Some subjects are not pleasant. Failing to take note of them, however, does not make them go away. And therefore, an intellectually honest person is required to confront them. For these reasons, when thinking in terms of the Redemption, although one is tempted to avoid the subject of the Holocaust, the issue cannot be ignored.1

Although almost 50 years have passed, for Jews and for that matter, for gentiles, this tragedy still poses a great question in regard to belief in G‑d. It is natural to ask: Where was He, and why didn’t He do anything to stop it? More particularly, in regard to the Redemption, the question arises: If the Redemption did not come then, when mankind needed it most, when will it come? And others go further, saying that if Mashiach didn’t come then, they don’t want him to come at all. If he was so cruel as to allow that degree of torture and torment to continue, then he is not the leader they want.2

To help understand why Mashiach did not come then, it is useful to go back in history. When the Romans ruled Israel, they did not have guns and gas chambers, so they could not kill six million at a time, but they also oppressed the Jews severely, and our people yearned for Mashiach. The Talmud3 relates that, at one point during that period, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi encountered the prophet Elijah and asked him: “When is Mashiach coming?”

Replied the Prophet: “Go and ask him. He’s at the gate of Rome.”

“How shall I recognize him?”

“He is sitting among paupers stricken by wounds. While the others unbind all their wounds at once, and then bind them up again, he unbinds one wound at a time, and straight away binds it up again. For he says: ‘Perhaps I shall be called upon to appear as Mashiach, and I must not be delayed!’”

So Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to him and said, “Peace upon you, my master and teacher!”

He answered him, “Peace upon you, son of Levi!”

Then he asked him, “Master, when are you coming?”

He answered, “Today!”

Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah, who asked him, “What did he say?”

Rabbi Yehoshua replied: “He deceived me! He told me, ‘I am coming today,’ but he has not come!”

Said Elijah: “What Mashiach had in mind was this verse: ‘today, if you would only listen to His voice!’”

The Talmud is telling us that Mashiachwants to come, perhaps even more than mankind wants him to.4 Why doesn’t he? Because the world is not ready for him.

Could not G‑d take care of the problem? Could He not clean up the blotches of evil, strife and injustice that mar our world? Yes, G‑d could, but He wants this task to be fulfilled by man, through “listening to His voice.”

To explain: G‑d created our material world because He desired that it become His home.5 Implicit in this desire is that the dwelling be fashioned by man himself. Thus G‑d created a world that was fit to become His dwelling, but only fit. He left the world — and for that matter, man himself — unfinished, and entrusted the task of putting the finishing touches to this creation to us.6

What is man supposed to contribute? An old Chassidic adage says: “G‑d made something out of nothing. Man’s task is to transform the something into nothing.”

The world G‑d created is material, and by its nature encourages self-concern — this is the “something” the chassidim mean. What G‑d wants from man is to infuse spiritual consciousness into the world, to promote selflessness and personal sacrifice — this is what the chassidim mean when they say man’s objective is to transform the something into nothing.

Were these qualities also to have been contributed by G‑d, i.e., were He to have made the world a spiritual Garden of Eden, then man would have had little purpose. And were He, at any point in history, to inject these qualities into our lives by bringing the Redemption regardless of man’s endeavors, then man’s existence would have been an exercise in futility.

Man’s purpose is to fashion G‑d’s dwelling, to create a setting for the Redemption. To enable man to fulfill this purpose, G‑d entrusts him with the potential to create, granting him the ability to restructure his environment — both the inner environment of his mind and his external world.7 Nevertheless, because the contribution expected of man is not entirely defined, and its selfless dimension runs against his nature, it is difficult for him.

For these reasons, the possibility exists that man will misuse his potential. The very energy that could bring Redemption can lead to holocausts if misdirected. Instead of creating an environment of peace and prosperity, man can use his unique gifts to create hell on earth.

And yet G‑d trusts man, and gives him free choice.8 This — entrusting mankind with his own future — is the most prodigious exercise of Divine generosity and patience possible. For G‑d knows what is expected of man, watches him as he succeeds and/or fails, and allows him to continue without interference.

Should there be limits to this trust? I have a friend who is a child psychologist. He tells me that if I see my three-year-old playing with matches, I should not take them away. Instead, I should let the child experience the consequences of his behavior.

