Suffering and the Holocaust

1) I cannot believe in a G-d who allows a Holocaust and Suffering

2) How can one explain bad families and environments?

3) Why do good and innocent people suffer? Why do some wicked people seem to have it all?

4) How come G-d lets one person kill another?

5) What are Jewish responses to suffering? What should our response be to someone else’s pain? What should our response be to our own pain?

6) Are we allowed to question G-d’s actions?


1. I cannot believe in a G-d who allows a Holocaust and Suffering



    There are really one of two answers to the issue of suffering: Either you don’t believe in G-d and this world is therefore totally meaningless, a scenario that few people really believe; or you do believe in G-d, in which case there is a World to Come, the only thing that helps make sense of suffering. (Certainly, the third alternative, not to believe in G-d and to believe in man instead, does not exist, for it was man who actually perpetrated the deed.) Since these are equal alternatives, you cannot use the argument for suffering to decide which of the two you believe in. Your attitude toward suffering must be a consequence of your belief and not that which formulates your belief. Anyone who says, “I can’t believe in G-d because He allowed the Holocaust,” is really willing to say that the moment he receives an adequate explanation for this, he will immediately become fully observant. But this is almost never true. The Holocaust is not what destroyed his faith: rather he is saying this because he doesn’t believe. The fact is that most observant Jews who actually went through the Holocaust increased their faith afterwards.


    When attempting any explanation for the Holocaust, one has to approach with fear and trembling. How could any explanation account for six million Jews killed.  Indeed, for nearly half a century after the event, great sages refused to address this issue. A comprehensive answer is impossible in this format. It may be impossible in any format. When Moses was on Mt. Sinai, he reached the greatest heights attainable by a human. At that time, he sought to resolve the puzzle of why there is suffering. But even he could not fathom the ultimate meaning of this all [1] .

    So, a full understanding of the issue is impossible. But let us look at a few issues and see whether we can increase our understanding a little.

    It matters very much to us how many people were killed and how much they suffered. There is no end we need to go to to save a single Jewish life. There is no value that we can put on anyone’s suffering. At a level of feelings we ought to be doubly as distressed by the pain of two than we are by the pain of one. But at a level of theology, of explaining why G-d allows suffering in this world, we may just as well begin by explaining why someone’s finger is hurting [2] . There is a difference as to why national tragedies happen as contrasted with a private person’s pain. But the starting point for both is why G-d allows suffering in the world.

    Now there are many explanations as to why someone might be in pain. G-d may be urging the person to address a certain issue or to turn to Him; He may be purifying the person or the person may be suffering the natural consequences of his actions. But the deeper question is, “Why did G-d create the world in such a way that suffering is an intrinsic component thereof?” Could not G-d have found a different way of achieving these things? Why do people have to suffer?

    Let us be absolutely clear: Judaism does not regard suffering as having intrinsic value. Ultimately, suffering is regarded as a part of the evil of this world, something which is destined to disappear. But it does seem to be built into this world to some degree. G-d created darkness before he created light. And from that time onwards we seem to only to be able to see true spiritual light by pushing it against the darkness. Even our senses seem to work this way;  and to do good we also have to push against our inclinations to cheat just a little on our taxes or tell that little white lie, or to sometimes have illicit thoughts. Pain is a part of our learning process and it is an essential early warning that something is wrong, physically or emotionally.

    Now we can never ask why the world was created a certain way rather than another. Not being G-d, we can never understand all the reasons why the fact that the world was created the way it was was the best possible of all options. All we can do is to notice that this is the choice that G-d made and try to understand the wisdom of the way the world functions as is. And what we do notice, is that all great things are achieved with difficulty [3] .

    It is clear that we choose very little of the struggles we face in this world. But it is also clear that we do choose our responses to them [4] , including our response to imminent death.  And, we are told, by exercising our choice in this way we imitate our Creator, we choose to create good just like He does. This understanding changes our whole attitude to things. Comfort, ease, security and status are no longer the goal – the soul has a different agenda altogether. It will measure pleasure or pain, comfort or discomfort only against the yardstick of means for refining our character, purifying and elevating ourselves [5] . And when it comes to purifying and being strengthened, comfort usually comes a poor second to being hammered in the fire [6] .

    Suffering represents the ultimate הסתר פנים, the hiding of the Face of G-d. This is why we all naturally have the question of where He is when we see pain and tragedy. But it is just this הסתר פנים which G-d uses to give us our challenges and to allow us to choose our responses. In our period, the pre-Messianic era, we are told that this הסתר פנים will be at its greatest. For it is then that the final and deepest contradictions between purity and impurity, spirituality and vacuum, are being resolved. At this time, the final kicks of evil will be witnessed in all their terrible fury, a last attempt to destroy good [7] . As Rabbi Tauber puts it:  “Hitler said, ‘I am going to show you that you do not represent G-d.  You are going to deny G-d ... You are going to get angry with G-d.’

