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Lecture #28: “E-l Malei Rachamim” in Auschwitz and Treblinka: On Prayer after the Holocaust (A shiur for Holocaust Remembrance Day)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


From a series by Rav Tamir Granot, Faith and the Holocaust.

Please pray for the full recovery of Netanel Ilan ben Shayna Tzipora, critically injured in last week's terror attack.


Shortly before Pesach 5767, I travelled to Poland with a group of wonderful twelfth-graders from the Yeshiva in Chispin, and the following story occurred.


On the way to Treblinka, the Holocaust survivor who accompanied us – a very dear man, full of faith and unquenchable optimism – told us that he does not recite “E-l Malei Rachamim” at Auschwitz, at Majdanek, or at Treblinka; here there was no “rachamim,” no compassion.  There are probably many among those who visit the death camps in Poland who feel this way.  However, it was an emotion that was difficult to accept from someone who had been there and who still maintained his faith and his joy.  Having served as cantor for the recital of “E-l Malei Rachamim” in many different places, and knowing that I was about to recite it again in just a few moments at the conclusion of the trip to Treblinka, I felt that I could not simply recite the prayer as usual, ignoring the declaration that had just been made.  At the same time, I did not wish to skip the prayer altogether, nor to argue.  I decided to pray, and offered the following words:


God Who is full of compassion, dwelling on High –

You dwelled on High, You did not dwell here.

You left an empty space,

You allowed the evil one to run wild and to claim victory.

I know that You are a God Who is full of compassion, Master of the universe.

I pray You, appear in Your mercy over us, here,

And in every place, at every time;

I pray You – do not forsake us, our Father, forever.


Thereafter, I recited “E-l Malei Rachamim” up to the end.


In view of the Holocaust Remembrance Day that we have just commemorated, I offer the following thoughts about prayer after the Holocaust – a small portion of what needs to be said on this matter.  I will focus here mainly on the well known “E-l Malei Rachamim” prayer and its recitation at the camps and in general in the wake of the Holocaust.


A.        “Since they knew that the Holy One, blessed be He, is true, therefore they would not lie to Him”


In a previous lecture, we discussed the innovation of the prayer formula by Chazal in light of the mishna in Sukka:


Each day, the altar is circumnavigated once, and he says, “I pray you, God, please deliver; I pray you, God, please grant success” (Tehillim 118:25).  R. Yehuda says, “I and He – please deliver; I and He – please deliver.” (Sukka 4:5)


We explained that according to the tanna who authored this mishna, we pray to God for deliverance using the usual formula for the prayer – “Please, God (ana Hashem)."  The proximity to the altar represents the wish to draw close to God, so that He may hear and deliver.  R. Yehuda, on the other hand, maintains that God is not only the addressee of the prayer, but also one of its subjects; we pray for His own deliverance as well as ours: “God, please deliver [an appeal in the second person to Him] – me and Him [i.e., God].” While the author of the mishna bases his formula on the classic formula of Sefer Tehillim, R. Yehuda creates a new formula, with no source in the biblical phrasing, in which God Himself is also in need of deliverance.  According to his view, the proximity to the altar flows from the desire to pray for the One whose glory is revealed upon the altar as well.


As we noted in that lecture, the innovation in Chazal’s prayer is a general one.  Nowhere in Tanakh – in the Torah, the Prophets, Tehillim, nor anywhere else – do we find a prayer for God.  God has no need for prayers about Him; He is not weak or suffering in any sense.  From the exodus from Egypt and throughout the First Temple period, the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed in His might and glory.  However, after the Destruction, after His nation was exiled and His Temple destroyed, the situation changed.  Now, R. Yehuda argues, we must pray also for God, and not only for ourselves.


An even stronger expression of the same idea is to be found in Chazal’s discussion of the adjectives that we use to describe God in our Amida prayer.  The formula we use, as originally uttered by Moshe Rabbeinu, uses three adjectives: “gadol” (great), “gibor” (mighty), and “nora” (terrible, awesome).  In the books of the Prophets, we find abbreviated versions of this formula, and Chazal explain that the abbreviation is no coincidence:


R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: “Why are the Men of the Great Assembly so called? Because they restored the [Divine] crown to its original glory.

Moshe said, “God Who is great, mighty and terrible” (Devarim 10:17).

Yirmiyahu said: “Gentiles are capering in His Sanctuary – where is His awesomeness?” [Hence,] he did not say, "awesome."

Daniel said: “His children are subservient to the gentiles – where is His might?” [Hence,] he did not say, "mighty."

They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said: On the contrary, this is precisely the might of His mightiness – that He overcomes His inclination, showing patience towards the wicked.  And this is precisely His awesomeness – that were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One, blessed be He, how could one nation [Israel] survive among the other nations?

