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Faith Facing The Holocaust - Lecture #15b: The Shoah in the Teachings of Rabbi Barukh Yehoshua Rabinowitz (Part 2)

By: Rav Tamir Granot

The Hiding of God's Face and the Divine Presence During the Holocaust


The central question of faith with regard to the Holocaust concerns God's presence in the midst of the suffering.  Was it possible to actually experience God's closeness even in the crazed, horrific scenes of Auschwitz? Rabbi Rabinowitz is under no illusion that any explanation of the meaning of the Holocaust can save us from having to address this problem.  Even if a retrospective understanding of the Holocaust requires that we love every Jew and uphold the value of Jewish unity, it will still fall short of providing any explanation for, or any understanding of, the indescribable suffering of the Holocaust.  This suffering, with its religious significance, must be dealt with directly.  And the sufferer does not know – and perhaps will never know – why he is suffering, why his Father in heaven is not intervening to help him, why he is deserving of such a bitter fate.


An experience of God's closeness usually arises from the knowledge that God is with me: "The Lord is my refuge and my fortress, My God – in Him I trust… He will cover you with His wings, and you will take refuge… no evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your dwelling" (Tehillim 91:2-10).  The Psalmist declares (in God's Name, as it were), "I am with him in suffering" (ibid. 15); I will not abandon him.  How is this shown? "I will deliver him and honor him" (ibid.).  Divine providence, the sense that what happens to me is intentional and has significance, that things happen for my sake, that there is Someone Who takes care of my needs, for otherwise things would not work out the way they do, that my prayers and supplications are heard, that God satisfies my needs, like those of all living things, with favor – all of these are signs from God that He is with me.  God's Presence with me is manifest through His Providence, through His guidance of my life.  I may, of course, experience suffering or crisis, but even then I feel that He is with me, that it is not for nothing, that He is showing me how to cope, and that even if the pain has not yet passed, at least God is teaching me what to do with it.


In this sense, the experience of God's closeness is not a luxury for a believer; it is faith itself.  Faith means believing not only that there is a Creator of the world, that there is a God in heaven, or that justice – in the general sense – exists; it also entails the belief that all of this is significant for me, for the individual.  God is watching over me and is with me.  The more complicated the reality, the greater the suffering, the deeper the absurdity of the world, so the chasm between pseudo-faith (i.e., the faith that this is the way that things should be) and real experience grows wider.


In contrast, Rabbi Rabinowitz describes the possibility of experiencing God's closeness even within the hell itself:


Not every person merits to find his Father in heaven in a world that is subject to the harsh Attribute of Justice.  Nevertheless, we have seen and known a great many who did achieve this.  There were such people – some learned scholars, others simple people; some tzaddikim their whole lives, others who were tzaddikim just for that time.  With every catastrophe that befell them, whether the blows came one after the other or all at the same time, although they could not accept what was happening, they knew and felt that God was with them in their distress.  Within all the tumult and the fear and the nightmarish terror, with women fainting, old people collapsing, amidst the rushing about in search of an infant or a wife who had slipped from their grasp and from their sight – they did not cease their discourse with God, as though He stood before them and was with them amidst all of that chaos.  Throughout their lives, they had God before them, and now, too, they kept Him before their eyes.  They felt that once the decree had been passed against them, it included God being with them in their distress.  This feeling was more than just internal faith; it was sensed as something tangible.  It was as though they saw with their own eyes the Divine Presence, a sort of Divine revelation amidst the fiery burning bush. 

The Midrash Tanchuma (Shemot, siman 13) asks: "Why [did God choose to reveal Himself] within a [lowly] bush, rather than in a grander tree, or in a pillar? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: [It is written,] 'I am with him in distress:' they are being subjugated; likewise, I will appear in a bush.  Therefore the revelation was in a bush full of thorns."

A similar midrash is to be found in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 40): "[God] left the [majestic] mountain and came down into a thorn bush and resided in it – a bush that represented distress and trouble, all full of thorns and thistles.  Why did He reside in the midst of such distress and trouble? He saw Bnei Yisrael in great distress, and so He too dwelled with them in distress, so as to fulfill that which is written, 'in all their affliction He was afflicted' (Yishayahu 63:9)."


Rabbi Rabinowitz explains that the experience of faith, in the sense of God's closeness at its highest level, recognizes God not only when He delivers one from suffering, or protects one from it.  Even in the midst of the suffering, God is present in the most direct sense.  In the simplest sense, "I am with him in suffering" means that God saves me when I am in distress.  The deeper meaning is simply that He is with me.  God's Presence is comforting not only because of the results – i.e., not only because God is King, Helper, Savior, and Protector, performing great deliverance – but because of itself.  If I know that God is with me here, even if He is not protecting me and not delivering me, then I know that there is a reason for my suffering.  At the very least, I am not abandoned; I am not alone.  Being together with the Master of the Universe is not a functional question pertaining to my situation, but rather an existential one pertaining to my soul.  If I am praying or singing, feeling that God is by my side, then existence is worthwhile, even if it is horrible and terrifying.  Just as the love between husband and wife or between close friends may lend profound meaning to even a few hours that come to an end, so it is with the love of God. My love for Him and His love for me is even greater than human love, for it is unlimited and unconditional; it has the power to bring great joy – even for a few hours, even close to death.


