Weep for What Amalek Has Done Unto You: Lamentation and Memory of the Holocaust in our Generation

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Yeshivat Har Etzion

Dedicated by Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family in memory of our grandparents
 Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen, Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid,
and Shimon ben Moshe, whose yahrtzeits are this week.






By Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Translated by Kaeren Fish



“Would that my head be water and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I could weep day and night for the dead of my people.” (Yirmiyahu 8:23)


The problem of evil in the world has occupied us since antiquity; no other theological dilemma has merited such thorough treatment in the holy writings.  Contemporary thinkers are plagued no less by the same paradox. Indeed, this is undoubtedly one of the most difficult and agonizing questions that trouble a religious person who observes life and witnesses the wicked vanquishing the righteous and enjoying success in their endeavors.


To a great extent, a believing person can only sense his smallness, his inadequacy in attempting to understand the deepest mysteries; he can only abandon any attempt to understand how God operates and comfort himself with the sense of divine closeness and personal attention that often accompanies man’s suffering. Thus, although Mishlei presents a simple world — directed at the child who is beginning to encounter the world at large for the first time — in which a person who commits himself to goodness dwells safely and free of fear, while the wicked are cut off from the earth, Iyov immediately follows it as the response of the Tanakh itself, repudiating the orderly world that is presented to the youth in Mishlei. Iyov argues the case of the suffering victims whose world has turned upside down in front of their eyes, who have not merited the tidy, organized system presented in Mishlei.


In Iyov’s world, wisdom has disappeared and there is no room for understanding; man must accept the fact that he is not party to the mechanisms of Divine Providence, and he can do nothing but accept the Divine will. The conclusion of Iyov is that man cannot hope to appreciate the workings of Divine Providence in the world, so that the proper attitude is for a human to place his trust in his Maker as Master of the Universe. The upshot of this will be an existential relationship between man and God, not a better understanding of suffering in the world.


All this is true with respect to the suffering individual. Here, the Tanakh recognizes the tension between an orderly world in which Divine justice is apparent and a world in which the ways of His Providence are hidden from our human understanding. The situation, though, is different when it comes to reward and punishment on the communal level. The various forms of suffering that afflict society find a clear and consistent message in the Torah, asserting that all the ills that befall the community are the result of sin; they are nothing but the punishment for the sins of the community.


The principle of Divine beneficence and malevolence in accordance with the loyalty — or lack thereof — of Am Yisrael to its God is articulated in countless verses, regardless of where we open the Tanakh. Be it the second paragraph of Keriat Shema — “And it shall be, if you will listen diligently...” - or the blessings and curses in Vayikra or Devarim that outline the principles of God’s Providence, the concept of reward and punishment is central to their ethos. If we turn to the Prophets, and the major historiographical passage at the beginning of Shoftim, or follow the course of events as they are described throughout the prophetic narrative — the principle that arises from all of these sources is the same: the trials and tribulations of the nation are perceived as Divine punishment for sin.


Yechezkel, observing from a distance and reviewing the entire development of Jewish history, from its beginnings in Egypt to the Destruction of the Temple in his own times, concludes decisively that the Destruction is the result of rebellion against God, while Yirmiyahu, sitting in Jerusalem and agonized by the terrible suffering that he witnesses in the war-torn and starved city, declares: “Do not both evil things and good come from the mouth of the Most High?” (Eikha 3:38), and acknowledges God’s justice as he cries out from the depths, “We have sinned and rebelled; You have not forgiven” (ibid. 3:42). We find no character like Iyov or Kohelet who challenges this assertion, nor do we find the prophets indicating that it is better to accept communal suffering as incomprehensible to human understanding: it is not an unfathomable mystery, but rather well-deserved retribution that befalls us.


In light of this, the conclusion must be that there is a difference between the individual and the collective when it comes to dealing with tragic and traumatic events. The suffering individual, perplexed by the blows that seem to incessantly fall upon him, will find support and legitimization in Jewish tradition, as have the righteous of previous generations, for his anguished and even blunt quarrel with his Maker. The afflicted soul who questions the bitter fate that has befallen him is not overstepping his boundaries and is not reproached for it. “You are right, God, though I contend with You, yet I will rebuke You: why does the path of the wicked prosper?” (Yirmiyahu 12:1). Yirmiyahu argues with God, demonstrating to us the way of faith. So long as a person accepts the fundamental axiom that God is right, and senses himself as a creature arguing with his Creator, he is entitled to present his claim before the Master of the Universe. The greatest figures of all generations did not hesitate to argue the case of the suffering individual and to demand a fair hearing for him, knowing very well that Iyov was not held accountable for his claims and complaints while in the throes of his crisis; on the contrary, he is said to have petitioned God in a proper manner, and it is he who atones for his companions.


