Lecture #17b: Dealing with the Suffering of the Holocaust - the Teachings of the Rebbe of Piaseczno, Author of "Esh Kodesh" (Part 2 of 2)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


C.        Despair?


The perspective set forth above shuts out any possible theory of theodicy, since the punishment seems devoid of any purpose.  However, we must also consider its existential significance: if there is no prayer or repentance, nor any possibility of understanding God's actions, then we are seemingly led in the direction of frustration and despair.  Is this an accurate expression of the feeling of the Rebbe of Piaseczno? Did he really experience his situation as a dead end? Furthermore, it must be remembered, the Rebbe did not write all this as a personal diary.  He grappled with these questions within the context of sermons to his chassidim.  How could such a sermon strengthen them? Did he offer them any positive horizon?


An answer to this question – or at least an indication of a direction – is to be found in the concluding section of the sermon quoted above:


The same applies to passion and arousal in prayer.  The Jew is falling now, lying prone and crushed, there is no one to be aroused in prayer.


However, King David said (Tehillim 130:1), "Out of my straits I called upon God." That is, I called not just from one straitened circumstance, but from straits-plural.  Though I called upon You when I fell into my first crises, and not only was not answered and rescued but plunged even deeper into crisis - straits within straits - nevertheless, I take strength and call upon You again.  (Sacred Fire, p. 230)


The Rebbe concludes the first sermon that we quoted above in the same vein:


At least in the depths of his heart, every Jew must shout out to God about it.  (ibid., p. 124)


When a person considers his deplorable state, his inability to pray, this in itself serves as catalyst.  The sorrow over the inability to cry out gives rise to a cry from a more primal place - the cry for the right to cry.  So long as there is some spark in him that has not been crushed by his troubles, allowing him to examine his spiritual state from the outside, as it were, then even if it reveals the deplorable state that he is in, so long as that spark exists, there is still meaning to his existence. 


In sharing his existential distress with his chassidim, the Rebbe arouses in them feelings of understanding and partnership, drawing them out of the unbearable deluge of dark thoughts and troubles, towards a perspective from which they may grieve together over their physical and spiritual situation.


D.        To weep with God


The Rebbe of Piascezno states that the lack of will to engage in Torah or prayer when one is surrounded by illness, hunger, terror, and death is not only the result of the physical and psychological reality that is being forced upon them, but is also born of the moral feeling that doing so would represent an unfeeling, insensitive escape from the existential situation:


There are times when a person wonders about himself, thinking, "I am broken, I am ready to burst into tears at any moment, and in fact I break down in tears from time to time.  How can I possibly learn Torah? What can I do to find the strength not just to learn Torah, but to discover new Torah and a chassidut (piety)?" Then there are times when a person beats his heart, saying, "Is it not simply my supercilious heart allowing me to be so stubborn, to learn Torah in the midst of my pain, and in the midst of the pain of the Jews, whose suffering is so great?" And then he answers himself, "But I am so broken.  I have cried so much, my whole life is fraught with grief and dejection." He is lost inside his introspective, self-analytical confusion.  (ibid., pp.315-316)


The Rebbe's question is: Does the almost natural religious reaction of retreating into the warm and safe embrace of Torah study or prayer not represent an unnatural hardening of the heart?


Further on in the same sermon, the Rebbe offers another insight into his anguish.  The helplessness and despair caused by unceasing sorrow has two sources: a. the lack of hope; and b. the experience of loneliness.  The difficulty in praying or studying and the retreat into one's own sorrow are the result of a sense of God's abandonment, leaving me alone; He does not hear me.  However, in the depths of this feeling there is perhaps a spark of consolation, which the Rebbe reveals through an analysis of God's revelation to Moshe during the time of Bnei Yisrael's suffering.  As we know, prophecy comes to a person only when he is in a state of joy (see, for example, Rambam's commentary on Avot 6:5, based on Berakhot 31a), for it is only out of joy and uplifting the spirit that a person may attain closeness to God:


It could be asked: How could Moses have had a prophetic revelation, when to receive prophecy a person must be in a state of simcha (joy)? Aside from the fact that Pharaoh was trying to kill him, Moses was anguished over the pain of the Jewish people.  Moses had such empathy with the pain of the Jews that he later said to God, "Please forgive their sin.  If not, blot me out from this book that You have written." (Shemot 32:32).  (Ibid., p.315)


A person who is suffering or full of sorrow is far from God.  His spirit cannot uplift itself to draw close to Him, for "strength and gladness are in His place" (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 16:27); hence, sorrow and despair cannot bring him close to God.  Is this truly the case? The Rebbe discovers, from the midrash, that sometimes it is specifically out of the depths of our weeping and anguish that God is revealed to us:


This is the very reason why God appeared to Moses for the first time from within the burning thorn bush.  Rashi (Shemot 3:2) explains the choice of the thorn bush by quoting the verse (Tehillim 91:15) "I am with him in his pain."


So long as God has only "strength and rejoicing in His abode" (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 16:27) then prophets, too, can prophesy only when they also are be-simcha (joyous).  But when God is, as it were, together with the Jews in their pain and trouble, then prophecy may also come to the prophet who is likewise in pain over the plight of the Jews.


In the Talmud (Chagiga 5b) we learn: "It is written (Yermiyahu 13:17), 'My soul weeps in mistarim (concealment).' Is there then any weeping on the face of the Holy Blessed One, as it is written, 'Beauty and splendor before Him; strength and rejoicing in His abode' (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 16:27)? There is no contradiction.  One verse refers to the inner chambers, while the other chambers." Thus, we learn that while in the outer chambers of heaven there is always "strength and rejoicing" before God, within the inner chambers, God weeps in His distress, as it were, over the pain of the Jews.


So it is possible that at a time of hester panim (concealment of the Divine Face), which is to say, when God hides Himself within the inner chambers, a Jew may also enter and be alone with God there, each Jew at his own level.  There, within the inner chambers, Torah and worship are revealed to each person who enters.  We have already spoken about how the Oral Torah was revealed primarily in exile, in Babylon, and how the holy Zohar was only revealed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar when they were living in a cave, fleeing the Romans government, afraid for their lives.  (ibid., p.315)


The Master of the universe does not ignore the suffering of Am Yisrael.  He weeps together with us.  The faith and continuous sense of God's closeness – "there is no place that is devoid of Him" – means that God is with us literally.  Hence, our weeping is not something external to God; rather, He joins in it.  It is possible to hear the silent, inner weeping of the Divine Presence that joins with the weeping of Am Yisrael and the weeping of each and every individual Jew.  This joint weeping creates a renewed intimacy with God – the sort of intimacy that sometimes develops between people who reveal their shared suffering to each other.  And if this gives rise to prayer or Torah, then it is not Torah that is extraneous to the suffering, but rather Torah that is born of that suffering; not only is it not alienated from it, but it has the power to comfort and console:


And then he answers himself, "But I am so broken.  I have cried so much, my whole life is fraught with grief and dejection." He is lost inside his introspective, self-analytical confusion.  But as we have said above, it is the Holy Blessed One who is crying within the inner chambers, and whoever presses himself close to God through Torah is able to weep there together with God, and also to learn Torah with Him.


This is the difference.  The pain and grief that one suffers over his own situation, alone in isolation, can break a person.  He may even fall so far that he becomes immobilized by it.  But the crying that a person does together with God makes him strong.  He cries and takes strength.  He is shattered, and then emboldened to study and to worship.  (p.316)


God's "inner sanctuaries" are not in the heavens.  They are the recesses of the soul, of man's innermost existence.  Submission to suffering happens in the outer sanctuaries – in the world of "asiya" – the tangible, objective world.  But when the soul finds the strength to look beyond the suffering, or when it looks inward to that deep place within the sorrow that is not embittered or despairing towards life but rather a genuine sorrow over its situation, over the situation of the Divine Presence, over the absurdity of existence – then it encounters the "inner sanctuary," and there it discovers that its weeping is not alone.