In the Torah, God is encountered mainly through His Providence.  In other words, His Presence is felt through reality, through events that happen.  Here, on the other hand, we are speaking of an experience of His Presence that reflects the verse, "I have set God before me always" (Tehillim 16:8).  Perhaps we may describe it as a discoursive or friendly Presence.  I can turn to God, speak with Him, focus my thoughts on Him, contemplate Him, and from all of these perspectives His Presence fills me; it releases me from the unbearable reality, or at least comforts me for its very existence.  Rabbi Rabinowitz explains that a person has indeed achieved a very lofty religious level when he is able to perceive God's spirit in the midst of chaos:


Who can measure the power of these tzaddikim and righteous ones! To feel God's Presence in the midst of chaos – this is the level of Avraham.  Indeed, this phenomenon is primal, part of the order of Creation, and it lies at the foundation of the relationship between the Creator and His creation.  At the beginning of Creation it is written, "And the earth was void and chaos, and there was darkness over the face of the deep, and a spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters" (Bereishit 1:2).  The greatness of Avraham was that he recognized his Creator even amidst the void and chaos that sometimes prevail in the world. 

Our Sages, of blessed memory, teach us this about Avraham.  "Rabbi Yitzchak said: This may be compared to a person who moved from one place to another.  He saw a building that was burning, and said: Does this building have no owner? The owner of the building looked at him and said to him: I am the owner of the building.  Likewise, when Avraham said, [But] Does this world have no ruler? The Holy One, blessed be He, looked at him and said to him: I am the ruler of the world" (Bereishit Rabba 39,1).  The commentators explain: a person who sees a building that is beautiful and orderly will understand that it has an owner, that a clever artist built it.  But Avraham saw a building "burning," going up in flames.  He perceived the world amidst the flames of a burning, consuming fire; the collapse of everything that is good and beautiful, that the order of the world was turning into chaos.  Nevertheless, he understood that the world has a Ruler.  And then the Holy One, blessed be He, looked upon him and said: I am the Ruler and Creator of the world (see Etz Yosef and Matanot Kehuna).

The merit of a revelation of the Divine Presence – not only when order prevails in the world, but also when the world is burning up and being consumed and destroyed in chaos – is unique to Avraham.  Therefore, when the Holy One, blessed be He, came to forge a covenant with Avraham, He made it with these conditions.  It says in the Torah, "The sun began to set, and a deep sleep fell upon Avram, and behold – a great, dark terror fell upon him" (Bereishit 16:12).  It is not when the world is brightly lit and full of abundance that God makes His covenant with Avraham, but also when the world is shrouded in darkness, with horrors going about in it.


Testimony of the Admor of Sanz-Klausenburg, zt"l


Can even a simple Jew achieve such a level of faith? Rabbi Rabinowitz was doubtful in this regard; we shall return to this question in the next shiur.  In contrast, the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg (Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam) repeatedly declared in his sermons that the demand that a person believe in God's Presence even within such horror and suffering is an elementary requirement of faith.  The fundamental principle of chassidut that "There is no place that is devoid of Him" (Tikkunei Zohar, 91b) cannot be conditional or only for appearance's sake.  If it is true that there is Divinity in everything, that God's Presence resides in everything, then this must apply to Auschwitz, too.  In one of his sermons, the Klausenburger Rebbe provides an autobiographical description of this experience of faith:


I can testify to this from my own experience.  When we reached the extermination camps… we stood there, naked and with nothing, without clothing and without coverings for our heads, and with the wicked ones beating incessantly with the batons in their hands; the situation was terrible.  I turned to those standing around me and I shouted, "Fellow Jews – know that the holy God is waiting for us there, inside the camp… and let us not forget that God is with us." Throughout that entire year I worked on this – strengthening myself and not forgetting that God was with us, and that the entire world is filled with His glory – even in Auschwitz and Dachau, and that no place is devoid of Him….[1]


How is it possible to strengthen oneself in this faith? In other words, it may be that I believe this, but that I do not sense it, that I do not experience God's Presence.  Is it possible for me to work on this? Is it possible to renew this faith experience?


In the next shiur we shall see that the former Admor of Munkacs (Rabbi Rabinowitz) and the Admor of Klausenburg had differing approaches to this question.  In the meantime, let us conclude with the words of the Admor of Klausenburg that will serve to connect us to the nextshiur, and which give eloquent expression to his sense of God's Presence even in the depths ofGehennom:


There are some here who remember how the cursed Germans, may their names and their memory be erased, pushed us into the camp gates.  I remember that I said then, to the Jews who were with me: Do not fear; believe that the Holy One Himself is waiting for us – even within the gas chambers.  And truly, if one knows that "salvation belongs to God" (Tehillim 3:9), then there is also the fulfillment – "Your blessing upon Your people, Selah" (ibid.).[2]



Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1] See Shefa Chayim, Divrei Torah 14, 788, Chanuka.

[2] From a speech at the laying of the cornerstone for Kiryat Sanz.