Explaining God’s Absence — and How to Find Him
Earlier this week, an official in France’s far-right National Front party was suspended after footage emerged of him denying the magnitude of the Holocaust. In the clip, Benoit Loeuillet said that there were no “mass murders” during the Holocaust. He later claimed that the footage had been deliberately edited to distort the context, and launched a libel suit.
Meanwhile, an International Olympic Committee board member was recently forced to apologize after comparing calls to ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics to Hitler’s Final Solution. Swiss ski official Gian-Franco Kasper made the comparison during a discussion about whether to suspend the entire Russian team following the recent doping scandal. In expressing his opposition to a blanket ban, Kasper said: “I’m against bans or sanctioning of innocent people, like Mr. Hitler did when he decided all Jews were to be killed, independently of what they did or did not do.” He later apologized.
The Holocaust was also in the news recently for a totally different reason: The Internet search-engine Google has apparently engaged a 10,000-strong army of independent contractors to flag “offensive or upsetting” content, and create algorithms that ensure that those searching for information about the Holocaust won’t be directed to sites that promote Holocaust denial or racist propaganda.
When it comes to the Holocaust, theologians and religious philosophers have struggled for years to generate a cogent explanation for it — how a just, loving God (or any God at all) could allow such a thing to occur. As a child and grandchild of survivors — someone whose extended family was wantonly murdered or displaced by the Nazis in mind-numbing numbers — it’s a question that has always gripped me. And the one thing I cannot abide is the glib assertion by an assortment of self-righteous rabbis that the Holocaust was Divine punishment for assimilation, Zionism, Reform Judaism, complacency, or any other similar reason.
No God would “punish” so many innocent people, for any reason.
Ultimately, there is no satisfactory religious explanation for the Holocaust, and it remains a painful mystery. There is, however, one thing that will guarantee the descent of humanity into violent genocidal depravity: God’s absence. The more that God is absent, the greater the possibility of ungodly behavior. This idea becomes much more powerful when we realize that we can also draw God’s presence back into our lives — a concept beautifully embodied in an obscure reference in this week’s Torah portion.
Following the incident of the golden calf and Moses shattering the first tablets of the Ten Commandments, God instructs Moses to create a new set of tablets, and “write onto the new tablets the words that were on the first tablets.” How can this be possible? The first tablets had been shattered — yet God commanded Moses to use those very same words.
But this puzzle is really not puzzling at all.
An ancient tradition recorded in the Talmud informs us that when Moses broke the first tablets, the letters inscribed there jumped off the shards and floated away. It was those very same letters that God asked Moses to engrave onto the second tablets.
The incredible image of Divinely inscribed letters “floating away” poignantly and vividly symbolizes the idea of God’s departure. And while it is not always possible for us to understand what lies behind God’s decision to leave, we do know that God’s return can only be secured if we seek to reestablish exactly that which disappeared in His absence.
The greatest consolation for the devastating consequences of God’s absence, whether during the Holocaust or at any other moment in our history, is that we can find him again through a full-on embrace of the exact words on the first tablets, whether we are in Beverly Hills, New York, London, or the greatest prize of all — the land of Israel.