This approach, though, is not available to us as a community, for the sources are clear in spelling out what we should regard as the reason for communal, or national, distress. When we seek to address painful events that befall the community, at moments of shock and crisis when our faith longs to absolve itself in the powers that lie beyond our control and to relegate it all to the infinitely mysterious and unfathomable, the verses starkly confront us. In the midst of our efforts to deal with our cruel situation and its ramifications, the sources offer us no refuge; they demand a fair hearing for Divine retribution and justice, and place the responsibility squarely on our shoulders. The situation is not unfathomable at all: it is crystal clear, and what it means is that God is visiting our sins upon us.


Were this the case only with regard to the events of ancient history, we could comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the interpretation of those events has been delivered through the medium of prophecy and rests upon the authority of revelation, but that we cannot and should not extrapolate concerning our own times. And if this were to be true of all events after the cessation of prophecy and ruach ha-kodesh, it would most certainly be true of the Holocaust. In relation to that terrible period, when terror and a profound blackness of evil and insanity descended upon the world, when unparalleled wickedness and cruelty occupied darkened souls and brought the world a plague of slaughter and horror, we feel in the very depths of our being that we can only conclude that mortal man cannot penetrate the workings of Divine Providence: “For as high as the heavens are elevated from the earth, so My ways are elevated over your ways, and My thoughts — from your thoughts” (Yishayahu 55:9).


Regarding the Holocaust, have we any choice but to stand confounded and grief-stricken in the face of an event so horrendous as to be inconceivable? This was suffering that one cannot bear to describe or to hear of; these were actions of such malice and evil that they are unspeakable. Seemingly, anyone attempting to investigate and explain the Holocaust using the normal spiritual parameters of history is guilty of gross insensitivity and indifference, and fails to recognize the hell that it was. If we are speaking of a different planet with a wholly unique and foreign set of circumstances, then human understanding cannot hope to grasp and explain; we can only accept with surrender, and nothing more.


But if we examine this assumption more closely — and anyone who believes in the Torah has no way to do this other than by looking at the texts — it appears that this is not the picture that our sources present. The Tanakh’s view of the unfolding of history as Divine retribution is not limited to the chronicles of the kingdoms of Yisrael and Yehuda; rather, the sources address the range of events and situations that are destined to befall the nation of Israel throughout the generations. Aside from the prophecies that address events that occurred during the lifetimes of those prophets, the Torah notifies us that is providing the Jewish nation with the tools to follow the future vicissitudes of its history and states explicitly that these texts come to predict what will happen to us in the course of time — both in the near future and in the distant time to come. This discussion is the focus of two principal sections in the Torah: the list of blessings and curses in Vayikra (chapter 26) and in Devarim (chapter 28), in which the Torah emphasizes the principle of reward for observance of the commandments and punishment for sin, and the closing sections of Devarim (chapters 29-32), which come to guide Bnei Yisrael in the future with the passing of Moshe and the conclusion of the Torah.


First and foremost in this regard is the song of Ha’azinu. This poetic passage — the heritage defined by the Torah itself as a testimony that will accompany the nation of Israel for all generations —  reviews the future experiences of the nation and offers guidance in the ways of the world and the paths of Divine Providence throughout history. Indeed, were we to summarize the lesson of this song, we could say that it presents two spiritual motifs as the motivating forces that move the wheels of history: Divine reward and punishment, on the one hand, and desecration of God’s Name, on the other. In presenting the course of history to us, the text emphasizes the danger of sin that comes about in the wake of economic success, and the punishment that will follow in its wake.


