Lecture #14: Netivot Shalom on Suffering and Evil

  • Rav Tamir Granot



In the previous lecture, we studied the approach of the Rebbe of Slonim, author of Netivot Shalom, to the memory of the Holocaust. The lecture preceding that one discussed the meaning of Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's Name) in the Holocaust and the appropriate attitude, in light of the conclusions reached, towards Jews who have left the path of Torah.  In the present lecture, we will once again consult the Netivot Shalom, this time regarding the meaning of the evil and suffering in the Holocaust.


A.   God's Tears


The point of departure for the Rebbe of Slonim's discussion is that the Holocaust is not merely one more manifestation of routine evil and suffering, which may be understood as the result of the freedom of choice extended to the wicked, Divine punishment meted out to those who suffer, or the course of normal historical causality.  The chain of events that preceded the Holocaust shows an incomprehensible, inconceivable, truly mystical process.  There was a cruel convergence of seemingly unrelated circumstances: Hitler's madness, Germany's technological achievements, the economic crisis, the closing of the gates of other countries, the treachery of the British policy in Eretz Yisrael, international apathy, and the difficult situation of the Jewish nation.  The fact that each one of these circumstances had to come about in order for the Holocaust to achieve such a level of devastation proves that this evil was no incidental phenomenon, nor even a manifestation of the Divine attribute of justice.  It was a primal, metaphysical evil – an evil that was wholly, absolutely evil:


These ideas illuminate for us the awful holocaust that we suffered in the years 5700-5705 (1940-45), when six million Jews, the select of our people, were murdered as martyrs for God in view of the entire world and no one restrained the agents of destruction.  It is absolutely clear that this cataclysm was scheduled in the Divine timetable of events that was established at creation, that it was one of those events without which the world could not exist.  And it was for this specific purpose that the satanic agent was sent into this world, that monster called Hitler along with his team of executioners – may all their names be eradicated.  As soon as their task was completed, most of them committed suicide or were killed by others. (Nesivot Sholom, Kuntres Ha-Harugoh Alecha, pp. 29-30)


The Rebbe proposes the existence of a metaphysical evil in the world in the wake of a question posed by the Maharal and a response to it by the Maggid, Rabbi Yisrael of Kozhnitz.  The background to this discussion is a debate recorded in Berakhot concerning the blessing for "horrors." The mishna (9:2) rules that a person should recite the blessing, "… Whose power and might fill the world" when faced with one of a series of natural phenomena (e.g., thunder), including "horrors." The gemara (59a) identifies these "horrors" with "goha" – meaning "trembling and crying out," and Rashi explains that the reference is to "trembling of the earth" (earthquakes).  The gemara goes on to explain the source of this trembling or crying out of the earth: "When the Holy One, blessed be He, recalls His children, who are suffering among the nations of the world, He drops two tears into the Great Sea, and the sound of them is heard from one end of the world to the other, and this is 'goha.'" The gemara points to a connection between mighty natural phenomena and the sorrow that God feels over the suffering of Israel. 


Let us now examine the Slonimer Rebbe's analysis, in the wake of the Maharal and the Maggid of Kozhnitz:


This matter is so lofty that there is no doubt that it transcends the ability of the human mind to grasp.  Nevertheless, when we peer between the lines in the writings of those who preceded us, the sages who were like angels, who saw everything with luminous clarity, we can learn how to regard the terrors of this annihilation.  First, I introduce the words of the holy Maggid of Kozhenitz in his glosses to Maharal of Prague's Be'er Ha-Golah (fourth be'er):    "Regarding his [Maharal's] question about the statement in Perek Ha-Ro'eh, "When the Holy One, blessed be He, recalls that His children are suffering among the nations, He weeps two tears into the Great Sea and the noise they make is heard…and this is an earthquake -  this makes sense [asks Maharal] after the destruction [of the Temple], but earthquakes existed always, even before the destruction.  I will explain: Ever since the six days of creation, there is nothing new before Him.  Before creation He looked ahead to the end of history in His world and arranged every incident that will happen on earth according to a timetable, as the Sages interpreted the verse: "Ve-ha-aretz hayeta tohu va-vohu ve-choshech al penei tehom ve-ru'ach Elokim" as alluding to the four exiles and the ru'ach of the Messiah [Yalkut Shim'oni, Bereshit, No.4].  The Holy One, blessed be He, also created another system within the system of natural order, like a wheel within a wheel, powered by the will of the Jewish People. When they choose to obey Hashem and fulfill His Torah and His mitzvot, the system is affected by their service and the timetable is altered…

