people for centuries points to a transition of prodigious scope [8].

Throughout our people's history, there have been miracles, e.g., the exodus from Egypt or the Maccabees' defeat of the Greeks, which inaugurated processes of change.

The Holocaust was, by contrast, an anti-miracle, but it too was symptomatic of a monumental transition.

All of the major Sages of that era described it as Ikvesa diMeshicha, the time when Mashiach's approaching footsteps could already be heard.

But as we stated above, G-d has made Mashiach's coming dependent on man.

For Moshiach to come, change is necessary, and the climate of the world at large was set for such a change.

Man was granted the potential to cause this change to be positive.

But when a potential is granted, it is also possible for the pendulum to sway in the opposite direction.

Our Sages knew about these adverse possibilities.

Therefore, one of them said, "Let him (Moshiach) come, but let me not see his coming." I.e., he wanted the Redemption to take place, but desired to be spared the anguish that might precede its coming.

Our Prophets [9] speak of the Redemption as being preceded by birthpangs.

Ask any woman who has given birth, and she'll tell you that however great the pains, the consciousness of the imminence of the birth and the new life is the most powerful dimension of the experience. And surely it is the most lasting.

The Kabbalah explains that every process of transition has three phases: yesh - ayin - yesh, an entity, a state of void and non-being, and a new entity.

For when one wants a radical - not merely a gradual - step forward, one must negate one's previous frame of reference entirely [10].

Like a vacuum which draws a substance inwards, this state of non-being leads to a new and higher level of existence.

The metamorphosis - from in Jewish terms, the old world of the shtetl, and in secular terms, the formative years of the industrial revolution - to the Era of the Redemption needed an ayin.

As mankind was groping in search for a formula for change, Hitler offered his definition of ayin - absolute annihilation.

In the half-century that has followed, mankind has begun to seek more positive definitions, ones that enable man to orient the direction of change towards fulfilling G-d's intent in creation and making our world His dwelling. And this will enable us not merely to hear the footsteps of Moshiach, but to see his coming and to share in the era of fulfillment he will initiate.


  1. We have chosen to consider this question seriously. On the other hand, it must be emphasized that for many, the Holocaust is merely an excuse. They don't want to confront personal change and are unwilling to accept the sacrifice that is involved in coming to terms with spiritual values. For them, the Holocaust is a way of saying, "See I have got you stumped. So leave me alone and let me go living my life as I please." Such an approach is an affront to the martyrs of the Holocaust and cheapens the experience which they and mankind underwent.
  2. Sanhedrin 98a.
  3. Psalms 95:7.
  4. For "more than the calf wants to nurse, the cow wants to give milk" (Pesachim 112a).
  5. Midrash Tanchuma, Parshas Bechukosai, sec. 3, quoted in Tanya, ch. 33 and 36. See the explanation of this concept in an earlier essay in this series, "The Question Every One of Us Would Like To Ask G-d."
  6. Alluding to such a relationship, our Sages (Shabbos 119b) state that man has the potential and the obligation to become G-d's partner in creation.
  7. Deuteronomy 31:17; see the commentary of Baalei Tosafos. This expression also contains an allusion. The Hebrew word for "face," panim, also means "inner dimension." When G-d hides His face, His inner dimensions are being expressed, but they are working in a hidden way.
  8. Another one of the observations forced upon us by the Holocaust is an awareness of the Jews' uniqueness as a people. It is nice to think in universal terms and to speak about mankind as a whole. But Hitler's universalism was limited. Although he killed people of all nationalities, the full force of his death machine was directed against the Jews. And the other nations did not protest, or lift a finger to stop him. To quote the title of a best selling book, "The Jews Were Expendable." This concept, the uniqueness of the Jews and their specific role in bringing the Redemption, will be the subject of a forthcoming essay in this series.
  9. See Hosea 13:13; Isaiah 37:3, 66:8.
  10. To illustrate this principle: After making aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Zeira undertook one hundred fasts in order to forget the Babylonian Talmud, so that he would be able to appreciate the different thinking processes motivating the Jerusalem Talmud (B. Metzia 85a).