One of the great questions confronted by thoughtful Jews is the role of Hashem in the Holocaust. While many thinkers address this issue, a most powerful approach is articulated by Rav Yisrael Lau in his book “Out of the Depths.” The fact that Rav Lau experienced the Holocaust with all of its unspeakable horror lends great significance to his approach to this vitally important issue.
Chazal believe that there are certain extreme situations regarding which we cannot explain why Hashem permits the righteous to suffer. Rav Lau agrees with Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, that the Holocaust is one such event for which we cannot explain Hashem’s role.
Rav Lau (p.3—all quotes are from “Out of the Depths”) writes that he believes that Hashem was involved:
“I am a believer—and I will remain so until my dying day; I do not believe in coincidence but in Divine providence (hashgacha pratit). The question for which I have not found an answer is why. Why did it have to happen? Why was my brother Milek, may God avenge his death, torn from our mother to go to his death, while I was separated from her and lived? I will never know, but this will not diminish my faith in the One Who Spoke and Created the World.”
On pages 13-14 Rav Lau presents a dramatic story that dramatizes the involvement of Hashem.
Rav Lau’s eminent father, Rav Moshe Chaim Lau, the Rav of Pietrokov, Poland, stemmed from a line of 36 generations of rabbanim. In 1942, the Nazis sent most of the Jews of Pietrokov to Treblinka. Before the final selection of the Jews, Rav Moshe Lau directed his wife and son Yisrael to a hiding place. He himself refused to hide. He knew that the Germans who recognized him as the rav of the city would not rest until they found him. He said, “If I hide, they will turn over the ghetto stone by stone until they find me. I’ll stand openly before them, in hope that their search will be more superficial, and maybe other Jews will have the opportunity to hide.” He parted from his family, and stood in the shul with a Sefer Torah in his hands, until the Germans came and removed him. He was sent to the train that brought him, along with 28,000 Jews from Pietrokov, to Treblinka.
On the day he arrived in Treblinka, something very strange happened that could only be the result of hashgacha (Divine providence). On that day, another train arrived in Treblinka, and in it were the Jews from Pershov, Slovakia. Eight years earlier, R’ Lau had ended his tenure as rav there. From that time, no rav had been appointed in his place. These two cities were two completely different worlds. In Pershov they spoke German and Hungarian, and in Pietrokov they spoke Yiddish and Polish. The one thing that these two cities shared was the fact that the last rav of Pershov was also the last rav of Pietrokov. On the way to the gas chambers in Treblinka, the Jews of Pershov and the Jews of Pietrokov met with their rav.
Rav Moshe Lau stood before the group of Jews and repeated the words of Rabbi Akiva (Berachot 61b). When they combed his flesh with combs of steel, his students asked him how he bore his suffering. Rabi Akiva answered, “All my days, I worried about the pasuk ‘bechol nafshecha’ (that one must be willing to sacrifice our lives for the sake of Hashem), wondering when I would be able to fulfill it.”
Rav Moshe Lau then said, “My fellow Jews, of all the 613 mitzvot, one mitzvah is left in our hands to fulfill, ‘Venekdashti betoch Bnei Yisrael’—to be killed because we are the bearers of Hashem’s name—the nation of Yisrael. Come, brothers, we will fulfill it with simcha. I will tell you what Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa said: ‘The power of simcha will save us from all troubles and the suffering of this world.” Rav Lau then raised his voice and began to say Vidui, the Jews answered after him and, pure of sin, they went to their deaths.
Along these lines, Rav Yisrael Lau relates an extraordinary interaction between the Gerrer Rebbe, Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter (the author of the Imrei Emet) and Rav Lau’s brother Naphtali. Soon after arriving in Eretz Yisrael in 1945, Naphtali met with the Imrei Emet at his home in Yerushalayim. At that time he did not know what had happened to his wife and children, though he was to eventually learn that they had been murdered in the Holocaust. After the Gerrer Rebbe served Naphtali a hearty dinner, he took Naphtali for a walk in the streets of Yerushalayim. He relates (pp.111-112):
After a few minutes, the Rebbe stopped and suddenly grabbed Naphtali by the lapels, and asked urgently, “Did you see it?” An astonished Naphtali answered “What?” The Rebbe continued, as if it should have been obvious, “The smoke rising from the chimneys.” Naphtali was shocked by the question, and gave a positive reply, but the Rebbe did not relent. “You saw the burning with your own eyes?” he pressed. When Naphtali once again answered yes, the Rebbe turned around and strode swiftly back up the street, his body bent slightly forward. The rabbi, who had lost his wife and children to the gas chambers, was lost in thought, contemplating the fate of his family and followers.