However, were we to assume that the retribution described in the Torah is not speaking of anguish and suffering as extreme as the Holocaust; if we did not dare imagine that there were verses describing such a terrible punishment; if we were convinced that they could offer us no tools with which to examine the phenomenon that we experienced in the last generation, the song of Ha’azinu bares its message with mighty force. The hand trembles as it writes such words and the heart refuses to believe and accept what one’s own hand has written, but the mind cannot ignore the significance of the message that stares out at us from the text:


They provoked Him to jealousy with foreign gods, and angered Him with abominations.

They sacrificed to powerless spirits, to gods whom they did not know, to new gods that had recently appeared, of whom your forefathers were not mindful.

You are unmindful of the Rock that begot you; you forgot God Who made you.

And when God saw it He abhorred them out of anger at His sons and His daughters.

And He said, I shall hide My face from them, I will see what their end will be. For they are a fickle generation; children with no faith in them.

They have made Me jealous with a non-god, they have angered Me with their vanities; I shall make them jealous with a non-nation, and I shall anger them with a vile people.

For a fire is kindled in My wrath and it will burn to the nether-most Sheol; it shall consume the land and its produce and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.

I shall heap evils upon them; I shall spend My arrows on them.

They shall be sucked empty by starvation and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction.

I shall set the teeth of beasts upon them with the poison of the creeping things of the dust.

The sword on the outside and the terror within will destroy both the young man and the virgin, the infant and the old man.

I said, I shall scatter them to the corners; I shall cause their memory to cease from mankind. (Devarim 32:16-26)


Let us ask ourselves: were we to try and describe the events of the previous generation in just a few sentences, could we formulate them any differently? Do the above verses not describe most accurately what befell our nation, our brethren, our grandparents?


The ramifications are far-reaching and brutal, emotionally and religiously, for what they tell us is that the decrees of 1939-1945 are the result of Jewish sins. Admittedly, these are not necessarily the sins of the deceased themselves, but there is no avoiding the conclusion that this punishment was brought about the sins of the generation, or — more precisely — the results of the sins of the generations. In other words, the Holocaust should not be regarded as an event so inexplicable and enigmatic that we can only gaze at it, dumbfounded; rather, it should be attributed to Divine retribution, to the cycle of sin and punishment so familiar to us from the various discussions of it in the Torah.


To the extent that this is indeed the case, there is another conclusion that must be drawn: the Holocaust should not be regarded as a one-time event that deviates from the usual boundaries of Jewish history. Rather, it should be placed within the continuum of Jewish history, with all the suffering that has accumulated throughout the generations. Indeed, it is said of Rav Yitzhak Hutner zt”l, that he refused to use the term “the Holocaust” (Shoah), insisting instead on referring to “the decrees (gezeirot) of 5699-5705,” since he did not regard the Holocaust as an aberration that lay outside the framework of Jewish history, but rather saw it as a link in the chain of Jewish history and suffering.


Nevertheless, such an approach — despite its apparent grounding in the Torah — is wholly inappropriate to the situation of our specific generation. This latter point brings us to the crux of the dilemma. It is certainly possible that historical justice and spiritual truth concerning those horrific times are aligned with the approach of Rav Hutner, and that the principles of Divine Providence laid down in parashat Ha’azinu apply to every historical event that befalls the nation of Israel — even the most horrendous of them. However, we must distinguish between objective historical analysis, which reviews the course of events from the distant and detached perspective of an external observer, seeking to grasp the historical causality that gave rise to the situation that came about (be it from a spiritual, political, economic or any other point of view), and the warm, live contact with the people who personally experienced these events.


Any attempt to compare the viewpoint of the distant observer, several generations later, who can only perceive the distress and suffering of previous generations in the most abstract way, with that of a person who lives amongst the survivors and daily encounters their scars and suffering in a tangible and unmediated manner, will immediately reveal the difference in perspective. While the role of a later scholar is to understand and explain the course of history, to learn and teach the lessons of the past, the obligation of the contemporary generation is emotional participation in the sorrow and anguish of a generation enveloped in mourning. The sense of a common fate, empathy for the survivors, compassion, comfort and mutual help precede any discussion of causes and reasons, processes and theories.


Could any mortal with a feeling heart, living among other flesh-and-blood mortals like himself, survivors of death camps and ghettos with tattooed arms and scarred emotions, approach the Holocaust in any manner other than via experience and consolation? Who but a cold-hearted, barren soul could opt for the path of analysis and observation? Although it goes without saying that there is room for intellectual analysis attempting to understand the events and the underlying historical dynamic, these attempts must be integrated into our emotional and existential encounter with the recent past, not stand independent of it. Weeping rather than analysis, consolation rather than observation — these are the appropriate response of our generation to the Holocaust.


