The Divine Response to Great Evil | Aleph Beta

The Divine Response to Great Evil

Passover, The Holocaust, & Beyond: What Can We Expect Of Divine Justice?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt was brutal. Many were murdered, including innocent children who were thrown into the Nile. And although God rescued the Jews in the end, one can't help wonder - was that enough? Was leaving Egypt enough of a restitution for the horrible suffering and evil that occurred? Perhaps there more to the story than what first meets the eye. Join Rabbi Fohrman as he takes a look at God's full response, that spans generations, to the great evil that occurred in Egypt, and sheds light on what divine justice really looks like.

Rabbi Fohrman starts off the series taking a closer look at at text in the book of Deuteronomy that can help shed light on what was happening in Egypt before the Jews were redeemed.


Hey folks, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and you are watching Aleph Beta. You know, when we think of Passover, we’ve sometimes got these stylized portraits of Pesach from movies like The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt, with their Hollywood-like triumphant versions of the splitting sea, of Israelites marching to freedom, of a group of perfectly coiffed little children singing “When You Believe in Miracles. …” It's the best. 

But the point is that hindsight is not always really 20/20. You see, looking at the Exodus from the standpoint of hindsight — and we’ve got 3000 years of hindsight, mind you — the idea of slavery in Egypt doesn’t really seem quite as scary as it probably seemed the first time around. If you think about what it might have been like to have actually been there, it was horrific — babies being thrown into the Nile kind of horrific. And in the wake of horrific experiences like that, I think there’s a weighty question that we humans sometimes find ourselves wondering about, and that is… What, really, is the Divine response to all of this? 

Now, obviously, in the case of the Exodus, a big aspect of the Divine response was, look, God set us free, He took us out of Egypt. What more do you want? And that, of course, is wonderful. It really is. But the question is: Is that really enough? Is it enough just to be set free? Somehow, human instinct wants something a little bit more than that. 

What do I mean by a little more than that? I don’t know… Evil, especially at that scale, it’s really bad; it shakes our sense of order in the world. Something between revenge and justice, maybe; some kind of sense that, somewhere up in Heaven, there’s a response to this outrage that somehow puts a sense of order back into the world. But as sharply as we humans may sometimes want to see that kind of orderly application of Divine justice, you know, the universe doesn’t always hew to our wants and our desires, no matter how deeply felt they may be. And that’s a little uncomfortable. Where exactly does that leave us? In the dark, without really seeing that hand of Divine justice.

What you’re about to watch is a talk that I gave a little while ago, a talk that grapples with some of these issues. The original spark for this talk came from one of our scholars here at Aleph Beta, Daniel Loewenstein. He noticed something peculiar and remarkable about a text. He brought it to my attention, and in conversations with him, it turned out that this was the tip of a pretty big and marvelous iceberg. In the talk, I try and show what that iceberg is and what its implications are for really big ideas, like how God’s justice works in this world.  

I think our desires for revenge or justice … these things are difficult to pin down, more difficult than we might at first acknowledge. And the Divine response to great evil, evil on a  huge and massive scale … it, too, might be more surprising than we might at first acknowledge. God doesn’t always do things the way we might expect. 

This talk was originally given to a live audience, and through the magic of Aleph Beta artistry, we’ve created an animated presentation out of it. I invite you to listen in. I hope it's something you might find meaningful .

I want to talk with you tonight about a very weighty theme.  It's a question that I think we all have, but not a question that I would raise publicly or speak about publicly, or even really ruminate privately about so much, because it seems like the kind of question that you're not allowed to ask. 

What does Divine justice look like in the face of great human evil? That sounds, perhaps, like an antiseptic kind of way of thinking about it. But if you personalize it for a moment, we're only 70 years after the Holocaust. The Holocaust has touched many of us here in the room deeply, our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents. There's probably not a family here who wasn't, in some way, touched by the Holocaust. And the question is, what exactly does Divine justice mean? What would you expect in Divine justice after an event like the Holocaust? 

That seems like such a huge question, such an impossible-to-understand question. Let me first sharpen the question for you, to show you just how vexing the question is.

What Would Divine Justice Be for the Holocaust?

