Sunday, April 11, 2010

God, The Holocaust, and Lighting a Candle in the Dark

Why do you believe in God?

Fifty one out of fifty two weeks a year, the answer is obvious. The world is beautiful and brilliant, a bright shining example of divine spirit and creativity. The book of Psalms gushes “how wonderful are your creations God, all were created in wisdom”, and Maimonides teaches that studying the scientific structure of the universe will inspire us to love the wise creator of the cosmos.

Philosophers call this the “teleological argument” for God, and I usually appreciate this argument. Step outside during the summer twilight, and you cannot fail but to be moved by the living poetry of the natural order, the divine harmony of birds, crickets and rustling leaves. The world is a bright and shining inspiration to faith.

But one week a year, this argument collapses completely. The week of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, leaves us numb with pain. It is not only the deaths of six million that overwhelm us; it is the barbarity with which they were murdered. Jan Karski, a member of the Polish Underground who was one of the first witnesses to tell the world about the Holocaust, reported about one such atrocity he witnessed in Izbica, Eastern Poland. There, a group of 120-130 Jews were forced into a train car made to fit 40 people, and the doors were slammed shut. On the floor of the train was quicklime powder, a chemical that generates enormous heat when mixed with water. The human sweat dripping down to the floor caused the quicklime to bubble, and painfully and slowly, the inhabitants of the cars began to burn. These poor victims cried in agony for over a day until they met their inevitable deaths.

How can one believe in God when such evil stalks the earth?

Dark deeds of evil challenge the faith of everyone, even great rabbis. The Talmud tells of Elisha Ben Avuyah, a Rabbinic leader who lost his faith when he witnessed a pig dragging around the tongue of a Rabbi who had been executed by the Romans. The Talmud seems to be insisting that we understand Elisha’s heresy, and to be aware that at times everyone doubts their faith.

The evil of the Holocaust challenges our faith not just in God, but in life itself. In the shadow of horrific evil, all joy seems like lunacy, and the pursuit of meaning seem like an absurdity. When the Gestapo eliminated the hospital in the Lodz Ghetto, the SS officers threw babies out of the window. One intrepid young officer, stationed on the street, decided to “catch” the flying babies on his bayonet, slicing through these innocent infants.

Who can believe in anything after witnessing such a crime?

Despair is particularly painful for sensitive souls. The students of Hillel are exceptionally humble and charitable; yet when it comes to discuss the value of life, they concluded “it would be better for man to have not been created than to be created”. These sensitive Rabbis take the suffering of the world to heart, and find it too overwhelming, and they are left wondering about the value of life.

In the dark shadows of the Holocaust, faith becomes a painful question rather than an easy answer.

Yet, despite doubts and despair, we teach, talk and think about the Holocaust. Instead of considering Aushwitz to be a theological disaster zone, we view it a semi-sacred site, a place for communal pilgrimages. We even send high school students to visit concentration camps on The March of the Living.

Presumably, exposing gentle young students to the dark horrors of the Holocaust should warp their souls and leave them cynical and bitter. But strangely enough, the students return from the March of the Living inspired. They walk up to the abyss and come into contact with the darkest horrors man has known; yet they walk away with a spiritual experience. Why does this happen?

Because man instinctively resists evil. The darkness of evil inspires us to do good, because our soul simply cannot tolerate evil. The Bible says “man’s soul is God’s candle”, and each soul has a profound spirituality. (Yes, this is still true despite the fact that the Nazis perverted and corrupted the image of God, burying their souls under a miasma of evil). Deep inside, we have a divine impulse that searches for goodness.

Even in the desperation of the death camps, there were heroes of kindness, like the man who saved Mayer Schondorf’s life. After an all night death march, sixteen year old Mayer’s cap blew off. Frozen and broken, Schondorf wanted to quit and step out of line, and get shot by the German guards. The man behind Mayer encouraged him to hold on, and when they passed by a corpse on the side of the road, this man risked his life to grab the cap and give it to Mayer. Enveloped by cruelty, this anonymous hero refused to capitulate; instead he lights a candle of kindness.

When confronted with evil, one needs to battle for the good; when confronted by darkness, one needs to light a candle.

When walking in Auschwitz, surrounded by the horrors of the Holocaust, belief comes from within, from our own souls. Repulsed by horror, our spirits stir, and demand that we transform ourselves and change the world. And that impulse to battle evil and do good is powerful evidence of the divine spirit within all of us.

Our souls, God’s candles on earth, can still light the path of faith in the darkest of places.

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