When Iyov’s three friends heard of all of this evil that had befallen him, they came — each from his place; Elifaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Tzofar the Na’amatite, and they met together to come and mourn with him and to comfort him. And they lifted their eyes from afar, but did not recognize him, and they lifted their voices and wept, and each rent his coat, and they sprinkled ashes upon their heads towards heaven. And they sat with him upon the ground for seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Iyov 2:11-13)


            Initially, when his suffering is great and well-nigh unbearable, the friends do not discourse with Iyov about the Divine ways of justice or attempt to solve the problem of theodicy; rather, they sit by his side. The simple human gesture of understanding and empathy is the support that they offer him as they mourn with him and comfort him. Only later, when the discussion of God’s justice becomes an emotional need for Iyov, will it be appropriate to engage in the attempt to justify the ways of God to man. However, the tragic flaw of Iyov’s devoted friends is that they are unable to grasp that Iyov’s discourses are the deeply personal struggle of a suffering soul attempting to understand what has befallen it and are not intended as a learned philosophical discussion. Their responses, which address the metaphysical issues but remain oblivious to their companion’s emotional needs, are highly inappropriate.


            Similarly, the prophet Yirmiyahu, who reproved the people and unflinchingly confronted them as he tried to prevent the oncoming catastrophe of the Churban, reacted afterwards by devoting all his energies to express the anguish and the agony of those who experienced the horrible events. Eikhah is not an analysis of the events and their attendant causes, nor is it an attempt to understand the ways of Divine Providence in and of themselves. The entire book is meant to give expression to the experience of the Destruction and the human perspective that is embodied in the lamentation, mourning, and acknowledgement of God’s justice.  (By contrast, his contemporary Yechezkel lived in distant Babylon, and therefore was able to engage the elders of Israel in debate as to the causes of the Destruction; this did not display insensitivity or apathy to the suffering, since he was not addressing those who experienced the awful events.)


Let us now return to Parashat Ha’azinu. The stated intent and purpose of Ha’azinu (and the other similar sections of reproof in the Torah) is not to share the pain of the nation or to try to console their suffering; rather, its aim is to guide us in the endeavor of analyzing God’s ways as He directs our history. The song itself defines this as its goal: “Remember the days of old; comprehend the cycle of the generations” (Devarim 32:7). This is a remembrance of the “days of old” in order that we may be able to understand and learn from the “the cycle of the generations.” Not experience but observation is the perspective of Ha’azinu, a song that must serve as a testimony for Benei Yisrael. For this reason, analysis of cause and effect based on a panoramic view of events “from above” is clearly the proper approach, rather than an expression of empathy with and consolation for the souls in distress.


            However, the situation of our generation is not that of parashat Ha’azinu; rather, it resembles that of Yirmiyahu. As the prophet of the Destruction in his time, who lived in the besieged Jerusalem and viewed the terrible sights that he mourns throughout Eikhah, in particular in the spine-chilling fourth chapter, likewise we are the children of the generation that experienced first-hand the horrors of the Holocaust. Just as Yirmiyahu knew and lived among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so, too, we live amongst the community of survivors. Our contact with the Holocaust is not — and must not be — based upon historical scholarship and emotional detachment, but rather be rooted in our living among members of the Holocaust generation. Not only the survivors themselves who personally endured the immense suffering of hell upon earth in the satanic kingdom of death, but also the wider circles of society — children of survivors, descendants and relatives, and society as a whole — we all live in the shadow of the Holocaust.


In our society, your rabbi, your next-door neighbor, or your colleague at work might be a “brand plucked from the fire.” The possibility that the man across the street may have been a refugee who fled his country of birth without family and friends, leaving behind the world of his childhood in a desperate attempt to escape the murderous forces of evil, or that the woman seated beside you on a public bus lost her entire family in the Valley of Death is a situation that we are all familiar with. Have we not witnessed the chazan on Yom Kippur, a seemingly successful survivor, who weeps uncontrollably as he attempts to utter Eileh Ezkerah (the prayer that recounts the martyrdom of the Jewish leadership in Roman times) or loses his rhythm when he reaches the Kel Maleh Rachamim memorial passage in Yizkor?


