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Alei Etzion 16: "Is This Not A Brand Plucked From The Fire?" Confronting the Aftermath of the Holocaust

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


            The Jewish People possesses a profound historical awareness. Our historical consciousness embraces not only memories of triumph and glory, but also remembrance of the most difficult and problematic periods in our history. I mean “problematic” in both senses: in terms of the events themselves, and in terms of the possibility of understanding what lies behind them.


            Both the prophets and Chazal generally connected destruction with sin. We are commanded to remember not only the terrible blows that fell upon us, but also the causes that led up to them. Furthermore, we are exhorted to draw conclusions from the events and their causes, and to learn lessons for the future.  How does this apply in the context of the Shoah?  Let us first examine a passage from the prophet Zekharya.



He showed me Yehoshua, the High Priest, standing before the angel of God, and Satan standing on his right side, to accuse him. God said to Satan: “God rebukes you, Satan; God – Who has chosen Jerusalem – rebukes you. Is this [man] not a brand plucked from the fire?”

Yehoshua was clothed in filthy garments, and he stood before the angel. He answered and said to those standing before him, saying: “Remove the filthy garments from upon him.” And he said to him: “See, I have removed your sin from upon you, and I shall clothe you in festive garments.” (Zekharya 3:1-4)

            These verses make no explicit mention of what Satan wanted to do; we have only the very general description of Satan “standing on his right side, to accuse him.” What were Satan’s claims; what accusations did he make?


            Apparently, there were legitimate grounds for accusation. The text testifies that Yehoshua was “clothed in filthy garments.” Radak explains that these were paupers’ clothes, not garments of dignity and honor. But Chazal (Sanhedrin 93a) explain the expression as implying “spiritual filth”:

Was Yehoshua then accustomed to wearing filthy garments? [Surely not;] rather, the text teaches us that his sons married women who were not fit for the priesthood, yet he did not protest.

God silences Satan not because Satan’s claims are untrue – the “garments” are indeed “filthy.” Rather, God tells Satan: Without any connection to the correctness of the actions or to the truth of your words, it is forbidden for you, Satan, to voice this accusation!


            Why does God not let Satan voice his accusation? Because the man in question is a “brand plucked from the fire.” A brand plucked from the fire – even if his garments are filthy – must be treated differently. At this moment, although he presents truthful accusations and substantial claims, Satan must keep silent.


            As I mentioned at the outset, both the prophets and Chazal often attribute destruction to sinfulness. Indeed, this connection is a fundamental element of our world-view and of our consciousness.  Where, then, do we stand in relation to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust? We certainly have no categorical possibility of rejecting the possibility that it was brought about by sin. Clearly, no one can claim to understand the ways of Divine Providence.


            At the same time, the question is not whether such a connection may possibly exist. Who are we to investigate God’s ways and to arrive at such conclusions? Rather, the question is whether such speculation is a desirable response.


            In a talmudic passage adjacent to that discussing the “brand plucked from the fire,” we find the following chilling description:

Rabbi Yochanan said: It is written (Zekharya 1:8), “I saw [in] the night, and behold – a man was riding upon a red horse, and he stood among the myrtle bushes that were in the glen.”

What is the meaning of the expression, “I saw the night”? The Holy One sought to turn the whole world into night.

“Behold, a man was riding” – the term “man” (ish) refers to God, as it is written (Shemot 15:3), “God is a man of war (ish milchama); God is his Name.”

“Upon a red horse” – the Holy One sought to turn the whole word into blood. When He gazed at Chananya, Mishael and Azarya, His temper cooled, as it is written (Zekharya 1:8), “He stood among the myrtle bushes that were in the glen.” “Myrtles” (hadasim) refers to righteous people, as it is written (Esther 2:7), “He adopted Hadassa.” (Sanhedrin 93a)

            Chazal do not explain why God suddenly wanted to “turn the whole world into night,” to overturn the order of Creation and disrupt all of existence. But they do not reject this possibility. Perhaps there are fearful, terrible times when water turns to blood, day turns to night, and light turns to darkness.


            Would such a cataclysm be regarded as direct punishment, or as a result of hester panim, the hiding of God’s face?  Our minds are incapable not only of supplying the answers, but even of formulating the questions.


            But we are being told one thing here: even if various possibilities exist, and there is no answer to the question (nor will there be one in the future), God’s rebuke of Satan resonates loud and clear.  Even if the garments were indeed filthy, even if there was a deterioration in the religious level of the Jewish nation in general and of European Jewry in particular, even if anyone wishing to adopt Satan’s role could point out a long list of sins and iniquities – it is not Satan’s words that we should hear, but rather God’s rebuke.