How, then, could [these prophets] have uprooted a decree set down by Moshe?

R. Elazar said: Because they knew that the Holy One, blessed be He, is truthful; therefore, they would not lie to Him.


The parallel text in the Talmud Yerushalmi concludes slightly differently: “R. Yitzchak ben Elazar said: “The prophets knew that their God is truthful, and they would not flatter Him.”[1] A description of God using adjectives not applicable to Him is an act that lies somewhere between “lying” (according to the Bavli) and “flattery” (according to the Yerushalmi).  And although the adjectives that we utter in our prayer are not a matter of personal caprice, having been set down by Moshe Rabbeinu himself, the attribute of truthfulness – God’s own attribute – is precious, and its importance outweighs the principle of loyalty to the formula created by Moshe.


How, then, could the Men of the Great Assembly reestablish the original formula? Were they not aware of and sensitive to the Destruction, the exile, and the subjugation of Am Yisrael, just as Yirmiyahu and Daniel were?


In a different version of the discussion, we find the following answer:


When the Men of the Great Assembly arose, they restored [the declaration of God’s] greatness to its past status, as it is written – "And now, our God – God Who is great, mighty, and terrible" (Nechemia 9:32).  Why? Because He is more elevated than any praise that they could offer Him.  R. Yaakov said in the name of R. Elazar: "They knew that their God was true, and they would not flatter Him, and the praise uttered by Moshe Rabbeinu was [therefore] sufficient.”

(Midrash Tehillim, Buber edition, psalm 19)


According to the Midrash Tehillim, the Men of the Great Assembly were so called because they restored God’s greatness, as expressed in the titles applied to Him, to its original glory.  But why did they restore the original formula? Were they offering false flattery, in view of the same events that had caused Yirmiyahu and Daniel to abbreviate His praises? According to this midrash, they understood that the words that we use to describe God's glory and to praise Him are in any case incapable of truly capturing His greatness, since God’s reality is far beyond them.  Hence, the pretense at expressing an accurate description of God is naןve – perhaps even pathetic – and therefore a formal re-adoption of Moshe’s original formula is appropriate.


How, then, does the tradition of the Babylonian Talmud treat the decision of the Men of the Great Assembly to restore the original formula, thereby seemingly discarding the prophets’ attribute of truth? Instead of approving any change to or subtraction from the original formula, they explained it in a different light: “mighty” does not refer to God's active strength, but rather the power of holding back and restraining His strength; “terrible” no longer means that the nations of the world fear Him – since this is no longer the case – but rather an expression of the fact that the fear of God is what keeps a single nation, Israel, alive among the nations.


Why could Yirmiyahu and Daniel not have arrived at the same interpretation? Was this a merely a stroke of exegetical genius, invoked to “save” the ancient formula? The answer to this question is connected to the main idea of the above midrash as recorded in the Talmud Bavli.  The problem with the prayer is not a theological one.  Neither Yirmiyahu nor Daniel discovered, or imagined for a moment, that Moshe had been mistaken in his perception of God.  Their problem concerned prayer.  In other words, in the view of such catastrophe, how does one utter true, accurate, deliberate words before God? From this point of view, it could not suffice for Yirmiyahu or Daniel to know that there was perhaps some explanation for God’s actions, for the non-appearance of His might – because they had experienced God’s revelation devoid of might and devoid of awe.  For them, any attempt at explanation would be making excuses, and it is perhaps for this reason that they propose no such attempt at their own initiative.  In order to express a deliberate, meaningful prayer, in order to speak the truth, they would have to forego some of the words.  With the distance of time offering a broader perspective, the Men of the Great Assembly were able to reinterpret the words.  They were able to preserve the formula by infusing the concepts of “might” and “awe” with a new and different significance. 


The Men of the Great Assembly understood that, ultimately, the formula set down by Moshe is eternal – not because of a single, static meaning, but because it is sufficiently broad to contain varying meanings, which are revealed to us precisely and only because we do not flatter and do not lie.  Flattery and lies do not necessarily involve uttering superfluous, banal words; even using the very words of Moshe himself can represent flattery and lies if we are not able to stand behind them in the most profound existential sense – to feel and to experience their reality as we stand before God.


B.        “E-l Malei Rachamim” in Treblinka


Let the heading of this section not mislead readers.  My intention is not to recount isolated miracles which may have taken place in the hell of Treblinka and to argue that there was, in fact, Divine “compassion.”  In Treblinka, there was truly no compassion.  Nevertheless, I want to try to explain why I utter the same “E-l Malei Rachamim” prayer formula even there.