'There is a time for every thing… a time to cast stones' – when Hadrian arose… to smash the stones of the Temple – 'and a time to gather in stones' – when it will be rebuilt by the Holy One, blessed be He [Devarim Rabba 3:13 citing Kohelet 3:5].  From all this, we learn that the Creator has a timetable for history from the six days of creation until the end of the world and its people, yet He structured it to be affected by human choices.  For example, if Adam Ha-rishon had withstood his test and had not eaten form the forbidden tree, then all the worlds would have attained their perfection and we would not have required all the exiles and all the sufferings that make up out past…  But since that did not happen, the timetable remained in effect and all that has transpired followed."

See the rest of his discussion there about this lofty matter, for it explains many deliberately hidden statements of Chazal.  This is the approach to understanding their statement regarding the ten [righteous sages] martyred by the [Roman] kingdom that the Holy One, blessed be He, said, [from the liturgical poem "Eileh ezkeroh" in the Mussaf of Yom Kippur]:  "That is My original intent.  If you don't accept My penalty, I will return the world to chaos."  For the entire tragedy of the ten martyrs was set in the timetable established at creation; it is one of the secrets of creation, without which the world could not exist and would therefore return to chaos.  (Ibid., pp. 27-29)


According to the midrash, God weeps and His tears fall.  Earthquakes, floods, the terrifying sounds of nature – all of these are expressions of Supreme, cosmic sorrow.  Over what does God weep? According to Chazal, His weeping is for the suffering of Israel.  The earth trembles because the Holy One, blessed be He, weeps when He sees His precious children suffering.


At this point Maharal poses his question, which we may expand as follows: The suffering of Israel is not an accident; rather, it is the punishment for their sins.  If their suffering comes about after "due process," as it were, then why does God weep? Of course, we may suggest that when a father punishes his child, he feels pain.  However, the midrash seems to be referring to a most primal, elementary sorrow on God's part.  Moreover, the suffering of Israel is a historical phenomenon – and in particular, the result of the destruction of the Temple and the ensuing exile.  How can we explain a natural phenomenon that has existed since the very creation of the world on the basis of a historical sorrow – however great that sorrow may be – that was born at some point in time, and that time was only after the destruction of the Temple?


Here lies the answer to our question.  God's tears are apparently a part of the cycle of time.  In other words, God weeps from time to time, and this has been so since the time of creation.  The weeping, then, is for cosmic suffering or sorrow, the sorrow that was "built into" Creation from the beginning, not just the result of Israel's sins.  Suffering and sorrow in the world are a primal, ancient phenomenon, ontologically preceding sin and punishment.  It is for these that God weeps, and His weeping is expressed in the "horrors." The main sorrow, however, is over the suffering of Israel, the trials and tribulations of exile.  Thus, the suffering of Israel is profoundly bound up with the primal, cosmic suffering; it is not only the result of sin.


The Maggid of Kozhnitz seeks to understand this concept on the basis of the midrash that interprets the verse, "And the earth was void and chaos…" (Bereishit 1:2) as referring to the four exiles (Bereishit Rabba 2:4).  Here, too, the midrash attributes historical significance to a natural phenomenon, in this case, the primal "void and chaos." The "void," "chaos," "darkness," and "deep" hint at the suffering of the four exiles that Israel will endure.  In other words, the suffering has its roots in creation; it is part of a necessary periodicity which is fundamental to the existence of the world.  What appears to us as a stage preceding creation (the "void and chaos…") is interpreted here as applying to all of history.  We may have thought that the chaos and void belonged to the reality that preceded the creation of the world.  The midrash comes to tell us that history itself is "void and chaos and darkness," and the light that is described as coming afterwards – and, in a more general sense, the orderly world that the Torah presents in chapter 1 of Bereishit – belongs to the future, not the past.  History is one long process of movement from "void" to "chaos," from "chaos" to "darkness," etc., up until the light and redemption that are promised at the end.


