Remembrance and Asking the Right Question – the Holocaust and Purim

The Sabbath prior to Purim is designated as a Sabbath of Remembrance. The specifics of what is to be remembered is the vicious attack of the Amalekites on the nascent Jewish People as they miraculously emerged from Egypt. The attack is said to have ‘cooled the waters’ of the awe in which the Jewish People were held at that great time and is said to be the enabler and precursor to all subsequent attacks against the Jewish People.

The form that the attack took was not only physical. There was a specific philosophical attack in the battle between Amalek and the Jews. Amalek insisted that life could be lived without attributing anything to Divine cause and effect. Everything that happens in the world can and must be attributed to coincidence, nothing can be seen as Providence. The Amalekite attack was the attack of ‘happenstance.’ The ‘cooling’ effect that this attack had was not only in taking the Jewish People down from their invincible perch, but to cool the awe that had been generated by a world that stood witness to the fact that the Egyptian persecutors were punished, measure for measure, for having oppressed the Jewish People. Not only does the Almighty exist, He directs the affairs of mankind in the most precise and exacting way. This sense was dulled by the encounter with Amalek who forever stands in opposition to any inquiry into why events happen. There is nothing to ask because the world runs by happenstance, not by cause and effect. This is all packed into the few words of the text that describes the incident in Devarim 25

זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם: אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹקִים

After such a clear description of the nature of the attack, it might be surprising to find a moral analysis in the Talmud to understand how it was that the People could have been vulnerable to such an attack. The Rabbis discover a weakening in Torah study that left the People vulnerable.  In other words, the description of the Amalek attack is addressed on two levels. One level describes the evil of the perpetrator, and another analyzes the conduct that left the victim susceptible to the attack. In Jewish thought the one is unrelated to the other. Moral analysis is designed to help the victim learn the moral lesson that he is meant to learn in order to improve his future relationship with the Almighty. The moral culpability of the criminal is a result of his criminal intent. Each person is meant to learn his moral lesson. The criminal must accept his punishment in order to move forward, and the victim must address the breach that made him vulnerable in order to move forward. In this case, Amalek must undergo utter obliteration and the Jewish People must strengthen their faith with an unwavering diligence in the study and observance of the Torah. Amalek cannot make any claims to be the Divine rod to improve the Jewish People. Even, in the nearly preposterous case, had they had such intentions, they should not have volunteered themselves for the job.

This theme repeats throughout the Torah. By way of example, the Prophet Eliyahu is dispatched to the evil King Ahab with the famous rebuke ‘you have murdered and then claimed to be the heir’ after having schemed to kill Naval whose vineyard Ahab coveted. And at the same time as describing the horror of the crime, the Rabbis ask why is it that Naval fell prey to such a terrible murderer.  The Rabbis conclude that he once failed to share his gift, his beautiful voice, with the Jews of Jerusalem whose pilgrimage was traditionally highlighted by their enjoyment of his singing. The fact that Naval had a moral failing does not in any way excuse Ahab, and the analysis is not meant to mitigate the guilt of the evil king. Such moral zero-sum is the product of moral laziness. I don’t have to deal with my guilt because the victim has a moral accounting to do. This claim can never exempt a criminal. The rapist cannot claim exemption because of the immodesty of the victim.

And so it is that the Megilla starts at a point quite a bit prior to the political story of Haman’s ascendancy to power. We would have expected the story to begin when power began to shift. Haman came to power, Mordechai did not acknowledge Haman’s claims to be worthy of being worshiped, Haman became angry and swore to destroy not only Mordechai but the Jewish People and the People are saved from Haman’s evil decree through the intervention of Queen Ester. That would seem to sum up the story, from a perspective of political cause and effect.

However, the Megilla starts years earlier and opens with the festivities hosted by Achashverosh in which the Jews participated, against the ruling of Mordechai, the rabbinic leader of the time. It is there that the story really starts and it is there that the People became vulnerable to the vicious attack by the Amalekite descendant, Haman. While the People’s moral failure does not exempt Haman, it sets the stage for the more comprehensive moral discussion of what created the vulnerability in the first place.

This lengthy preface is needed in order to make the point of this piece with the hope of evincing a minimum of wincing, although I imagine that there will be some wincing nevertheless.

It seems that a new sin was born after the Holocaust. It is called the sin of introspection. Indeed it is an adoption of the Amalekite philosophy to never attribute anything to Divine cause and effect. In our horrific WWII brush with Amalek we adopted their position. Strangely, though the Allies won the battle, the Nazis won the philosophical war.

The rules of the new sin are clear. One is forbidden to ask the question regarding what moral shortcoming might have caused the Jewish People to be vulnerable to the Amalekite attack of the World Wars. Never mind that one may not actually ascribe the tragic loss of life to a specific transgression; one may not even entertain the question. To do so is sacrilegious, sanctimonious and subjects the questioner to the ultimate slur; he is to be labeled as a fundamentalist. Surely nobody would wish to be called such a lowly name. Calumny.

The prohibition reads as follows: Given that saintly people perished in the Holocaust, and given that the perpetrators are the embodiment of evil in the world, therefore be it known that nobody may entertain the thought that the Jews have anything to introspect about. We are perfect in light of the evil act of genocide.