The survivor who accompanied our trip is correct when he refrains from reciting “E-l Malei Rachamim” – just as Yirmiyahu and Daniel were correct in their situations.  I do not mean by this that he is correct in the ultimate, objective sense, but he is correct from his own perspective.  Since he encountered no compassion – certainly not in that place – he has no wish to lie to God or to flatter Him insincerely; he knows that God is true.  A person who wishes to utter genuine prayer must stand behind the words that he says.  However, today we have the historical distance that allowed the Men of the Great Assembly to go back to the original prayer formula.  I was not there, and I am grateful to have merited to witness the realization of the prophecy, “In rushing wrath I hid My face from you for a moment, but with eternal kindness I shall have mercy upon you” (Yishayahu 54:8).  Perhaps we, from our perspective, can interpret this as meaning that although the mercy comes only after the judgment, the anger, and fury, it does eventually appear.


However, the matter goes beyond the question of historical distance.  When I ponder the question more deeply, I cannot agree to forego the description of God as “compassionate” – not even in Treblinka or facing the crematorium in Majdanek.  It is not by chance that the “E-l Malei Rachamim” prayer introduces the memorial service.  Our sages intentionally chose to describe God in this way specifically in connection with and commemoration of a death.  God is compassionate not only when we pray for our livelihood or for health, but also when we face death – where there is no hope for any change.


Let us consider for a moment a distinction that lacks theological accuracy but may serve to clarify the point.  Describing God as “mighty” or “terrible” is an assertion concerning His relationship with the world: “terrible” means that He is feared; “mighty” means that He has power – immense power – in relation to the world.  It is therefore possible, under certain circumstances, to perceive God as being neither “mighty” nor “terrible.”  In contrast, the title “malei rachamim” (“full of compassion”) says something about more than just God’s relationship with the world; it says something about God Himself.  It is possible, of course, that He does not show compassion towards certain people or at a certain time, but this is not because He Himself is not “full of compassion.”  In other words, God certainly wants at all times to show compassion; on some occasions, He does not, but He still remains full of compassion.


C.        Poem of Yehuda Amichai


In a famous poem, Yehuda Amichai writes:


I, required to solve riddles against my will, know

That were it not for the God Who is Full of Compassion (“ilmalei ha-El malei rachamim”)

There would be compassion in the world

And not only in Him.


The poet senses the loaded significance of the expression, “full of compassion” and awards it an ironic and challenging interpretation.  One may read his poem as a sort of theological witticism addressed to God, or it may be read as a criticism of human religion.


Let us first consider the second possibility.  If Amichai is criticizing religion for casting compassion onto God, thereby seemingly absolving itself, we may perhaps understand him.  His call is not to place too much reliance on hope for compassion from Above; instead of praising God Who is full of compassion, we should be compassionate ourselves, we should fill the world with compassion.  We can also well understand the source of this outcry over a world devoid of compassion; we have all “brought corpses from the hills” (“hevenu geviyot min ha-geva’ot”), as he writes at the beginning of the poem.  Nevertheless, is the world truly devoid of compassion only because mortals have cast it upon God? Did the Nazis commit their merciless murder because they were too religious, or was it perhaps because they were too mortal? Was Stalin devoid of compassion because he left that trait to God or because of his mortal pride and lust? Begging Amichai’s pardon, the world is not devoid of compassion because God is full of compassion, but rather in spite of it; man's lack of compassion is in spite of his faith in a God Who is full of compassion, and perhaps even in spite of God’s wish that He be full of compassion.


Let us now consider the other possible reading of Amichai’s poem.  If this is a witticism meant as a challenge, focusing on the expression “E-l malei rachamim,” then I consider it nothing more than a play on words.  What does the poet mean to say? That instead of showing true compassion towards the world, God fills Himself with compassion? A person who does not believe in God may think such empty thoughts, or place them in the mouths of believers.  But someone who believes in God believes in Him as a merciful Father.  The expression “God Who is full of compassion” was meant from the outset to express precisely this fundamental faith: that the God to Whom we pray and Whose commandments we perform is Himself full of compassion.  If there is no compassion in the world, it is not because He does not desire it, but rather because there is something blocking the manifestation of His compassion in the world.  If God was not full of compassion, I would have nothing to do with Him; perhaps He would not be God at all. 


What is compassion? It is sorrow over suffering, over evil, over the death of the righteous and the oppression of the weak.  If God were devoid of compassion, heaven forefend, then either He would not be good or His good would be closed up inside Himself.  Either way, He would not be God – certainly not the God of Israel.  The very utterance “God” or “Lord” includes within itself “Who is full of compassion.”  “God is good to all, and His compassion extends to all of His acts” (Tehillim 145:9).  The words “full of compassion” are meant as an explanation, or a more accurate description, of the word “God” which I express in my prayer.


