On Parashat Beshallach
A Holocaust survivor dies and goes to heaven. Because he had been such a saintly and pious Jew, they bring him in front of God. The survivor is terribly nervous -as you can imagine, a religious person literally in front of God. So he tries to break the ice with a Holocaust joke. God does not laugh nor smile; He is not amused and perhaps even upset. So the survivor asks, “what’s wrong, o Eternal One?”. God replies that the joke was crass, offensive, racist…. nothing funny at all. So the survivor replies, “well, dear God, I guess You had to be there”.
As per the best tradition of Jewish humour, this joke is not only a joke. It is theology in two lines.
Where was God, indeed, at Auschwitz? In the most horrible place of history, which has witnessed human beings committing the worst, unredeemable, systematic violence against other human beings, where was God? This is a very compelling question if you accept the traditional Jewish theology, which is exposed in this week’s Torah portion.
This week’s Torah portion is Beshallach. It narrates the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the manna, and everything in between. In last week’s Torah portion, we read that Pharao, hit in his dominions by the plagues, eventually let the Israelites go. This week Pharao changes his mind and chases after the Israelite people with his army, trapping them at the Sea of Reeds. God commands Moses to split the sea, allowing the Israelites to pass. Then God closes the sea back upon the Egyptian army. This is the final punishment for the Egyptians’ enslavers and oppressors. And it is the biggest miracle narrated, actually sung, in the Torah. Then the Israelites are fed with manna to eat and clean and pure water to drink. In the last paragraph, the nation of Amalek attacks, and the Israelite people are victorious.
In short, this is the Torah portion where the evildoers, such as the Egyptians and Pharao, are punished, and the Israelites are rewarded with miracles never seen before. It is also the Torah portion which tells us of the victory of the Israelites over the Amalekites, a tribe who hate the Jews just because they are Jews (and, well, because somehow they occupy their land). And the Israelites defeated them.
Parshat Beshallach tells us about a God who punishes evildoers and protects the Jews from their enemies. The faith in such a God has sustained the millions of people starving in ghettoes, enslaved by the Nazis, tortured and used as objects for so-called medical experiments. But despite the faith of His people, God did not help. God was not at Auschwitz.
And here’s the problem we face because of the coincidence of Holocaust Memorial Day and the Torah portions we read these days. Where was God?
Somebody finds the answer in ideology. God was not in Auschwitz, they say. But evil was there; they do not believe in God, but they identify who is evil, the Nazis. And then, they build a whole ideology based on opposing Nazism. It is what Vladimir Putin is doing. For him and for his followers, Nazis are the Eastern European Countries who refuse to become Russian colonies. Following this logic, all the people who inhabit Eastern Europe and are not Russians, are Nazis. The Ukrainians are Nazis, the Lithuanians are Nazis, the Polish are Nazis., the Germans are Nazis (when they help the Ukrainians), and of course British and Americans are Nazis too.
Nazism is this monster that one century ago was born in some beerhouse in Munich and has then conquered Europe. Russia is the only nation that took the duty to fight against the Nazis. It is not only propaganda; there are people, although we cannot know how many, who really believe this nonsense. Not only in Russia, by the way.
Obviously, this is nonsense. There are Far Right, nationalists, and Nazi sympathisers, more or less in every European Country and beyond. But it does not mean that they are in power. And even when they came close to power, immediately after the end of Communism, think of Croatia, for example; they later became a tiny minority.
Another example of nonsensical ideology goes as follows. God was not in Auschwitz. God was not there. God probably does not exist. But evil exists. What is evil? Nazism is evil. Nazism was a nationalism. Hence every nationalism is evil because nationalism is the root cause of every evil, wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide. All these plagues are fueled by nationalism. So nationalism for these people is evil; of course, Jewish nationalism is, well, perhaps worse. And here you go, Nazism and Zionism are, for those ideologists, precisely the same thing, illness of the soul, symptoms of the same disease. If you have noticed, these people spend more time and energy fighting against Zionists -that are Jews-, rather than against the Nazis, that are antisemites.
This is a nonsensical ideology, precisely like the Putinista’s. They both begin with an attempt to answer the question, “where was God in Auschwitz?” Or “why does God not punish the evildoers?” And they believe they have found the answer in the realm of ideology. And look at the pathetic outcomes. People who believe in these ideologies end up worshipping Vladimir Putin or some Palestinian terrorist, as they were the genuine protection of the Jewish people.
But I know that now you want answers. Why did God punish Pharao and not the Nazis? Why did God protect our ancestors against the Amalekites when they were wandering in the desert, and not when they were in the shtetl and in the ghettoes?
And I have no answer. These are answers whose every Jew must search for, in our textual and interpretative tradition, the Talmud and the Rabbinic literature. You wonder where God was in Auschwitz; my answer is: I don’t know; keep looking. In our sources, in our commentaries, in the Talmud, in every written effort to make the Torah the centre of Jewish life
Judaism is not only the reason why certain people hate us. Judaism is a spiritual path based on texts which contain amazing insights and have the potential to give meaning to our lives. It may not give you all the answers you search for, but it definitely teaches you to ask questions.
So now let me share with you a particularly deep passage by the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (yes, that of Religious Zionism; I know there is someone among my readers who is already shouting and-what-about-the-Occupation. Here’s my answer: Thank you for reading so far; you can go reading elsewhere now).
Why did the Israelites sing after the drawing of the chariots and the split of the Sea of Reeds? Why do they not even thank God for the previous series of miracles, the plagues? Some plagues affect only the Egyptians, such as the boils, the lice, and the killing of the firstborns.,. all these makkot hit only the Egyptians. At the same time, the Israelites are saved. No boils. No flies. Even the darkness that fell upon all of Egypt did not disrupt the Israelite’s lives; the Israelites could get along with their lives while a thick dark, oppressive atmosphere paralysed the Egyptians, who could not move from their houses; they not even can get out of their bed… These are impressive miracles, signs and wonders. Yet, the Israelites do not even say thank you to God; only with the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, they sang out of gratitude. It is a solemn inspiring wonderful song (which, like every year, I have butchered with my voice). But why do the Israelites sing only here, only at this point?
Because, says Soloveitchik, in Egypt, the Israelites were still spiritually enslaved. They could see the Divine punishment falling upon their taskmaster and not upon themselves. But they have internalised slavery. Their minds, attitudes, and hearts were still those of enslaved people.Only getting physically outside of Egypt, the Israelites understood that their slavery was not a given nor a perennial condition. At the time of the plagues, the Israelites did not even dare to think that their lives could be better or free.
The move from slavery to freedom is an enormous step, and it is not only a physical step; it is also, or mainly, a spiritual process. To replace the mind frame of an enslaved person with the one of a free human being is an enormous effort. But once the oppressed have experienced freedom, there is no way back. The Ukrainian people have experienced freedom and are now fighting hard not to return to live under Russian rule. The Iranian women experience the possibility of walking around bareheaded for the first time in their lives. As much as the Islamist police can attack and torture, they have experienced freedom. Their wonderful souls are not to return back to slavery and oppression.
I have opened this sermon with a tragic question, where was God at Auschwitz? And I am not afraid to admit I do not have an answer. I can only warn you against the ideologues who believe that they -and only they- know how to defeat Evil. Don’t trust them; they think they have that kind of wisdom that only God can have. But even if I cannot give you the answers you are looking for, and in a slightly cheeky way, I can only say that You have to find the answer; one thing I know for sure. God is on the side of freedom, And by defending the Iranian women and the Ukrainian people; we help God to do His job. Because Goid, wherever He is, desperately needs our help.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, Shabbat Shira 5783