B.   Choice, Reward and Punishment, and Suffering


This perspective sheds a completely different light on suffering and evil in the world.  If the world is fundamentally "very good" – that is, orderly and perfect – then the appearance of suffering is indeed a question that needs to be answered.  However, according to the midrashim and the interpretations cited above, suffering is no less natural or normative to our world than goodness.  While the world is destined to ultimately become "very good," in the meantime it remains broken, discordant, and dark.  The transition through void, chaos, darkness, and the deep is necessary on the path of the world's development, and therefore the appearance of evil and suffering should not be a surprise.  It must be understood as an inherent part of existence.


Is there any possibility of saving ourselves from the suffering that is built into creation? Indeed, there is.  If the Jewish Nation were to engage in repentance, they would immediately be redeemed.  If they do not, this does not mean that suffering will befall them because of their sins.  It will simply appear at its appointed time, or in accordance with the inner dynamic of the world and its history.  God's harsh response: "Be silent, for so it has been decided by Me" (Menachot 29b) is not merely an authoritative rejection of the question of why there is unjust suffering, why Rabbi Akiva was killed by the Romans, etc.  Rather, it carries the discussion to a far more deeply-rooted place.  It declares, "The answer is not to be found here, in the immediate causes – both spiritual and material – that brought about this suffering.  The answer is to be found at the beginning, at the time when the creation was decided by the Divine will."


A rejection of suffering entails a rejection of all of existence.  What is required is not an acceptance of theodicy, since there is no "justice" here in the sense of fair recompense.  What is needed an acceptance of the nature of the world itself.  This is God's world, and this is how it has to be.  Just as there is a sun, flowers, and the ocean, so there are also horrors.


Why is this so? Could God not have created the world differently? Why does God bring us into a world whose very existence requires that there be suffering? Even if we cannot answer this question, one thing is clear: God feels sorrow and weeps tears over this existence, and when the world trembles and groans, it is the creator of the world, as it were, Who trembles and sighs.  This may be compared to the situation of parents who have decided to bring children into the world within a difficult reality.  After much thought, they decide that it is better that children be born – but they are unable to spare their children from the suffering of this world.  Every time they see their children suffering, they tell them: "Still, it is all worthwhile! Despite what is happening, it was worth bringing you into the world." At the same time, they hide their faces and weep.  The tears and weeping show that God does not ignore this suffering; He does not desire it in and of itself, but His world cannot exist without it.


C.   The World as a Corridor: The Meaning of the Battle against Suffering


Even if we have no idea why the world must be this way, we still know what our responsibility is in this regard – or, in other words, the "what for" of the suffering and exile.  Chazal tell us (Avot 4:16) that this world resembles a corridor.  The Rebbe of Slonim explains that the analogy is apt not only from our point of view, in the sense of how we should treat the world, but also in terms of the objective reality; this world is dark and narrow, it is not properly finished, and the "palace" – the purpose of creation – is at its far end.  The corridor is a path that must be covered, and the significance of this path, for us, is a lengthy process of self-purification and work towards self-perfection, with a clarification of the positive and holy elements, on the one hand, and the elements of impurity and evil, on the other:


With this perspective, one can fathom the idea that the exiles were established at or before creation, by recognizing that they too are aspects of this world, part of the antechamber where one prepares for the World to Come throne room.  The exile in Egypt was an antechamber, a means of purifying the physicality of the Jews for entering the throne room – in other words, to become the chosen people ready to receive the Torah and enter Eretz Yisrael.  All the exiles are antechambers preparatory to revelations of redemption light.  So the question of Jewry spending most of its history in exile is no longer so puzzling.  For the problem exists only if you view this world as a goal, but when you see that the World to Come is the goal and this world is strictly a place for preparing to enter the throne room, it makes sense that most of life in this world is spent in preparation and purification for entering the throne room of eternity. (ibid., pp. 81-82)