And while we could all agree that we are perfect in comparison to the evil act of genocide, our moral compass would be off if we said that we are perfect because of the evil of genocide. The evil of the perpetrators is untouched by the moral inventory of the victims, for to say otherwise is to erase the moral message of history, something which Jews have never before allowed themselves to do.

The prohibition quickly spread to other similar enactments. One is not permitted to pause and reflect on the meaning of a financial reversal; on the moral causality of an embarrassment or a setback. Such reflections must be forbidden for if they are allowed, then it is only a small step to asking such questions about the Holocaust! Jews have always been mindful to build fences around prohibitions so as to prevent an integral breach of law. You may never think about any difficulty in your life and what moral message you are meant to draw from that difficulty, lest you come to think that the Almighty had something to say via the Holocaust, and thus you will desecrate the memories of the sacred martyrs and exempt the murderers.

I will not lay claim to having answers to the mighty moral questions that the Holocaust presents, but I similarly refuse to abide by the new prohibition against entertaining such thoughts. We must bow our heads humbly when tragedy strikes and introspect, reflect and improve until the moral failing, whatever it may be, has been thoroughly addressed. Had the Jewish People paused to introspect we might find ourselves in a very different space today; saddened by the tragedy and emboldened to raise the banner of Torah, fear of Heaven, and character improvement ever higher. The prohibition against asking the hard questions must be violated and a spirit of contrite introspection must begin. The introspection is not about finger-pointing (the other person is surely to blame for the tragedy), it is about using a tragedy as a stimulus to grow, to change, to improve and to come closer to the Almighty who guides the hand of history down to the tiniest details. We do not need to have the answers; we need to be relentless in asking the questions so that we never stop coming closer to our Divinely assigned mission.

It is told that the saintly Chofetz Chaim ordered that the Jews of Radin commit to a day of repentance and fasting when the banks of the Mississippi river overflowed in what is known as the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. He understood that nothing in the world is meaningless. If the Almighty brought a great tragedy to that part of the world, then He must expect that the rest of the world will pause and listen to the moral message. Nothing happens for nothing and the Chofetz Chaim demanded of himself, as flawless as he was, to pause and improve in light of the tragedy.

Those who are willing to introspect when the Mississippi overflows its banks spare themselves and the world even more chilling reminders to improve. Those who write off the entire notion of such introspection even when considering the most unimaginable horror are simply cruel. I’d far rather be dubbed a fundamentalist with the Chofetz Chaim on my side than be a cruel person who invites ever more harsh moral reminders. Is there not enough sickness, terror ala ISIS and war in the world for us to each consider violating the prohibition against asking moral questions?

רמב”ם הלכות תעניות פרק א:א: מצות עשה מן התורה לזעוק ולהריע בחצוצרות על כל צרה שתבא על הצבור שנאמר (במדבר י’) על הצר הצורר אתכם והרעותם בחצוצרות כלומר כל דבר שייצר לכם כגון בצורת ודבר וארבה וכיוצא בהן זעקו עליהן והריעו
הלכה ב: ודבר זה מדרכי התשובה הוא שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו עליה ויריעו ידעו הכל שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הורע להן ככתוב (ירמיהו ה’) עונותיכם הטו וגו’ וזה הוא שיגרום להם להסיר הצרה מעליהם
הלכה ג: אבל אם לא יזעקו ולא יריעו אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו וצרה זו נקרה נקרית הרי זו דרך אכזריות וגורמת להם להדבק במעשיהם הרעים ותוסיף הצרה צרות אחרות הוא שכתוב בתורה (ויקרא כ”ו) והלכתם עמי בקרי והלכתי עמכם בחמת קרי כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה כדי שתשובו אם תאמרו שהוא קרי אוסיף לכם חמת אותו קרי

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2 Responses to Remembrance and Asking the Right Question – the Holocaust and Purim

  1. Batya Yaniger says:

    Our rabbis teach, if calamity falls upon you, yefashfesh bema’asav, examine your life. The issue you are so rightly bringing up relates to the difficulty in doing so, while avoiding finger-pointing cause-and-effect declarations about others or about whole communities, which is very damaging. I believe that what we need to understand is that although introspection is sparked by an external event, it stimulates an inner process of self-discovery which is unique to the individuals involved. The one who has experienced the blow of fate, and no one else, is the one who needs to decide which kinds of tikun (reparations) need to be made. Furthermore, even for the individual (or nation) involved, it cannot and must not be a process of “This happened to me because…” since we can never answer that with certainty, and self-blame is often as destructive as blame of others. What we can and must do, however, is to say “This has been a wake-up call. Let me now think about where I feel I have failed and where I can be better.” In this way the blows of fate are a springboard for growth, regardless of the cause. And it seems to me it will create a lot less wincing…

  2. E.D.Becker says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share, Batya. The point that ‘self-blame is often as destructive as blame of others’ is important. Blame, in general, is not a catalyst for growth since it does not ask, nor answer, the question of how is one to grow in light of the problem that has been highlighted. Ownership should contrast with blame and it is something that one person cannot do for or to another person. Ownership is perhaps the most profound and personal human endeavor.

    Thank you again for your thought-provoking comment.

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