            All too often, we hear people claiming, “Why was there a Holocaust? Because their garments were filthy” – i.e., the generation was sinful. These people should be told that it is none of our business to determine the degree of “filth” on the garments. To them we say unequivocally: “God rebukes you, Satan; God – Who chooses Jerusalem – rebukes you!” Such talk is forbidden!


            It is forbidden not because it is inconceivable, but because such explanations are in the provenance of the prophets, and perhaps of Chazal – but we? Who gave us the right to speak in such terms?


            Every Jew today – and the State of Israel and Jewish People as whole – is, to some extent, a “brand plucked from the fire,” and the Holy One rebukes those who bring accusations against him.


            The first thing that is required, then, when relating to the Holocaust, is absolute humility and complete self-nullification. First and foremost, I refer to humility in relation to God. This means avoiding all those philosophical and theological statements, issued from all sides, with great pretension, seeking to provide one or another explanation – while the best response is silence.


            Humility is required with respect to the victims, too, both those perished and those who survived. This does not mean that one should not try to address the problem, but one must know which ways of addressing are acceptable – both intellectually and religiously – and which cannot be accepted.


            There is a question that is raised frequently, in varying formulations – the question of the “hiding of God’s face.” This question indeed has an answer, perhaps the sole answer. This true answer does not pretend to supply a philosophical answer. My neighbor, the poet R. Leib Rochman z”l, walked through the valley of death, experienced firsthand the Holocaust and its horrors, and later wrote about it. Once a woman approached him, seeking to provoke him: “And where was God during the Holocaust?” R. Leib looked directly at her and replied, “Mit unz” – God was with us.


            For a believing Jew, this is the only answer that should be given – not because it solves all the questions and doubts, but because it does not pretend to do so. It places the whole picture in the perspective of “the Divine Presence in exile” (Zohar, Shemot 3a), of “I shall be with them in this time of trouble, and I shall likewise be with them in other times of trouble” (Berakhot 9b). There is no other answer!


            Our response to the Holocaust cannot focus solely on the philosophical, theoretical level.  Rav Soloveitchik has noted that, as a nation, we have not much sought explanations for evil; instead, we have focused our attention on responding to it, and on learning its lessons. 


            This has special significance for our generation. Zekharya tells us not only that God silenced Satan’s accusations, but also that instructions were given concerning those “filthy garments”:

Yehoshua was dressed in filthy garments, and he stood before the angel. He answered and said to those standing before him, saying: “Remove the filthy garments from upon him!”

As Satan points out the filthy garments, he is silenced, and instructions are given to remove them. Indeed, “I have removed your sin from upon you, and I shall clothe you in festive garments.”


            On the one hand, we must refrain from trying to explain that terrible event on the basis of the filthy garments or the soiled spirituality; on the other hand, we must not allow ourselves to think that filth is clean, or that sinfulness can be an acceptable way of life. Along with recognition of our smallness, our inability to pass judgment, and our refusal to point an accusatory finger, we must commit ourselves to the effort to remove the soiled garments, and replace them with festive garments.


            The essence of our response to the conflagration must be to understand and accept the tasks entrusted to us as a result, and to recognize their significance on both the personal and the national level.  This response has two roots: the fact of the conflagration, and the responsibility arising from being saved. A person living in this generation cannot – under any circumstances – choose a path, make decisions or plan his future while completely ignoring the flames and the salvation.


            A person cannot view himself as though he is living in the reality described by the prophet Zekharya, at the end of the chapter we quoted above: “On that day, says the Lord of Hosts, each of you will call his neighbor to be under his vine and under his fig-tree” (3:10). It is inconceivable that a person should view himself as having been born in a generation and in a place where everyone is sitting under his vine and his fig-tree, and conclude that he is able to conduct his life accordingly.


            We are still living in a generation with special needs and special tasks. This Jewish, existential, Torah mission is the principal one facing us. We must forego “explanations” of the Shoah, and instead organize our lives against the background of the unique post-Destruction reality in which we are still living. This is our obligation.


            On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we often hear that the lesson to be learnt is that we must be strong: a strong nation, a strong State, a strong army. We must show that Jewish blood is not worthless. Undoubtedly, this is true – but it is not enough. This lesson is very far from being sufficient.


            Since time immemorial, we have existed for the sake of certain goals: to realize a vision, to make God King over the world, to serve Him as a nation with a special consciousness and with a special mission. We must keep in mind that there is no greater crime than thinking that the central message (which is sometimes presented almost as the sole message) of this dark period of our history is only that “We must go on living,” without establishing for what, or how. Woe to us if we think that the only message that arises is that “Yehoshua” must continue to live.


            We – the inheritors of Jewish faith – have another lesson. “Yehoshua” must not only live on; he must also change his garments.