The four exiles are connected to four kingdoms, each representing a different aspect of evil, of the "Sitra Achra" ("Other Side") in the world.  In order for the world to be perfected, it must be shown that it is possible to overcome this evil, that it may be defeated.  However, the victory is not a physical one.  The victory over the Nazis could not be in the realm of military victory – perhaps the Nazi army would be vanquished, but not the evil that they represented.  The victory lies in proving that the suffering that is the result of their evil is not stronger than man or his faith.  Evil emerges victorious if it is able to demonstrate that the challenge which it presents to humanity and to faith is too difficult.  If a person betrays his values and his faith – then the Nazi Amalek has won.  But if Jews do not become filled with hatred, and choose compassion and love of mankind as a response to this terrible evil, if Jews do not submit to the reign of evil but rather maintain batei midrashot and synagogues after the Holocaust to prove their faith in the reign of God, then the suffering had value, and the world is worthy of redemption:


These ideas illuminate for us the awful holocaust that we suffered in the years 5700-5705 (1940-45) when six million Jews, the select of our people, were murdered as martyrs for God in view of the entire world and no one restrained the agents of destruction.  It is absolutely clear that this cataclysm was scheduled in the Divine timetable of events that was established at creation, that it was one of those events without which the world could not exist.  And it was for this specific purpose that the satanic agent was sent into this world, that monster called Hitler along with his team of executioners – may all their names be eradicated.  As soon as their task was completed, most of them committed suicide or were killed by others.  The unnatural hatred of Jews who looked Jewish with their beards and pei'os leaves no room to doubt that his primary war was that of tum'ah (contamination) versus kedushah (sanctity), a war whose roots strike far deeper than we can conceive.

     In light of all this, we dare not question why God treated this generation in that way.  Why this great display of fury? For none of us knows.  We must trust that this was part of the Creator's original plan, way beyond the comprehension of mortals, and that we will not discover His thinking. (Ibid., pp. 29-30)


D.  The Holocaust as the Birthpangs of Mashiach


The inconceivable scope and power of the Nazi evil must be understood as a final, far-reaching onslaught of the "Sitra Achra" in this world.  To the degree that the suffering was intensified, so the challenge grew greater, as well as our hope that withstanding this suffering would give way to a repaired world, a world of redemption.  The "deep" that is mentioned in the second verse of Bereishit alludes to the Roman exile, the exile of Europe, which Chazal (Bereishit Rabba, ad loc.) asserted to be as black and long as the unfathomable deep.  They most certainly had the length of the exile in mind, but the same may possibly be said concerning the depths of the evil that is experienced.  The point is that with the appearance of unfathomable evil, we are drawing closer to the stage that follows: "And the spirit of God hovered – this refers to the spirit of the King Messiah."


As an inseparable part of the ultimate redemption through the coming of Mashiach, we find in Chazal the theme of chevlei Mashiach – major troubles and harsh decrees that Jewry will suffer before Mashiach arrives.  In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) we learn that Rabbi Yochanan taught: If you see a generation that is beset by many troubles like a river, expect him." Speaking of the Messianic generation, the Zohar says, (Volume 3:212b), "There will be a tribulation after tribulation."

     For one understanding of the significance of the chevley Mashiach that precede the redemption, see the preceding essay, "Exile and Redemption," where we elaborated on the exile in Egypt that had been decreed for the Jewish People at the covenant between the parts.  This exile is puzzling.  Seventy righteous, holy, and undefiled Jewish souls went down to Egypt and 600,000 souls emerged mired in 49 levels of defilement! What purpose did this exile serve? We explained that the goal of the exile was to scour the Jewish People and prepare them for their mission as the chosen people.  This is what Hashem meant when He told Avrahom: "Know for sure" that if you want your descendants to be the chosen people they must endure 400 years of purification in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed – not because they sinned, but in order to be cleansed and prepared for the mission that awaits them.