“What happened, however? Under circumstances where people had the most opportunity to become the most angry at G-d Jews snuck away and said:

“יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא”

In the end evil will not have its day, and the very evil will be used by G-d to contribute to a time when suffering, Holocausts and tragedy will be banished forever.

But to go further we must stop here and get together again to study further.

2. How can one explain bad families and environments?


    Let’s get one thing straight at the outset. This world is not a fair place and was never meant to be a fair place. Each of us gets exactly what we need in order to do what we need to do. Since we each have a unique role to play in this world, we each have an exact environment. We are not all born equal. (This is not the same as saying we ought to be given equal opportunities.) Some of us are more intelligent than others; some more physically agile, some more naturally together, calm or energetic than others. We are not all born equal because we do not all have the same spiritual task in life. But Judaism is a great believer of equality – in the world to come. The same effort exerted by say a mentally or physically challenged person as someone talented may achieve very different results in this world. But it will achieve the same level of spirituality in the World to Come. And that is where it really counts.

3. Why do good and innocent people suffer? Why do some wicked people seem to have it all?


    This is a very good question. It would be a knockout question if This World were all there was. But it is not. G-d does not reward people in This World for the good they do. Only in the land of Israel, and only for the Jewish people as a whole, is there a linkage between spiritual behavior and G-d’s direct response to us. In addition, G-d did build the world in such a way that, when evil reaches a certain point, it self-destructs. But for individuals, we get not reward and punishment in this world, but tools for change. G-d reacts to our actions, words and thoughts and presents us with new challenges, internal or external, that are perfect for our next stage of growth.  It may be that someone perfectly righteous spends his whole life in dire poverty. And this is just what he needs. And it may be that someone perfectly evil is rolling in the dough. And this gives him the opportunities he needs to maximize his potential. In the end we all get what we need and we will all be held accountable for fulfilling our potential. We cannot know anyone else’s potential and why he was given what he was given. We are competing only with ourselves.

4. How come G-d lets one person kill another?


    It is difficult for us to understand how G-d reconciles the detailed care He gives to arranging the perfect environment for each and everyone of us, with the freedom of choice we all have. It means that when I choose to do something which may affect any number of other people, G-d has to rearrange all the environments of all those affected. Now there are many ways in which G-d can ensure that we get the challenges that we need, and, He, in His infinite wisdom, weaves a thread of Providence which integrates with the choices which we all make.

    Now the situation becomes much more complicated when we deal with murder. G-d will not allow someone to die before his time, but that means interfering with someone else’s (the murderer’s) choice. The issue is brought to the fore in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s brothers decide to kill him and in the end throw him in a pit full of snakes and scorpions. Ohr HaChaim explains that they wanted to see whether in fact Joseph deserved the death penalty. Had they killed him themselves, then this would not have proven that he deserved to die, for G-d might not have interfered with their freedom of choice. Whereas, by abandoning Joseph in the dangerous pit, they were truly putting him in G-d’s hands, for He would save Joseph if he did not deserve to die. And indeed that is what happened.

    Sometimes, when a murder takes place, it was time for the victim to die anyhow. Sometimes, the potential victim needs to be saved, even if this requires miraculous intervention. And sometimes, in a mystery of Providence, G-d reorganizes the universe so that the untimely death of this person does not deprive him of any of his potential. The very act of dying in this way, is often the purification the person needs to fill in the gap of his missed years of life.

5. What are Jewish responses to suffering? What should our response be to someone else’s pain? What should our response be to our own pain?


    Judaism makes a very big distinction between our responses to our pain, and our responses to the pain of another. When we are the sufferers, we need to look into ourselves, and find the strength to use the suffering to grow and be purified. We need to understand that G-d loves us, and that therefore He must be giving us this pain for our own good.

    But when it comes to someone else’s pain, we are urged to feel their pain, to be a source of strength and comfort. In fact, it is a defining characteristic of being a Jew that we are able to identify with the pain of others. This is what made Moses so great. It may be that a person will draw strength from hearing about some of the ideas why people suffer, or it may be that that is the last thing you should be telling them. Your job is to be there for them, and to ease their lot in any way possible.

6. Are we allowed to question G-d’s actions?


    Yes we may. One of the great figures of suffering in the Bible is Job (Iyov). Throughout the book of Job, his three friends try to comfort him and to justify G-d’s actions in letting him suffer. Yet Job rejects their solace and pushes away their explanations. Amazingly, in the end G-d praises Job and criticizes his friends [8] . The Malbim explains that this is because Job never stopped believing in G-d. What he was not willing to do was to accept explanations of his suffering which did not ring true to him. His friends, on the other hand, were full of philosophical and theological sophistry, but at bottom, they really had serious doubts, problems with faith.

