A Kaddish for the Martyrs of the Holocaust

  • Harav Yehuda Amital


Translated by Kaeren Fish



            A generation ago, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared that the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet, which marks the beginning of the destruction of the Temple, would also be observed as a Holocaust Remembrance Day. Specifically, it would be the day to recite kaddish for relatives whose exact date of death we do not know. Just as the Tenth of Tevet thus has acquired a dual significance, so does the kaddish itself that we recite on this day.


            On the one hand, kaddish is recited by each individual for his relatives. On the other hand, when many individuals recite kaddish, when the whole congregation recites kaddish, then it assumes additional meaning. To the extent that we explore this additional meaning of the communal kaddish, the kaddish of each individual will be elevated higher and higher, until the kaddish of each individual will itself attain a power and depth that never existed in the kaddish prayer as recited in past generations.


            At the time of death of every individual Jew, the Holy One’s great Name is diminished, as it were, and so we add to it by reciting kaddish. This may be said of the kaddish of the individual.


            But the communal kaddish is the innermost and most authentic expression of the Jewish nation. It demonstrates our faith’s attitude towards everything that is bound up with the word “Holocaust” – a word that is only a code for all that took place there. Since there is no word or sentence or article or book that could describe what happened, we use this code word: Holocaust.


            By reciting kaddish as a congregation, the Jewish nation expresses its feelings towards the Holy One in the wake of the Holocaust. Our religious attitude towards the Holocaust revolves around two axes, both of which find expression in our religious literature.


            One axis is the depthless cry and demand to Heaven:


“My God, my God – why have You abandoned me?” (Tehillim 22:2)


“You would be in the right, O Lord, if I were to contend with You, yet nevertheless I will reason these points of justice with you: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease?” (Yirmiyahu 12:1)


“Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, nor can You look upon iniquity; why do You look upon those who deal treacherously, and hold Your peace when the wicked devours the man more righteous than he?” (Chabbakuk 1:13)


            The second axis is a position of subjugation towards God, as expressed in the words of Moshe Rabbeinu:


“The Rock Whose work is perfect, for all of His ways are justice.” (Devarim 32:4)


            On the one hand, there is the great question: Why have You hidden Your face from us, why have You forgotten and abandoned us? It is true that the ways of God are hidden, but You bless man with knowledge, You have given us intelligence, human understanding, and according to human understanding there is no justification for the murder of hundreds of thousands of young children who never tasted sin. No sin, however grievous, can justify to the human mind the execution of tens of thousands of mothers with nursing infants in their arms.


            No worldly attainment can compensate for the murder of those millions. All the claims about the establishment of the State of Israel serving as compensation for the Holocaust are hollow. Neither the State of Israel that exists in reality, that fights bloody wars for its existence from time to time, nor the ideal State of Israel, as in the vision of “Every man under his vine and under his fig tree” (Mikha 4:4), can justify even partially what the nation of Israel went through during the Holocaust years. There is no honest religious response without this plea: “You would be in the right, O Lord, if I were to contend with You, yet nevertheless I will reason these points of justice with you” (Yirmiyahu 12:1).


            On the other hand, the nation of Israel bows its head, declaring before God: “The Rock Whose work is perfect, for all His ways are justice... He is righteous and upright” (Devarim 32:4). There is an irresolvable contradiction between these two positions. But that is the power of the nation of Israel – that despite the questions that have no answers, we justify God’s judgment. This is the great test of the nation of Israel, the last test in the final stages of the exile and before the redemption: to understand nothing, and nevertheless to declare, “The Rock Whose work is perfect.”


            This is the inner significance of the communal kaddish, and this is also what gives significance to the kaddish of each individual. A kaddish such as that which we recite on Holocaust Remembrance Day has never been heard in such depth in all of Jewish history – a kaddish that expresses this great faith. “The Rock Whose work is perfect,” together with “Your eyes are too pure to see evil.” This is what gives the strength, the power, the depth to the kaddish of each individual.


            One who was there – in the valley of killing – could not but see the hand of God; things were so unnatural, so unintelligible, so illogical. I saw thousands of evil Nazi soldiers standing, waiting, sitting and doing nothing, unable to reach the Russian front because of the trains that were crammed with Jews. How is it possible to understand that at the end of that great war, with the defeat of that terrible persecutor, may his name be blotted out, his last words were, “The Jews won!”


            I shall not go into detail, but anyone who was there saw that the events were not natural. I saw the hand of God, but not the explanation, the meaning; He spoke to me – but I understood nothing. We saw the hand of God, we saw God’s word, but what was He saying?


            If there was a single point of light in the Holocaust, it was this: there were two camps there; on one side the camp of the murderers, and on the other side the camp of those murdered. Happy are we that we belonged to the camp of those murdered. The heavens and earth can testify on our behalf: if the nation of Israel had been given the opportunity to reverse roles, the nation of Israel would have said that it is preferable to be among those murdered than among the murderers. This is a historical point of light that cannot be overshadowed.


            Facing a world of murderers, a world that stood by as the blood of millions was shed – we stood on the other side; all the world on one side and we on the other. We know, as the Rambam states in his Epistle to Yemen, that all the hatred that the nations of the world feel towards us is because of our Torah, because of our closeness to the Holy One, and therefore we say, “It is for Your sake that we are killed all day long, that we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Tehillim 44:23). But at the same time we state before God: “If we forgot the Name of our God and spread forth our hands to a foreign god, would not God search this out? For He knows secrets of the heart” (ibid., 21-22).


            It is not an easy test to maintain our faith after all that, and to say, “May God’s great Name be exalted and sanctified.” But my heart goes out to those Jews who have no faith, who say, “I believe in man,” and that is what gives them strength. For we have seen how far man can degenerate; happy are we, how good is our portion, that we believe in the Holy One, Blessed be He, concerning Whom it is written, “My thoughts are not your thoughts” (Yishayahu 55:8), even with all of our questions. But to say, “I believe in man,” and to exist like that? My heart goes out to them.


            Instead, we have to proclaim, “Be comforted, be comforted, My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and declare to her that her term of service is complete, that her sin has been pardoned, for she has suffered from God’s hand double for all her sins” (Yishayahu 40:1-2). Her sin has been pardoned, she has suffered double for all her transgressions that were before, and those that have been since. We still lack psychologists of sufficient depth, of sufficient power, to examine what is happening to people today after the Holocaust. The nation of Israel attempts to suppress the memory the Holocaust, to repress it in every possible way, but who knows if the spiritual destruction that afflicts us does not flow from those scenes that the nation suppresses in its heart?


            I have on prior occasions cited the Gemara’s interpretation (Shabbat 88b) of the verse, “My beloved is to me like a cluster of myrrh (tzeror ha-mor)” (Shir ha-Shirim 1:13) – although He afflicts and embitters me (meitzer u-meimer li), “He shall lie between my breasts.” This evening we express all that is in our hearts, all that we have to say before the Holy One, Blessed be He. Our assembling tonight in large numbers says something great about the nation of Israel. Despite our lack of comprehension, despite all our questions, we nonetheless declare: “Yitgadal ve-yitkadash Shemeih rabba,” May God’s great Name be elevated and sanctified.


(This sicha was delivered on Asara be-Tevet 5750 [1990].)