     The same is true for the ultimate perfection that all of creation has been awaiting for nearly 6,000 years.  King Mashiach will arrive and all of creation will turn good.  Everyone will desire only good, and will have no desire for evil at all.  They will be like Adam Ha-rishon before the sin – the highest level a human being can attain – as cited earlier from Ramban (Devarim 30:6).  Thus, in order for Jewry to attain such a level they must undergo the heavy scouring of all the sufferings and tribulations that constitute chevley Mashiach.  The prophet Yeshayhu compares the redemption to a birth: –'  "Just as a pregnant woman who approaches birth trembles and screams with her pangs, so will we before You, Hashem" (Yeshayahu 26:17).  Rashi there explains that these are signs of redemption.  In other words, we are assured that we will be redeemed following tribulations and anguish similar to those of a woman giving birth.  Just as birth is preceded by birth pangs, so is the arrival of Mashiach a kind of birth, a new creation prior to which the Jewish people must be purified by harsh and bitter Mashiach-pangs so that they will be fit for the new creation of the ultimate perfection. (ibid., pp. 116-118)


Having withstood the "birth pangs" in their full force, we can now hope that the "deep" is indeed behind us and that the redemption awaits "behind the wall." The Slonimer Rebbe says that God is waiting to see if we are indeed waiting for Him now.  The revival of the Jewish Nation after the Holocaust – and, in particular, the flourishing of the world of Torah and chassidut after the terrible crisis that had been endured – is proof that the nation ha already emerged from the maze of darkness, and is now God-willing on the final stretch before the redemption:


The above has special implications for our generation following the great and awesome destruction visited on Jewry, which drank the cup of hemlock to its dregs when six million Jews were tortured and murdered in cruel and unusual ways, a destruction unparalleled since creation.  This entire destruction and every aspect of it are unnatural.  No natural explanation serves to penetrate this sealed mystery.  It doubtless was at least part of the awesome chevley Mashiach to which Chazal referred.  Because of our great sins, everything described in the sacred works pales into insignificance next to what happened in reality.  The Jewish People suffered the Mashiach-pangs in full – without missing a single detail.  Having suffered the Mashiach-pangs, there is no doubt that every day now is time for him to come.  After the birth pangs, the birth is imminent. "Even if he tarries, nevertheless I expect him to come every day."

     In the past, when a person said, "I expect him to come every day," there was always a question - "Don't we have to suffer the chevley Mashiach?" (See Sefer Ha-Chayim, "Sha'ar Ge'uloh Ve-Yeshu'ah"] But in our generation, no such question exists.  Jewry has already paid up the great debt of chevley Mashiach and is looking forward to Mashiach's arrival.  From this perspective, a Jew in our generation must feel, "I expect him to come every day," as if "he is standing right behind our wall." Ever since creation, preparations were being made for the great Mashiach-pangs that must precede Mashiach's coming.  And now that, due to our sins, we have suffered them, we must believe and anticipate that he will arrive any day now. 

After such Mashiach pangs, Jewry is ready to be redeemed.  But the Holy One, blessed be He, is waiting for Jewry to anticipate salvation, for the salvation will be empowered by the faith and the anticipation.  This is why the evil inclination is now making every effort to confuse minds so as to weaken that anticipation and delay the redemption.

     As stated, anticipating salvation is fundamental to Judaism.  Three times a day does a Jew bring up in his prayers the building of the Temple – "Return, mercifully, to Your city Jerusalem and repose in it as You promised, and build it for eternity soon in our times" and "May our eyes witness Your return to Zion" – and the arrival of Mashiach – "Because we constantly hope for Your salvation and look forward to salvation."  These prayers of Jewry empower the building of the Temple and the redemption.  May Hashem help us merit being among those who anticipate salvation, who will soon witness His salvation in the form of the ultimate redemption. (Ibid., pp. 118-120)


In the next lecture, we will make use of texts composed during the Holocaust to develop the idea of withstanding and confronting the suffering and evil, and the existential and religious significance of this stance.




Translated by Kaeren Fish