The wisdom of this approach is debatable. Whether or not one agrees, the reason he is able to make such a suggestion is obvious; the risks are small. No one would suggest a child be allowed to learn those same lessons when playing with a gun. Guns can kill.

Well, so can holocausts. Still, G‑d lets man make them and watches without interfering. Why? How can He?

The question is twofold: a) Mankind can suffer harm, and if G‑d is good and wants good, how can He let this harm be inflicted? b) How can He bear watching? We as humans are revolted by cruelty and brutality. Isn’t He?

To focus on the first question: An agent of the communist authorities once threatened the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, with a gun, boasting of its power to influence people. The Rebbe replied that a gun can only influence someone who has one world and many gods. “I,” he continued, “have one G‑d and two worlds.”

What the Previous Rebbe was saying is that we have to see the larger picture. When we conceive of life as being limited to the immediate here and now of bodily existence, then death is terrifying. When we are aware of spiritual reality, and have faith in an afterlife, reincarnation, and resurrection, physical death becomes just another milestone in life.

Rav Aryeh Levine used to say that when a baby is born, everyone laughs, but the baby cries. When a person dies, by contrast, everyone cries; perhaps the soul is laughing?

When seen in an overall perspective, it is clear that loss is not felt by those who die, but only by those who remain; the suffering experienced on this plane — awesome and extreme as it can be — is fleeting in nature. What is important in our lives is the lasting contributions we make. In that context, the legacy of martyrdom and the sanctification of both life and death which the victims of the Holocaust left us looms colossal on our spiritual horizons.

In regard to the second question: How can G‑d bear the pain suffered by His children? The answer is simple. He can’t. Therefore, to cite the Bible’s expression,9 He “hides His face.”

But He allows the suffering to continue. Why? Because as difficult as it is for Him to bear man’s suffering, it is even more difficult to take back the gift of free will which He has given us. He refuses to condemn man to the status of a robot. G‑d wants man to be a creator, and to use that potential to fashion a G‑dly dwelling in our material world.

We cannot explain the Holocaust. Indeed, any explanation or rationale seems vulgar and crass. Observations, however, can be made; and one thing is clear. Holocausts do not happen every day, or for that matter, every century. The awesomeness of the tragedy and its effect — the utter collapse of the Jewish life that had nourished our people for centuries — points to a transition of prodigious scope.10

Throughout our people’s history, there have been miracles, e.g., the exodus from Egypt or the Maccabees’ defeat of the Greeks, which inaugurated change. The Holocaust was, by contrast, an anti-miracle, but it too was symptomatic of a monumental change.

At that time, all the major Sages described that era as Ikvesa diMeshicha — the time when Mashiach’sapproaching footsteps can be heard. But as we stated above, G‑d made Mashiach’s coming dependent on man. For Mashiach to come, radical change is necessary in the world at large. Man has the capacity to cause such a change, and to cause it to be positive. But when a potential exists, it is also possible for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction.

Our Sages knew about these dangers. One of them said: “Let him [Mashiach] come, but let me not see his coming.”11 He wanted the Redemption to take place, but sought to be spared the anguish that might precede its coming.

Our Prophets12 speak of the Redemption as being preceded by birthpangs. Ask any woman who has given birth, and she’ll tell you that however great the pain, the start of a new life remains the most powerful dimension of the experience. And the most lasting.

The Kabbalah explains that every fundamental process of transition has three phases: yeshayin — yesh, an entity, a state of void, and a new entity. For when one wants to take a radical step forward, one must first negate the previous frame of reference.13 Then, like a vacuum, this state of non-being “draws in” a new and higher level of existence. The metamorphosis from the old world of the shtetl (in Jewish terms) and the formative years of the Industrial Revolution (in terms of the world at large) to the Era of the Redemption needed an ayin.

As mankind was groping for a formula for change, Hitler offered his definition of ayin — absolute annihilation. In the half-century that has followed, mankind has begun to seek more positive definitions, ones that further G‑d’s purpose in Creation. And this will enable us not merely to hear the footsteps of Mashiach, but to see his coming and share in the era of fulfillment he will initiate.