    We may not always understand what our parents do to us and for us, but in normal families this does not contradict the faith we have in them. Similarly, we can be secure in our
faith and yet, no because of that faith, turn to G-d and say, “G-d, I simply do not understand why you are doing this to me.”

[1]ברכות ז וא”ר יוחנן משום ר’ יוסי שלשה דברים בקש משה לפני קב”ה ונתן לו ... בקש להודיעו דרכיו... ונתן לו שנא’  הודיעני נא את דרכיך אמר לפניו רבש”ע מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו יש רשע וטוב לו ... ופליגא דר’ מאיר דא”ר מאיר שתים נתנו לו ואחת לא נתנו לו

[2] Philosophically there is no difference between a stubbed toe and great suffering ערכין פרק ג טז
עד היכן תכלית יסורין אמר רבי אלעזר כל שארגו לו בגד ללבוש ואין מתקבל עליו ... אפילו נתכוונו למזוג
בחמין ומזגו לו בצונן... הושיט ידו לכיס ליטול שלש ועלו בידו שתיים

“One human tragedy is not as heartbreaking as a tragedy multiplied a million fold.  A man who murders one person is not as guilty as a mass murderer ... but justice and injustice, guilt and innocence, are matters of degree only for man ... an absolute G-d cannot be a tiny bit unjust ...Once the questioning of G-d over the Holocaust is motivated by the vastness of the catastrophe, the questioning itself becomes ethically questionable.  It is of course more human to query G-d about the suffering of the many rather than the few, but it is not more humane…  To suggest that one could put up with less evil and less injustice, but not with so much, is cruelly unethical.  Indeed, the Holocaust was only possible because man was willing to tolerate less than a Holocaust. ...The question is not why the Holocaust, but why a world in which any amount of suffering is extant. (Eliezer Berkowitz, The Hiding G-d of History.)

[3] מס’ ברכות ה. שלש מתנות... נתן הקב”ה לישראל וכולן לא נתנן אלא על ידי יסורין אלו הן תורה ארץ ישראל והעולם הבא

...אלו שלושה מדריגות של קדושה לישראל... כי היסורים  זיכוך הנפש ולכך כאשר ישראל קנו מעלה נבדלת מן הגוף צריכים קודם מרוק וזכוך הנפש עד שראוי לקבל המעלה מהר”ל נתיב היסורין פרק ב’:הקדושהודבר זה דומה ליסורין של אהבה ... ולכך אמר ג’ מתנות טובות כנגד ג’ מדרגות של קדושה

בראשית רבה צד:ה  ויזבח זבחים לאלקי אביו יצחק (ויגש) ... אין הקב”ה מייחד שמו על ברייה כשהוא חי אלא על בעלי יסורין, לפיכך אין כתיב כאן ויזבח זבחים לאלקי יעקב אלא לאלקי אביו יצחק...שהיה בעל יסורין

לפום צערא אגרא  (פרקי אבות ה:כז)  איוב אלולי לא קרא תגר כשבאו עליו יסורין כשם שאומר עכשיו אלקי אברהם אלקי יצחק ואלקי יעקב כך היו אומרים אלקי איובילקוט איוב תתקח:כג

מס’ שבת יג:
ת”ר מי כתב מגילת תענית אמרו חנניה בן חזקיה וסיעתו שהיו מחבבין את הצרות

... כמ”ש כשם שמברכים על הטובה כך מברכים על הרעה (דאיתא בערכין דף יז כל  מי שעברו עליו מ’ יום בלא יסורים קבל עולמו) ולזה נקרא ספר מגילת תענית דהיום טוב הנזכרים בו עיקרן לא נתייסדו אלא ע”ש התענית שהיה להם בעת צרה

[4] I have come to understand that there is a universal principle at work for each of us – whether we grow up in a mill town or Beverly Hills. Sometime in childhood you are ‘dealt a card’ and often the person who deals the card is your parent.  The card usually represent a childhood trauma of some sort-your parents are poor, your parents are rich, your parents get divorced, your parents stay together when they should have divorced, your parents neglect you, your parents overpower you with attention, your parents died, your parents are perfect, your home life is perfect but then war breaks out in your country and on and on it goes.

          It is guaranteed that something happened in your childhood which has imprinted you for life, and chances are it is linked to your main fear in life-fear of abandonment, fear of intimacy, fear of being controlled … you fill it in.

