By: Rabbi Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
Many people have asked: “How could G-d have allowed the Holocaust?” It’s a fair question. HaShem is a loving G-d; so how could HaShem have allowed something as terrible as the Holocaust to have occurred? After all, many good and righteous people, and many innocent children, were murdered at the hands of the Nazis and their coconspirators.
In last week’s Parasha, we read about the blessings HaShem will bestow on the Jewish people if they observe the Torah and keep its commandments. We also read the admonitions [תוכחה], which warn of the curses which will befall the Jewish people if they fail to observe the Torah and its commandments.
Parasha Nizzavim, which relates events which occurred on the last day of Moshe Rabbeinu’s life and which was given in the context of the Jewish people’s imminent entry into Eretz Yisra’el, continues the theme of last week’s Parasha through a renewal of the covenant between HaShem and the Jewish people:
Two important aspects of this pesukim are that: (1) the renewed covenant is binding not only on the Jews who were physically present at the time the covenant was renewed, but also on all future generations of Jews (“Not only with you alone . . . and also with him who is not here this day. . . .”) and (2) Jews are responsible not just for themselves as individuals, but also for each other. This second aspect of the pesukim introduces for the first time the concept of collective responsibility ([ערבות], literally “guarantee”), which obligates every Jew to assist other Jews in observing the Torah and not violating its commands. The great commentator the Or HaHayyim wrote:
Parasha Nizzavim continues:
Parasha Nizzavim concludes:
In discussing the Holocaust [שואה], many people have asked, “How could a loving G-d have allowed that to happen?” Many say there is no answer to this question. Others, not having found a satisfactory answer, have abandoned religion altogether.
The Torah, however, is quite clear. “[Y]ou will take it to your heart among all the nations where HaShem, your G-d, has dispersed you and you will return unto HaShem, your G-d, and listen to His voice. . . .” Debarim 30:1. “I have placed before you . . . life . . . and . . . death. . . . [If you will keep the Torah], then you will live. . . . But if . . . you will not listen . . . you will surely be lost. . . .” Debarim 30:1-5.
During the latter half of the 1800s, the Jews of eastern Europe were, indeed, observant. They lived mostly in Jewish communities (the “shtetl”) which were separated from their gentile neighbors. Under such conditions, they had to be religiously observant; there was no other practical alternative.
Things changed toward the end of the 19th century, with the coming of The Enlightenment. The Jews of eastern Europe suddenly had a choice. Almost overnight, many of the Jews of eastern Europe left their religious lifestyles and communities and joined the ranks of communists and socialists. They assimilated into gentile culture. Reform Judaism was “born.”
Some might – correctly – point out that it cannot be that every Jew who met his fate during the Holocaust was a Jew who, through his own conduct, deserved to endure such terrible atrocities. This, undoubtedly, is true. There is no question that there were many righteous individuals – both adults and children – who perished in the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, as we learn from our Parasha, each Jew is responsible for the conduct of his fellow Jew. Furthermore, the Talmud teaches that: “[W]hen there are righteous in a generation, the righteous are punished for the sins of the generation. When there are no righteous in a generation, the children are punished for the sins of the generation.” Masekhet Shabbat 33b.
Thus, when we read in this week’s Parasha that HaShem has “placed life and death before you, blessing and curse. You shall choose life. . . .” we should not be surprised to learn that there are real consequences for choosing curse over blessing, and for not choosing life.
Although Parasha Nizzavim repeats the blessing and curse from last week’s Parasha and adds the element of collective responsibility for Torah observance, our Parasha does not stop there.
HaShem, of course, knew in advance of the Holocaust that not all Jews would choose the blessing over curse. Nevertheless, the Master of the Universe, in all of His kindness, also promised that, after the Holocaust was over, He would gather the Jewish people and return them to Eretz Yisra’el. “He will return and gather you in from all the peoples to which HaShem, your G-d, has scattered you. . . . . [He] will bring you to the Land that your forefathers possessed and you shall possess it. . . .
Medinat Yisra’el (the State of Israel) was established after World War II, restoring sovereignty over Eretz Yisra’el to the Jewish people for the first time in almost 2,000 years. Since that time, Medinat Yisra’el has endured and, with the help of HaShem, has prevailed – against all odds – against attempts by the Arabs to annihilate the Jewish state and people.
Alas, HaShem has done – and continues to do – exactly that which He, through his Holy Torah, has told us that He will do.
May we all be blessed to continue learning Torah and to choose the Almighty’s blessing of life over its opposite.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American lawyer who resides in Jerusalem, Israel. Rabbi Sasson received his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Haim Ovadia, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Torah VeAhava. Rabbi Ovadia, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, was ordained by Hakham Mordechai Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Israel (1983 – 1993), and is a descendent of the renowned kabbalist Hakham Yehuda Fetaya Z”L.