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Home » Shmini, Tragedy

Shemini: G-d and the Holocaust

Submitted by on April 4, 2010 – 4:58 amNo Comment | 2,973 views

And He Was Silent

In the middle of his inauguration Aaron, the High Priest, suffered a terrible personal tragedy; the sudden death of his two elder sons. Moses offered words of comfort, but Aaron was silent; he accepted the Divine judgment with a full measure of faith. Our sages taught that Aaron was rewarded for his acceptance when G-d revealed Himself to Aaron to outline the laws that govern the priesthood.(1)

Similarly, Moses was shown a vision of the terrible suffering that the great sage Rabbi Akiva was to endure in future years. Taking note of Rabbi Akiva’s prolific scholarship, piety and teaching Moses cried, “Is this the Torah and this, its reward?” “Be silent, replied G-d, “so it has been decided by Me.” (2)

Moses’ anguished plea was torn from a tender, bleeding heart, yet G-d seems to respond harshly. Rather than explain His reasons G-d ordered Moses to accept. Accept Moses did. And, we wonder, is this the desired response to tragedy? Like Moses and Aaron, are we meant to docilely accept? Are we forbidden to grieve? (3)

The Holocaust

Jews across the world will remember the victims of the Shoah this week. In terms of raw numbers, the Holocaust was the single greatest tragedy in Jewish history. Entire Jewish communities were wiped out; countless cities, towns and villages across Europe hosted flourishing Jewish communities that were completely decimated by the Nazis. Families were torn asunder; children were butchered, parents burned alive and grandparents gassed.

In some cases a single child survived the slaughter of an entire family. It is no wonder that many survivors channeled their grief into wrath. Where was G-d, they asked, when our children, parents and grandparents were stuffed into cattle cars en route to their deaths? Where was G-d when the Nazi beast beat infants with clubs and forced their mothers to watch? Where was G-d when desperate fathers, deranged with grief, threw themselves against electrified fences? holocaust - innerstreamWhy was G-d silent in Treblinka and Auschwitz? From whom was He hiding in the ghettoes of Warsaw and Lodz?

In light of Moses and Aaron we ask ourselves are such questions anathematic to Judaism?

The Probe

We will answer this question in typical Jewish fashion; with another question. What did Moses learn from G-d’s response that He did not already know? Was it merely Divine rebuke that silenced Moses or was there a message in G-d’s response? If it was just rebuke then Moses, the receiver of the Torah, G-d’s confidante, should have known better than to ask. He should have recognized the impropriety of his complaint without needing to have it pointed out for him.

Yet despite his certain knowledge that it was G-d’s decree and beyond human understanding Moses still probed. He probed and probed till he was told to stop, because the outcry is a natural human response.

Rational Ethics

No human can sit idly by in the face of such tragedy. The sheer cruelty and the vast destruction cannot be absorbed without at least a stifled cry. It goes against everything we have been taught to believe. The pious and innocent were cut down in their prime while the cruel aggressors swaggered about!

We all cry out in pain when faced with tragedy, but our ultimate response depends on the source of our question. Those who view the holocaust as an aberration of the ethical order for which the rational mind strives are forced to resolve their grief with a rational response. They might conclude that the culprit was the Nazi beast who disregarded the universal code of ethics. Or that there truly is no ethical order in the world; life is vulnerable to the next threatening despot.

Supra Rational Ethics

The believing Jew, who sources the code of ethics to a super human authority that transcends the workings of our minds, cannot suppose the code of ethics was overturned. The sanctity of life and the rules that safeguard it are not subject to human whim; the Divine ethical order is not subject to subversion.

Yet six million innocents were killed. A feeling human cannot stand by without bleeding bitter tears. How can we not cry out in pain and express our grief in action and in word? It is the normal and natural response; anything less is sub human. Moses cried because Moses was a feeling human being. When Rabbi Akiva was felled, Moses was pained and lamented the loss.

But for Moses it did not end with a cry or with a rejection G-d’s ethical order. Moses was reminded that the code of ethics he imagined breached in the tragedy was formed on a level that dwarfs human understanding. It is futile to probe the undecipherable with the human brain. It is useless to measure Divine wisdom by human understanding.

When he was reminded of this, Moses fell silent. He did not stop hurting, he did not stop crying, but he stopped asking why. He was reminded that though the natural response to tragedy is to attempt an understanding of its underpinnings, this is, in fact, not possible. To ponder the true reasons for tragedy is to ponder the imponderable. At this point Moses let go of why and concerned himself only with what.

And so it is with us. Probing for why G-d allowed the Holocaust does not lead to understanding. Here we do well to trust in G-d’s love and compassion. Though we are at a loss to explain the justness of this terrible injustice we believe that a loving G-d does not allow travesties of justice against his children. At this point we let go of the why, but are left with the grief and that can never be minimized. The gaping hole in our past is a yawning gap in our present and that we can never forget.

We can never forget it, but we can overcome it. We do so by challenging our children to answer Hitler’s threat. We teach them to take pride in our heritage, embrace its values and adopt its traditions. This way we lace our grief with an actionable response. We remember what Hitler did, but we also counter it. We ensure that Judaism is alive and flourishing. We ensure that, come what may, Never Again. (4)


  1. Leviticus 10:3. See Rashi ibid.
  2. Babylonian Talmud, Menachos 29b.
  3. The question is further compounded when you consider that Moses did not express his concerns verbally; instead he communicated them to G-d. G-d’s response was presumably not only a rebuke against speaking such words, but also against thinking them. Are we even forbidden to grieve in our hearts when tragedy strikes our loved ones?
  4. This essay is based on a letter written by The Lubvaticher Rebbe to Eli Wiesel.
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