They walked in silence to the street corner, then the Rebbe again shook Naphtali by the lapels and asked in Yiddish, “Are you sure you saw the chimneys?” Again Naphtali gave his confirmation, but the Rebbe would not permit any remaining sliver of doubt, and continued to probe: “And did you also see smoke rising from those chimneys? Did it burn, or was what you saw with your own eyes just a building with a chimney? Naphtali replied to the Rebbe’s questions with decisive precision. “Yes, I saw smoke, and I also saw what they put into the crematoria to make the smoke come out,” he said, choking back his tears.
What happened next is nothing short of extraordinary.
“The Rebbe placed his hand on Naphtali’s shoulder, and asked, “And did you see the Holy One, Blessed be He, beside you?” This was one question Naphtali could not answer, and they fell silent once more. The Rebbe, noticing that Naphtali was exhausted by the conversation, invited him to sleep over at his house.
We should note that the next morning Naphtali gravitated to the Beit Midrash and began to learn Gemara for the first time since the war. Rav Yisrael Alter joined Naphtali in the learning and gently helped Naphtali formulate his plans to return to study Torah at a non-Chassidic yeshiva appropriate for Naphtali. Naphtali had a very satisfying experience and until this day lives a life committed to Torah observance. The Gerrer Rebbe’s intense transmission of Hashem’s role in the Holocaust set Naphtali back on the road to Torah learning and a Torah life, without having to explain why Hashem did not intervene to spare us.
One last story clinches Rav Lau’s message (pp.351-352):
After the war, a daughter of a rabbi had a child with a non-Jewish man, and she gave up the infant to a Catholic monastery. She also cut herself off from Judaism. A young rabbi who knew her from childhood, her father’s close disciple, attempted to contact her… The woman recounted her story [to the young rabbi].
It was morning after services. Her father was sitting beside the table wearing his tallit and tefillin. Suddenly they heard a savage pounding on the door. “I opened the door. Three Gestapo men burst into the room. They threw me on the ground. I got up and ran to see what they wanted. They pushed their way into my father’s room. He raised his head and gave them a look that I won’t forget until my dying day. He stared at them as if to ask, what do you want from me? What can I do for you? That was to be his last look. One of the three slung the rifle off his shoulder and pounded the butt on my father’s head with all of his might. For a moment, I thought the head tefillin had split his brain. Jets of blood burst from his head. His beautiful white beard reddened, and he fell on his open Talmud.
[She told the young rabbi,] “What do you want from me? Can’t you understand the source of my bitterness? Can’t you understand my anger? That’s how they took my father,” she ended. The young rabbi sat before her and wept for his Rebbe, the daughter weeping along with him. “My sister,” he said, “You cannot possibly understand how much I understand you. I also have many questions, but I have no answers. No human being can answer such questions. The Torah (Devarim 29:28) cautions that ‘the secret things belong unto the Lord our God’—we, however, have the responsibility to act. ‘But the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah,’ [the Torah continues].”
The young rabbi told her if she allows her child to remain in the monastery she allows the Nazis a posthumous victory by erasing the remains of Torah from her family. He asked her to allow her father to win and to have his grandson pick up his grandfather’s Torah learning on the very page of Gemara where he left off. The woman was convinced and the child became a rosh yeshiva in Yerushalayim.
The Kotzker Rebbe said, “I would not want to worship a God Whose every action I could understand.” By definition we cannot understand everything Hashem does. However, knowing that Hashem was and remains with us provides the spiritual support to allow us to survive the most traumatic experiences and emerge as a great person. As Tehlilim 23 states “Shivtecha umishantecha heima yenachamuni, Your rod and staff comfort me.” Rav Lau’s transformation from Holocaust survivor to a leading rabbi is living proof of the efficacy of his approach. Bitachon, trust in Hashem in all circumstances, is what has the potential to lead each of one us to spiritual greatness.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.