            This is a message not only of strength – vital as that may be – but also of “Not by might, nor by strength, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” (Zekharya 4:6). This need arises not – heaven forefend – from the thought that the destruction was due to the filthy garments. I am not prepared to accept this view under any circumstances. Whatever the reasons may be, whatever explanations may be offered, the simple reality is that there was indeed destruction, and instead of a whole tree there now remain only smoldering brands.


            This being the case, we need to rebuild. The historical reality dictates our destinies and entrusts us with missions. Were it not for the destruction, perhaps we could suffice with less.


            The responsibility resting upon us, as survivors, is a special one, consisting of a sense of destiny and calling. A person who is saved, and understands that he was saved, must fashion his life differently than he would have otherwise. He must see himself – as Chazal put it – as belonging to those who calculate “the account of the world” (“cheshbono shel olam” – Bava Batra 78b), both in terms of individual mitzva observance as well as in confronting our historical mission. I am not speaking merely of responsibility. Anyone with even the most elementary level of spirituality begins to see things from a different perspective in light of our post-Holocaust reality; he will not suffice with keeping track of all the minor affairs that occupy us every day, but rather will measure reality from a perspective of life and death, of existence and oblivion, of continuity and severance.


            When one faces death, one begins to think in a different way. This is part of what should characterize us. We must think principally in terms of mission and calling. What is the nature of this mission?

He answered and said to those standing before him, saying: “Remove the filthy garments from upon him.”

Whoever is “standing before him” – before the angel, or before God – receives an order: You have merited to be among those who are still “standing”; now your mission is to exchange the filthy clothes for festive garments, to purify, to build, to renew.


            Three tasks require our attention at present. The first arises from our being sheluchei de-Rachmana, “God’s emissaries.” God has entrusted us with a mission, namely, to address the problems of our generation. As far as possible, we must perfect ourselves, strive to bring about the repair of the world, and understand that these two elements are inseparably bound together.


            We are not only sheluchei de-Rachmana, but also sheluchei didan, “emissaries of man.” We have another mission – a national one. We are living in a generation in which our national needs are enormous, but nevertheless the possibilities are far-reaching. We have at our disposal the kind of opportunities that our ancestors never dreamed of: building the Land of Israel and building the State of Israel, with all that these entail. Here our mission assumes special importance, for this mission could not have been accomplished when we lived under more limiting conditions.


            There is also a third mission that demands our attention. The “brand plucked from the fire” is entrusted with the task of continuing the work of those who were not plucked from the fire. This is a heavy burden, and there is a natural tendency to brush it off and evade it – but we cannot allow ourselves to do this. We are not only “God’s emissaries,” and not only emissaries of the nation of Israel throughout the generations. We are also emissaries of all those who did not merit to reach the Holy Land, who met their death by suffocation, burning, and every possible sort of cruelty, leaving the burden of the continuity of the nation of Israel, as well as their personal continuity, upon our shoulders.


            R. Leib Rochman, whom I mentioned previously, came from a town whose inhabitants were almost all observant Jews, yet he abandoned the path of observance in his youth.  During the Holocaust, he hid for many long months in an attic. One Shabbat afternoon he remembered how, in his home town, before the war, the community would gather in the synagogue for the “third meal,” and would sing Shabbat songs. He wondered: who is singing there now? The answer, of course, was: no one. The town was completely destroyed. Suddenly, he sensed that he was the only survivor of the town, and that therefore he had to sing the songs of the town that had been silenced. On the spot, he repented and began to sing.


            We are all obliged to continue that great and impressive world, with all its different facets, that was cut down and destroyed in its prime, a flourishing, thriving world of Torah, culture and creativity that was annihilated. We bear this obligation not only because it is necessary, but because we – who stand here today – are the emissaries of those holy, great, saintly people. We must feel this in our flesh and in our bones – not only as an outward utterance, not only as an aside, not only once every few months or years. If we truly feel it in our blood and in our souls (despite the psychological difficulty involved, and the natural desire to “let down the curtain” and to “make a new start”), to the extent that we understand that it is impossible, immoral, and un-Jewish to act any differently; to the extent that we know that we are entrusted with this wondrous and terrible mission – we will be able to think differently, respond differently, feel differently and act differently.


            There are many ways to give expression to this mission and calling.  The main point – the point of departure and of destination – is that we understand the responsibility that has been placed upon us by the historical reality in which we find ourselves, and what it allows us to do. If we internalize this, we will be able to fulfill our mission with a historical consciousness that casts a glance towards the past, while keeping its sights on the future. We must live the present with a profound existential connection to both past and future, looking back over dark, difficult times, but also anticipating, with faith and hope, the “days that are coming, promises God” – which will be better. All of our ways, all of our paths, must be directed towards a life of faith, with a sense of mission and calling.




Adapted by Aviad Hacohen with Reuven Ziegler; translated by Kaeren Fish.  This sicha was delivered at Yeshivat Har Etzion on Asara Be-Tevet 5753 (1993).


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