What would Divine justice look like in the face of the great human evil that we call the Holocaust? That’s a very tricky question to answer. Because, you know, it seems that, if anything, the problem folks have with God in the aftermath of the Holocaust is that He seemed silent. But I want to suggest that’s not really the main problem. Imagine God would say to you: Sure, I’m willing to not be silent; I’m willing to carry out justice after the Holocaust – you tell me what justice looks like and I’ll do it. How would you even respond to that? What would you even want from God? What exactly would that justice look like? I'll give you a couple nominations, and I'm curious to see what you think.

Nomination number one: The Nazi regime is defeated. Nazi Germany is destroyed. Right?  Nothing is left of the old regime. The railways eventually get bombed. The gas chambers eventually lie empty. Hitler commits suicide in a bunker. The Allies take over. Many hundreds of thousands of Germans lose their lives.

What if I told you that this is – that's it? Divine justice for the Holocaust: Germany lost the war.

I'd just like to take a little poll. How many of you, just by way of show of hands, would feel that justice has been done in the aftermath of the Holocaust through Germany losing the war? Please raise your hand. Fascinating. Not one of you have raised your hand. But that's a big deal! Germany did lose the war. It wasn't a foregone conclusion they were going to lose the war, and yet in our heart of hearts, none of us feel that that's enough. None of us feel that that does it.

So now the question I ask for you is, what, then, would? What would? It's such a painful and difficult question to answer, because it almost feels that the crime is so big that there's nothing that could be done that would count as justice. So what does the dayan ha'emet, what does the great Judge in the sky do in a case like this? What do you even want from Him? What could you do that was more? The Nazi Regime just isn’t even around anymore.  You can't wring anything more out of them. I guess you could boycott Angela Merkel and you could say that we shouldn't drive Mercedes around, which we do. Right? So is that it? Is that what we're reduced to – no, we shouldn't drive Mercedes around? So if we instituted a new boycott, nobody drives Mercedes, Israel should give back all the Egged buses, now it would feel okay? It still wouldn't feel okay.

So the question is, what would? What could Divine justice look like in the face of a monstrous human evil? This sort of seemingly unanswerable question is a question that I wonder whether the Chumash has anything to teach us about. Does the Torah have anything to say about this question, about any event, any huge, monstrous event – great human evil and what Divine justice would look like? And how could that help us understand, maybe in our own lives, as a community, what it would look like for there to be Divine justice after the Holocaust?

It strikes me, just in ruminating upon this question, upon sort of the macro level of what Divine justice would look like in the aftermath of the Holocaust, that it seems like it's impossible to ignore the existence of the State of Israel. If you even think about it in terms of the macro historical scale of events, right, the only event that you could possibly come up with that could rival the Holocaust in terms of magnitude might be the establishment of the State of Israel and the development of the State of Israel. 

And, so one wonders if the State of Israel is part of the solution. And yet, even if it were part of the solution, the question would be, how? Because –  if I would come to you and say, I understand Divine justice, Divine justice is: Some terrible things happened to you, but nu, at least you got a state out of it. The UN felt so sorry for you that they actually voted for partition. So that's God's lollipop. That's His compensation. That's the ice cream cone at the end of the tragedy.

And I said to you, would that feel like that's Divine justice? That still doesn't feel right. That feels like the kind of thing you'd hear at a bad mussar schmooze.  You'd walk away and you'd think, I'm never going back to hear that again. Yet it's hard to ignore the establishment of the State of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust. So how, if at all, does that fit into it? And what would Divine justice look like?

So again, does Chumash itself offer us anything by way of coming to grips with any of these questions? I suspect it might, and I want to share with you some thoughts tonight and invite you to think about them and to ruminate on them and see what this means to you.

The Shotrim

Let me take you into Dvarim perek khaf (Deuteronomy chapter 20).

So the first thing I want to do with you is, I'd like to just explore this passage with you. And just ask yourself, what seems strange about this passage? Let me just suggest the following. Israel is about to go into the land. They're going to set up a society in the land. In that society, Parshat Shoftim tells us, there's going to be a certain group of people that are called shotrim. Can anyone give me a good translation of shotrim? Who are the shotrim

They're the police.  Now, what would you expect from shotrim? I just need a two-sentence, pithy description of what they do. You know what police do – What?