In many of his sermons, the Rebbe of Piaseczno raises the question: why is the world not destroyed by the depths of the evil and suffering within it? How is God in His goodness able to bear such a world? How is it that the screams and cries do not explode the world? This question has a paradoxical answer that pertains to God's own suffering:


And so, the world continues to exist steadfast; it is not obliterated by God's pain and His voice at the suffering of his people and the destruction of His house, because God's pain never enters into the world.  (Ibid., p.287)


God's sorrow is "without limit, greater than the world" (ibid.) – apparently because, from the perspective of the infinite perfection of Divine goodness, the suffering and evil of this world are truly unbearable – since every sorrow or suffering is the result of the contrast between reality as it is, and what it can and should be.  If God's sorrow were to be imposed on the world, the world would necessarily cease to exist.  Hence, there is no choice but for God to enter His "inner sanctuaries" – a higher, "internal" place, hidden from the world, where He may weep.[1] Metaphorically, we may imagine a mother who observes her children enduring terrible suffering.  She has to weep, but if she is observed to be weeping openly, it will break them completely.  Therefore, she enters an inner room and weeps there.  It is in this hidden, inner maternal place that God's weeping takes place.


However, His decision to weep in a hidden place is itself the source of our sense of alienation and loneliness.  In this case, the compassion contradicts itself.  The holding back from weeping openly – lest God's tears drown the world, as it were – renders the suffering even more unbearable, for it means that God is not with us!


The solution to this paradox has already been indicated above.  Our weeping in the beit midrash, the Torah and the prayer that are born of suffering and troubles – they are the "inner sanctuaries" of our world, and there the "empty space" for God's weeping comes about in our world.  It is as though we are saying to God, "Come out from Your hiding.  Be with us – even with weeping; the main thing is that You are with us."


Summary thus far, and a preview of the next shiur:


In the first lecture of this series I recounted S.Z. Shragai's story about a chassid who, after the war, refused to pray, out of anger towards God:[2]


At daybreak, I arose to pray before non-Jewish travelers would embark.  The man opposite me neither rose nor stirred, although he was not sleeping.  After praying I took something to eat and drink from my bag.  I asked if he wanted something to drink.  He gave no answer.  A few hours later I asked again, and he nodded his head to indicate that he was ready to drink.  And thus he drank a few times during the day, never uttering a word.  He looked at his book for a while, and sat.  His silence was terrible, and cast an awful depression over me.  I was tormented.


After midday he began to speak.  He said, "After everything I went through, and after everything that my eyes saw, with God having no compassion and no mercy – I shall not pray to Him.  I shall anger Him, too."


I was silent and gave no answer.  A sigh burst forth from my heart, but I said nothing.  He, too, resumed his silence.  Towards evening, when it was almost dark, I began to arrange my things for disembarkation in Prague (he was to continue to Paris).  Suddenly, he asked me to help him to take down his suitcase, and he took out his tallit and tefillin.  He wrapped himself in his tallit, donned his tefillin, and stood up to pray.  I was astounded at the sudden change.  However, I remained silent and said nothing.  After he finished praying, he said:


"Strictly speaking, I don't have to pray.  Still, is the Almighty not in need and worthy of pity?! What does He have in the world? What is left to Him? And if He was compassionate towards me and left me alive, He deserves for me to show compassion towards Him, too.  That's why I got up to pray."


He finished speaking; tears rolled from his eyes and he began to weep.  "Woe… the Master of the universe also needs pity..."


This intimacy between a Jew and God restores the meaning of prayer.  Usually, it is the mother who has compassion for her children.  Now, in this terrible partnership in the suffering of the Holocaust, the children are filled with compassion for the Mother – the Divine Presence; ultimately, they want Her to be with them.


In the next lecture, we will try to analyze the religious existential meaning of the experience of our joint weeping with God, and explore its significance for our experience of faith.  We shall also discuss another way in which the Rebbe addresses the problems raised here.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] The Rebbe must be referring here to the "sefira" of "bina," which is the great 'mother' of Divine manifestation; the source of mercy.  There, in that maternal place, it is possible to weep.  But "bina" lies beyond the sefirot that are manifest in this world; therefore, God's weeping is not discernible in the world, and evil and suffering continue.

[2]           For the full story, see the Introductory shiur to this series.