          The point of all this is-we are stuck with the card dealt to us in childhood, and everything in life depends on how we play it. The credit or the blame for how the game turns out is all ours. (Kirk Douglas, Climbing the Mountain – My Search for Meaning (Simon & Schuster 1997) pg. 64)

[5] Rabbi Tauber: If, for instance, everything goes well, a pregnant woman lives through nine months of morning sickness, discomfort and mood swings which finally culminate in excruciating labor pains.  Despite all the discomfort, in the end she looks at the newborn and says that it was all worth it.  What if, however she was pregnant for a few months and then, G-d forbid, miscarried?  How devastating!  Or what if the child is born crippled or retarded?  Or what if it is a healthy child who grows up into a real problem child?  What will the mother think, then?  That all the pain and effort was for nothing.         

It does not have to be so, however.  Our mission is to perform קדוש השם - to do whatever G-d demands of us at that moment.  If you perform the responsibility of that moment, then - mission accomplished!  Consider the pregnant woman who miscarried.  If she can say to herself: “G-d, You commanded me to have children.  It is my business to try and fulfill that commandment.  However, I have no guarantee about the end result.  I know that as long as I am taking all the necessary steps to fulfill this mission, then I am a success - mission accomplished” and mean it, she will never be devastated.  In fact, every second she is pregnant it is as if she is giving birth to a child.  Her feeling of accomplishment is not dependent on the final outcome, which really is in G-d’s hands anyhow. (p. 46-47)

[6] Although this is based on a quote in Why Me Why This Why Now, Robin Norwood, pg. 34, the idea is a very Jewish one. For example, Maharal states:

מהר”ל נצח ישראל פ”ז:

אין ד”ת מתקיימין אלא במי שממית עצמו עליה: דבר זה ענין מופלא כי התורה והגוף שהן שני הפכים וא”כ איך תתקיים התורה שהיא שכלית בגוף הגשמי שהגשמי הפך הנבדל ולפיכך אין קיום התורה באדם הגשמי שהם כמו שני דברים שאין מתדמים ומתייחסים ביחד, שאין להם עמידה ביחד ולפיכך אין התורה מתקיימת רק במי שממית עצמו על התורה ואדם כזה גופו אינו נחשב כלל וכאילו אינו גופני כלל שהרי הוא ממית ומסלק עצמו על התורה ובזה התורה מתקיים שהרי אינו בעל גוף ... 

Rabbi Tauber: Having faith does not mean one is numb to pain. It is like giving birth to a child.  The woman about to give birth is experiencing very real labor pains, yet she knows that after the baby is born she will feel that it was all worth it.  That faith in the ultimate outcome gives her the strength to withstand the present pain.  The truth is that every person who goes through pain is delivering a “baby” - that “baby” is yourself.  It is the accomplishment that you have remained true to the Higher reality - that G-d is behind everything, all for your ultimate good - in the face of extreme hardship…(pg. 87)

דברים יד א: א”ע (מובא ג”כ ברמב”ן):
אחר שתדעו שאתם בנים לה’ והוא אוהב אתכם יותר מן האב לבנו לא תתגודדו על כל מה שיעשה כי כל מה שיעשה לטוב הוא ואם לא תבינוהו כאשר לא יבינו הבנים הקטנים מעשה אביהם רק יסמכו עליו כי עם קדוש אתה ואינך כשאר כל הגוים ע”כ לא תעשו כמעשיהם

Somebody who has really internalized the purpose of יסורים will actually have הכרת הטוב to השם, just like a patient will thank his doctor for a painful procedure.

[7] בדעת תבונות:

שבזמן תוקף עקבות משיחא, לא יקשה עלינו אם הצדיקים נשפלים השפלה גדולה, ואם בני האדם צועקים ולא נענים... כי כל זה נולד לפי שאין הצדיקים יכולים אפילו בזכותם לתקן הקלקולים (של הבריאה בכללה( (ס’ קע הוצאת הרב פרידלנדר דף קצג)

ובכללים ראשונים: ובאחרית הגלות הקב”ה משתמש הרוב מזאת, (מהנהגת המזל) כי הכוונה אז לתת תקון כללי לכל העולם, ועל כן צריך שיתנהג בהנהגת היחוד, שמן ההעלם הגדול יולד הגילוי הגדול, ויהיה שלמות ניתן לעולם. (מובא בהארה 474 שם) והוסיף הרב פרידלנדר דדברים אלה פותחים פתח להבין את הגזירות הקשות שירדו על דורנו

[8]פרק מב

(א) ויען איוב את ד’ ויאמר (ב) ידעתי כי כל תוכל ולא יבצר ממך מזמה (ז) ויהי אחר דבר ד’ את הדברים האלה אל איוב ויאמר ד’ אל אליפז התימני חרה אפי בך ובשני רעיך כי לא דברת אלי נכונה כעבדי איוב


חרה אפי בך: כי לא דברתם אלי נכונה כעבדי איוב שבפיהם התוכחו בעד ד’, אבל לבם לא היה מסכים אל פיהם ...

Posted in: Jewish Beliefs & Philosophy