Therefore, our attitude towards those events must arise from a feeling and emotional heart, sensing the depth of the pain and suffering, and attuned to the human element. Sensitivity and empathy, not analysis and scholarship, are of the essence. Who among us has not heard survivors’ stories, or read hair-raising memoirs written by people still alive? Each and every one of us still comes into direct contact with the memory of the Holocaust as a living, raw wound — whether within our own families or within the public domain. So long as the blood has not stopped boiling, the time for cool, clear, intellectual discourse has not yet arrived.


            Therefore, concerning our own generation, we cannot and need not regard the Holocaust from the general historical perspective — whether a history examined from the point of view of human causality or whether viewed through the spectacles of Divine Providence.  The command to our generation is articulated in the Kinot: “Weep greatly for the house of Israel and for the nation of God, for they have fallen by the sword.”


            In the summer of 1977, newly elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin paid a visit to the United States and visited my grandfather and teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In the course of their conversation, the Rav proposed to the Prime Minister that Yom ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in Israel be annulled as a separate day of mourning and be included, instead, within the framework of Tish’a be-Av, as is our custom concerning the martyrs of the Crusaders’ attacks upon the Jewish communities of the Rhineland. In support of his suggestion, he quoted from one of the Kinot that we recite for the victims of the Crusades (Mi Yiten Roshi Mayim): “No other time of brokenness and burning should be added [in addition to Tish’a be-Av]; rather, all matters of communal mourning should be included in a single day of mourning.” 


Nevertheless, it seems to me that the State acted correctly in not accepting the Rav’s proposal. In our generation, it is indeed fitting that a special day be set aside as a dedicated day of remembrance for the Holocaust. While the time may come when it will indeed be appropriate to adopt the Rav’s approach and to include Yom ha-Shoah within the framework of Tish’a be-Av, as long as the wound is still fresh and has not yet healed, we cannot integrate commemoration of the Holocaust with our mourning for the other tragedies of Jewish history whose memory is more distant and remote.


            The conclusions that arise from this are that we must not include the Holocaust as yet another event in the chain of Jewish suffering and martyrdom throughout the generations, as Rav Hutner was wont to do; rather, we must award it unique attention. Regardless of whether the Holocaust is a unique historical phenomenon or not, this question should not determine the attitude of our generation towards this event. Living in such close proximity to the events of the previous generation, our relationship towards this period must be completely different from our relationship to the other tragedies of the Jewish people. We are in direct contact with those who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, and in this sense it is certainly unique from our point of view. Thus, even if Rav Hutner’s position is theoretically correct, it should not affect our perspective, since it relates only to the general issue of the workings of Divine Providence in the world, while our own approach must be based on the existential sense of common fate and empathy.


            To summarize, if our coping with the Holocaust is a purely intellectual and theological issue, the distance of generations does not affect the question in any way.  We face two options: acknowledgement of God’s justice in light of our sins and iniquities, or attributing our situation to the ways of Divine Providence that are far above our comprehension.  A literal understanding of our traditional sources seems to point in the first direction, so that any attempt to adopt the alternative will be forced to explain the texts in light of the second approach.


            However, it is not only the purely philosophical issues but also the existential aspect that must have a significant role in our response. For our purposes, a person who sees things from a distance of generations and is prepared to acknowledge that the generations may have sinned, is not the same as a person who is being asked to claim that his predecessors and neighbors suffered, or are suffering, because of those sins. Just as distance in time (and place) dulls our sensitivities towards the pain of others, so does intense closeness sharpen it. So long as we are still busy comforting the sufferers and sharing their anguish, this proximity carries the blessing of empathy with it — but it may tempt us to weight the scales, since we are affected by the suffering and close to the sufferers. This is not our mission at this time. A person who is close to the events cannot and should not sit in historical judgment over the generations with whom he lives; rather, he should sense their pain.


 [This is an abridged translation of an article that originally appeared, in Hebrew, in Torah Mitzion — Collected Essays in memory of Dr. Moshe Green, z”l (Jerusalem, 2002). The full translation appeared in Milin Havivin, vol. 2.  Our thanks to YCT for permission to reprint this essay.]