There was no compassion in Treblinka not because God has no compassion, heaven forefend, but because man showed no compassion.  A person may ask, "Why, then, did God – in His compassion – not prevent the wicked ones from carrying out their deeds?" There is much to be discussed here, and we have touched on this issue in the past.  However, even if I have no answer to the question, since I know God, I know that He is compassionate.  Perhaps He is manifest as weak, perhaps He is bound in His own chains,[2] but – as we learned with the Rebbe of Piaseszno – I have no doubt that He wept the greatest weeping and that His pain was greater than any pain.


D.        The “E-l Malei Rachamim” Prayer


That introductory “E-l Malei Rachamim” prayer that I uttered at Treblinka was born of a sense of that terrible place and out of a desire to say that He is a “God Who is full of compassion” – specifically from that place, with no flattery and without deceit.


During Chol Ha-Mo’ed Pesach, when I was already back in Israel, I was paging through the “Beit Yaakovsiddur of R. Yaakov Emden and came upon a version of the “E-l Malei Rachamim” prayer that was composed following the Chmielnicki pogroms (5408-5409) as a memorial for a certain “Rabbi, the great light, our teacher Yechiel Mikhel, rabbi of the great community of Nemirov, who was killed for the sanctification of God’s Name, in the year 5408”:


God Who is full of compassion

Who is like you among the mute ones (ilmim)

Hearing the cry of those in misery…[3]


The authors of the prayer did not refrain from including, in the introduction, a description of God as “mute,” in keeping with the midrash describing the Destruction of the Temple:


Abba Chanan said: "Who is like You, O God Who is strong" (Tehillim 89:9) – [meaning,] Who is as strong and unbending as You, for You hear the taunts and blasphemy of that wicked one [Titus], yet You remain silent.  The disciples of R. Yishmael interpreted the verse, “Who is like You among the gods (ba-eilim), Hashem” (Shemot 15:11), as “Who is like You among the silent (ba-ilmim).” (Gittin 56b)


In the gemara this is presented as a moral lesson based on a word play, but here in the siddur I had found a prayer formula – part of an official memorial service, instituted by the sages following those terrible pogroms.[4] They were more direct and more outspoken than I had dared to be in my prayer: “Full of compassion – but silent.”


Perhaps that would be an appropriate formula for the official memorial service commemorating the six million Jews annihilated in the Holocaust.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] The entire discussion is worded differently in the Yerushalmi: “R. Simon said in the name of R. Yitzchak ben Levi: Why were the Men of the Great Assembly so called? Since they restored the original greatness.  R. Pinchas said: Moshe set down the formula for prayer – 'God Who is great, mighty and awesome.'  Yirmiyahu said: 'God Who is great and mighty' (Yirmiyahu 32:18) – and did not say 'and awesome.'  Why did he say 'mighty'? It is indeed appropriate to refer to Him as “mighty” when He witnesses the destruction of His Temple and yet remains silent.  And why did he not say 'awesome'? Since only [in conjunction with] the Temple is there reference to 'awesomeness,' as it is written, 'God is awesome from Your Temple' (Tehillim 68:36).  Daniel said, 'God Who is great and terrible' (Daniel 9:4) – but did not say ‘mighty:’ 'His sons are placed in chains – where is His might?' Why, then, did he say ‘awesome’? For it is appropriate to refer to the terrible signs that He performed for us in the fiery furnace as 'awesome.' The Men of the Great Assembly arose and restored the original greatness [of the expression] – 'God Who is great, mighty, and awesome.' Is a mortal able to measure these things? R. Yitzchak ben Elazar said: The prophets knew that their God is true, and they would not flatter Him” (Yerushalmi, Berakhot 7:3).

According to the version in the Yerushalmi, the explanation that facilitates the declaration that God is 'mighty' and 'terrible' was given already by Yirmiyahu and Daniel themselves.  According to the Bavli, its source was the Men of the Great Assembly.

[2]The scope of this brief lecture does not allow for a discussion of the difficult theological problem of God’s silence.  We can do no more than to indicate the possible boundaries of such a discussion.

[3] Here, the prayer goes on to describe at great length, and with great pain, the horrors that were carried out at the time in a very direct manner and with a call to Heaven: “Awaken; why do You sleep?” “Avenge them,” etc.

[4] I do not know who instituted the prayer, but it was printed in the old Ashkenazi siddurim as part of the prayer service for the 20th of Sivan, a fast-day instituted to commemorate the Chmielnicki massacres.