Audience Member:  Law and order.

Rabbi Fohrman:  Law and order. It's going to be a law-and-order society. So what does that mean, law and order? They're going to do what kind of stuff? Give me some examples.

Audience Member:  Lo tignov.

Rabbi Fohrman:  That's right. If somebody has a robbery, they're going to get them out. Anybody else?

Audience Member:  Traffic.

Rabbi Fohrman:  Traffic. They'll pull you over if you're going too fast in a school zone. That's what the police do. They'll give you a ticket. They're enforcers of the law.

And that would make sense, right? Because in fact, when the Torah introduces shotrim, these police officers, it mentions another position alongside them: Shoftim, judges. That's how Parshat Shoftim begins, "Shoftim v'shotrim titein lecha." Well, judges, these guys are the legislators, maybe the judiciary – they’re responsible for making laws and deciding them. And then you’ve got shotrim, these police folk, their job is to enforce the laws handed down by the shoftim. That’s what you’d expect shotrim to do, right? 

So let's actually look at what God decided to include in His Torah, telling us about the shotrim. Because the shotrim do get their place in the sun. It's in chapter 20 of Deuteronomy. Fascinatingly, they do the exact opposite of what you would expect a shoter to do. Literally the exact opposite.

The shotrim that we meet in perek khaf (chapter 20) are military police. The military police are called upon to address the troops on the eve of battle. What kind of battle? "Ki teitzei lamilchamah al oyvecha v'ra'ita sus varechev am rav mimcha" – A battle in which it's the eve of war and you look out and you see your army, and then you see their army – sus varechev are the ancient equivalent of tanks – many more than you. They outnumber you ten to one. That kind of battle.

You look out at the enemy outnumbering you ten to one, and now it's your job, as a military police officer, to address the troops on the eve of battle. What would you say to them? Forget about what the Torah says. What would you tell them in your speech?  Anybody?

Audience Member:  If anybody tries to run away, straight to jail.

Rabbi Fohrman:  That's right. You may be scared of them, you might say, but if you're scared of them, it means you're not scared of me enough.  My job is to get you more scared of me than you are of them. So I'll intimidate you. If you retreat, off to jail. Or even worse, if you retreat, I have a gun and I can kill you. It's short range, and I know your names and I know your numbers. Something like that. By the way, if you look at the history of military conflict, this is what military police often do. 

Look at what our military police do. The first piece of advice the Torah gives you is "Lo tira meihem," don't fear them. Why? "Ki Hashem Elokecha imach," because God is with you, "hama'alcha mei'eretz Mitzrayim," the God who took you out of Egypt.

"V'hayah" and it shall be, "k'korovchem el hamilchamah," when you get close to the war, on the eve of battle, two people are going to address you. The first person is going to be a kohen (priest), a special kohen known as the kohen hamashuach milchamah, the kohen that addresses the troops on the eve of war. He is going to speak to the people.

He tells them this: "Shema Yisrael," listen oh Israel, "atem kreivim hayom lamilchamah al oyveichem," today you are coming close to war. “Al yeirach levavchem," don't be scared, "al tir'u," don't be afraid, "al tachpezu," do not panic, "v'al ta'artzu mipneihem," do not tremble before them. "Ki Hashem Elokeichem haholeich imachem l'hilachem lachem im oyveichem l'hoshia etchem," because God is going to walk with you and He's going to save you.

Addressing the Troops

At that point, the shotrim make their only appearance in all of chamishah chumshei Torah (the Five Books of Moses). “V'dibru hashotrim el ha'am,” and the shotrim speak to the people "leimor," and they say: "Mi ha'ish asher banah vayit chadash," is there anybody in the crowd who perhaps has built a new house and didn't get a chance to live in it yet? "Yeileich v'yashov l'veito," you know, you really should go home, "pen yamut bamilchamah," because, you know, you might die tomorrow, and it would really be a shame if you didn't get to live in your house, "v'ish acher yachnechenu," and some other yokel lives in it instead of you. You really should go home. That's the first thing they say.

