Letter & Spirit: Jewish Approach to Tragedy

In this week’s edition of Letter and Spirit, in a timely message for the nine days, we present a letter from the Rebbe in which he reflects on the recent tragedy of the holocaust and those earlier ones – our horrific slavery in Egypt, as witnessed by Moshe Rebbeinu, and the destruction of the Second Bais Hamikdash, as witnessed by Yirmiyahu and others – and how to view the suffering of the righteous and the prospering of the wicked. The letter was written in English through the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel, and was made available by the latter’s son-in-law, Rabbi Sholom Ber Shapiro.

The Rebbe explains that the Jewish approach has always been – and should continue to always be – the naaseh first and then the nishma – continue with our faith and adherence to Torah and mitzvos and not let the tragic events distract us.

This weekly feature is made possible by a collaboration between CrownHeights.info and Nissan Mindel Publications. Once a week we publish a unique letter of the Rebbe that was written originally in the English language, as dictated by the Rebbe to Rabbi Mindel.

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By the Grace of G.-d

4th of Iyar, 5731

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mr. Isaac & Mr. David

c/o Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan

Greeting and Blessing:

I am in receipt of your letter in which you write about the well known problem of finding an explanation for the holocaust in which one third of our people perished.

It is somewhat surprising that you take up this question as if it were a new problem, although you mention in passing that it is related to the time-honored question of why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, which was already raised by Yirmiyahu, who posed the question, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” Indeed, as the Gemorro tells us, already Moshe Rabbenu wrestled with this question.

If, as you write, the problem of the holocaust engages your attention with particular force because of its frightful dimension, this too is not clear. For if a matter is wrong, the question “Will the Judge of all the world not do justice?” applies whether the wrong affects one person or a million persons.

Furthermore, and this is essential too, that in both illustrations cited above, namely in regard to Moshe Rabbenu and Yirmiyahu, the circumstances which gave rise to their questions were more serious even than the terrible holocaust in our days. Moshe Rabbenu saw all the Jewish people subjected and enslaved by a most depraved people. How could one reconcile to the fact that the children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov were forced to do backbreaking work, in bondage to people who had no sense of justice, morality, ethics and respect for human dignity; and this bondage went on generation after generation – a bondage not of a third of the people, but of all the people.

Similarly in the time of Yirmiyahu, when Nebu’dnezer was the world ruler and he defeated not only one third of our people, but practically the whole of our people (since only a small number of Jews lived outside of Eretz Ylsroel), and he caused the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, Jerusalem and the whole land with its king and Sanhedrin, etc. – a most extreme churban.

Following the pages of history, the destruction caused by the Crusaders also affected the majority of the Jewish people, and did not spare two-thirds of the people as in our days, inasmuch as only a small minority of Jews lived under the Moslem rulers at that time. One may find, to our great sorrow, several other instances where the calamity that befell our peopled equaled or surpassed the holocaust.

Needless to say, despite the terrible nature of the catastrophes mentioned above, they have not caused any weakening in the Jewish faith in G-d and their adherence to the Torah and mitzvot.

If the holocaust has shaken the belief in G-d of some Jews, it is either because they have not given this matter sufficient thought and proper analysis, or their belief in G-d was not very strong to begin with. It is also possible that the terrible pain which the thought of the holocaust evokes itself makes it difficult to think clearly about it. It is quite human to expect that the memory of a tragedy which occurred to our people more than 3000 years ago in Egypt, or the first and second destructions of the Beis Hamikdash, which also occurred thousands of years ago, would not affect a person as much as a tragedy which occurred in his own lifetime. And when a person is under distress, it is hardly possible to expect him to think objectively.

As for the problem itself, it is also surprising that you make such a to-do about it, and are trying to find solutions, etc., ignoring the fact that there is a whole voluminous literature which deals with the problem. There are many works by Gedolei Yisroel, whose thinking is based on the pure faith in G-d and the Torah, who delve deeply into this mystery. Suffice it to mention the book of Iyov, which is part of our Holy Scriptures, and is entirely devoted to this problem, and there are scores of works by Jewish thinkers since then.

Whatever the problem, it is clear that it cannot and should not affect the true Jewish approach, of which we are now – in the days of sefira – particularly reminded, inasmuch as they are a preparation for Mattan Torah. The Jewish approach, of course, was, and always will be, naase (first, and then) v’nishma. Already some 1500 years or more ago there was the objection that the Jewish people is “a hasty people, who put their mouth before their ears.” To which Rovo answered with the quotation –  “Tumas yeshorim tancheim”, ‘The wholeheartedness of the upright shall lead them.” (Prov. 11:3), etc., meaning that these who walk with G-d wholeheartedly and with complete faith will continue to walk in the right path, but these who seek distorted answers will be led astray by the very same events.(Shabbos 98, end p. alef).

Let me also add that the response of naaseh v’nishma was made not only by the heads and leaders of the people, but also down to the “hewer of thy wood unto the drawer of thy water,” for all Jews were present at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah as “one man with one heart.” This clearly shows that it is within the capacity of every Jew to have this approach and live by it, and it is really a matter of will, and the determination not to let the yetzer confuse and mislead.

May G-d grant that you should have good news to report not only to the effect that you are studying the Torah with devotion and diligence, but also in the spirit of naaseh v’Nnshma, as mentioned above, serving as an inspiration and living example to all your friends.

With blessing,

By

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The above letter is from the second volume of The Letter and the Spirit by Nissan Mindel Publications. The letters are from the archives of Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel, a personal secretary to the Previous Rebbe and The Rebbe, whose responsibilities included the Rebbe’s correspondence in English.

We thank Rabbi Sholom Ber Shapiro, director of Nissan Mindel Publications and the one entrusted by Rabbi Mindel, his father-in-law, with his archives, for making these letters available to the wider public. May the merit of the many stand him in good stead.

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