Then they continue, "U'mi ha'ish asher nata kerem," and forget about the home. Let's say you just did a vineyard, "v'lo chilelo," you haven't yet experienced the wine from the vineyard, "yeileich v'yashov l'veito," you really should go home, "pen yamut bamilchamah," you wouldn't want to die in a war tomorrow, “v'ish acher yechalelenu,” and some other guy is going to taste those grapes.

"U'mi ha'ish asher eiras ishah," and who is the man who is engaged, "v'lo lekachah," but didn't yet marry his wife. You really should go home, spend some time with her. You wouldn't want to die in war and have somebody else take her. That's the first three things they say.

The last thing they say is: "Mi ha'ish hayarei v'rach haleivav," if you feel a little scared, there's no shame in feeling scared. Everyone feels scared. "Yeileich v'yashov l'veito," you also can go home. It's not just if you've built a house or something; if you're scared, you really should just go home. "Lo yimas et levav echav kilevavo," other people shouldn't get scared like you're scared. It's fine. You can just go home.

This is what the shotrim say. Are they mad? What are they even thinking? Who's going to stay? No one. Who's not scared, right? Nine-tenths of your troops are going to leave.

It seems like a very strange speech to give.

It's not only strange, by the way, for the reason I just gave you. It's strange, actually, for another reason, too. Listen carefully to these words and tell me what's strange about them. 

The guy who built the new house, not only can he go home, but listen to how this is phrased. The reason I'm giving you the right to leave is because A, "pen yamut bamilchamah," lest you die in war tomorrow, and B, "v'ish acher yachnechenu," some other guy is going to live in the house.

What would you take out? First of all, you might take out the part about “lest you die in war tomorrow.” You wouldn't say that. What would you say instead? “Lest something happen to you tomorrow.” We all buy life insurance, right? When you buy life insurance, how come you buy life insurance? Because if, God forbid, “something happens to you.” Do you understand?

How come the life insurance salesmen don't say “This is for if you die”? There's a reason they don't say that. It's because we don't like talking about our deaths so overtly. It gets us nervous, do you understand? So that's why we have these wonderful things called euphemisms. So we say things like: God forbid, if anything should happen to you, your family will be taken care of. I'm willing to buy life insurance, if anything should happen to me. We all know – but it's not something I'm going to say, do you understand? The ads for life insurance don't say: Death – exclamation mark! That's not what they say.

You know, give the guy a lesson in public speaking. This isn't how you talk to troops. They might actually die tomorrow. You say: “Guys, you know, maybe you should go home, who knows, it's a war.” Something like that. Fine. But he says "pen yamut bamilchamah."

Now think of the next thing he says. "V'ish acher yachnechenu," and somebody else might come along and live in that house instead of you, and that would be terrible. Does anything rub you the wrong way over here? How would you say it? What's the great tragedy? Is it the greater tragedy that you've built this house and, nebach, you should die before living in the house – or is it the greater tragedy that some other yokel Shmerel over there is going to live in your house. What's the greater tragedy?

You'd like to think it's the first one; it's not the second one. I'm not the kind of guy who would be so upset about Shmerel. I'm dead, fine – Shmerel, live in my house, I don't care, I'm dead, I don't mind. At least somebody should live in the house. That's not the tragedy! The tragedy is, I didn't get to live in the house. 

Wouldn't it be so much nicer, so much more high-minded, if the shotrim addressing the troops just left it as: It would be tragic if you didn't get to live in your house. It would be tragic if you didn't get to live with your wife, if you didn't get to taste your vineyard. You've got to throw in Shmerel? You've got to make me jealous of Shmerel? Like, I'm dead already. Shmerel can have my vineyard. Why is it that we're so focused on Shmerel?  

So the whole speech seems weird. It just seems like a strange thing to say. Plus, the whole notion that a soldier would be given license by the state to leave war because of these personal things – in other words, it's not like a reservist asking for time to spend Shabbos at home with his wife, do you understand? You're looking out at the battle and you're overwhelmed and you're going to face those troops tomorrow. And if you leave, that means there's less of you who have to fight them tomorrow, and they're already outnumbered. Under those circumstances, you're going to send the guy home to hang out in his vineyard? Like, what is happening here? It's such a strange thing. Where does this come from?

Turns out, something counterintuitive is happening here. Join me in our next video, and we’ll explore it together.

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