In Parshat Va'era: Judgments with Justice, Rav Avigdor Miller informs us that it wasn't just about Pharaoh.
"And Egypt will know that I am Hashem."
That was the main reason.
And many Egyptians indeed gleaned that lesson from the Plagues.
They joined the Exodus from Egypt, becoming the dreaded Erev Rav.
But the real lesson was for Bnei Yisrael themselves.
THEY needed to know Who Hashem was.
They needed this prior to accepting the Torah on Har Sinai.
WE need to know that He is Hashem.
The Profound Principles of Middah K'Neged Middah
As Rav Miller puts it on page 5, "the punishment a man gets in this world, in some way resembles the thing that he’s done wrong."
Rav Miller notes that middah k'neged middah is often obvious. The connection between the sin and the consequence is usually not hard to connect...if only a person would just contemplate it.
So why is the connection not often seen?
Rav Miller explains on page 6:
And the Mesillas Yesharim sets down the principle that most people don’t learn the lessons that Hashem wants to teach them because they’re just too busy to think.
There’s more than one reason, but the main reason why people don’t learn is because they’re too busy with life.
There are so many things to do, so many happy things, so many other things – whatever it is, but they’re busy all the time...People don’t pay attention and they don’t learn the lessons that they are expected to learn because they don’t make time to think, “Why is Hashem doing davka this and davka that?”
What do you do in a case of dever?
Rav Miller quotes Bava Kama 60b: "Dever ba'ir, kanes reglecha – When there's an epidemic in the city, stay at home!"
Don't go out and mix.
And that's exactly what the people decided.
In those days, the Jewish elders, the zekeinim, were truly great Sages to whom the people really listened.
That's why Moshe Rabbeinu went to them first with tidings, because he knew the Am would listen to the zekeinim.
Anyway, the Jews closed themselves in their little homes.
And there was nothing to do except talk to each other.
And the zekeinim guided them to speak about tachlis, to contemplate what was happening.
Rav Miller says that many Midrashim derived from these conversations at home, with the Jews thinking and drawing conclusions, like the following (pages 7-8):
Let’s say when Makkas Dam came; so they’re sitting in their houses and talking.
“Did you hear what happened to Mamrei the Egyptian down the road? He went for a drink and his mouth is all bloodied up as if somebody punched him in the lips. He’s vomiting from disgust.”
“Aha! That bloody Egyptian now! You remember when he smacked me in the mouth and my mouth was bleeding? Now he’s getting it right back in his face!”
“Maybe in the wells there’s some water they can drink?”
Nothing doing! Look at the well next door – you see how red it is? Look at them – they’re digging in the ground trying to find an underground spring. And his brother, the wicked slavemaster – he’s walking around dehydrated begging for a sip of water. He looks like he’s about to faint.”
“Is that so? He’s the one who forced us to work all day in the sun and didn’t let us drink from the well. He’s getting exactly what he deserves, midah k’neged midah.”
The discussions probed much deeper than that.
He explains on page 8:
So they were talking all day long – but not like we’re talking here. I’m just talking kindergarten talk now, but they went to the bottom of it.
They had nothing else to do – they didn’t read newspapers or novels in those days; they didn’t waste time listening to the radio.
And the zekeinim taught them how to use their time during the makkos – to think about what Hashem was trying to teach them and to talk about it.
Rav Miller's Profound Losses
He admits that it's very painful.
People forget that he himself was almost a victim, he and his wife and children. People forget that he knew the precious Jews slaughtered by the evil ones.
The victims were his wife's siblings and Rav Miller's other close friends. As he says on page 11:
My chaveirim, my best friends were all murdered.
Rav Feivel Pilvishker, zichrono l’vracha, a tzaddik, a young man who was learning all the time. He was always thinking in mussar in his spare time. And they found his body in the field outside the town – he was shot there and left to bleed to death.
Other friends too – Aharon Birzher, my chavrusa. He was the son-in-law of the Kurdaneh Rav, and he was murdered along with the Kurdaneh Jews.
My rebbi, Rav Avraham was burnt up alive in a fire when the Germans set fire to the hospital.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman zichrono l’vracha was in Slabodka and they marched him out with all the Slabodka boys – my chaveirim – and they shot them dead in the Ninth Fort.
Certainly we weep rivers of tears. When we say here that we try to understand that Hashem does things for a reason, it’s b’derech klal, on a general level.
But the fact that we lost our people is a devastating blow that we will never cease weeping for.
Yet Rav Miller says it's a mekatreg on Hashem if you don't discuss it.
Hashem doesn't do things for no reason.
And this is why Rav Miller delves into this painful subject: He does it all for the honor of Hashem.
(Note: Despite the middah k'neged middah Rav Miller discusses here, he clearly acknowledge here and in other lectures that we cannot know all the reasons for everything that happened in the Holocaust. There were such inhuman acts of brutality and sadism, such sheer savagery, we really cannot just point fingers.)
Some Very Sharp Mussar
But Rav Miller states that those same towns portrayed as chassidish strongholds also included Reform communities.
In A Daughter of Two Mothers, Leichu is herself religious and therefore focuses on her fellow religious Jews. But even in their small town sheltered from the influences of the big cities, the poisonous strains infiltrated.
I remember thinking how odd it was that within this small town brimming with good frum Jews, Leichu didn't have a proper school. She either needed to attend the local public school with the non-Jews or the local Jewish school run by the Reform. (She ended up with the non-Jews, who ran their school with more propriety & concern for the children than the Reform school.)
Why wasn't there a religious school for the religious population?
Isn't that weird in such a lovely little town full of wonderful religious Jews?
So, it goes back to what Rav Miller was saying.
Likewise, in Lea Fuch Chayen's memoir, Out of the Depths, she recalls a moment toward the end, when she and her friends are slowly starving to death outside in a roofless boxcar covered in snow.
Lea attempts to raise their spirits by recalling Purim and predicting the many Purims they'll enjoy with the families they'll create by themselves after the War.
At that point, a Jewish woman in her thirties says, "Who is Purim?"
Who is Purim?
It's astonishing that a Jewish woman of her age from the burgeoning Jewish metropolis of Budapest (which also hosted a thriving frum community) never even heard of the holiday of Purim. I think it's sort of like if a Jew from New York never heard of Purim. She thought it was the name of a person, she was so far removed.
It's to this undercurrent of destruction Rav Miller refers.
He recalls how the Chafetz Chaim himself declared before the Holocaust that there wasn't one Jewish home without someone off the derech.
Rav Miller reminisces about on old rav who looked so beautiful and pious, as if he must come from such a pious family.
Then Rav Miller discovered that this rav was the only one of 5 brothers who remained frum! The other 4 went totally off the derech.
And as Rav Miller emphasizes, these rebels weren't quiet. Hard as it is to believe, they marched around with large signs: "We declare war on the Klerikalin" – Klerikalin were the rabbanim and the frum people.
And Rav Elchonon Wasserman said (page 12), “You’re declaring war on Hashem?! So Hashem will declare war on you!”
Rav Miller tells us the truth, both the beautiful and the ugly (page 12):
What about all the apikorsim who lived in Slabodka?
I was there; I saw! Slabodka was a churban.
There was a yeshivah, it's true, but the city itself was no good at all.
Europe was being turned upside down by the Jewish resha’im.
Do you hear people speak about that when they teach about the Holocaust?
No, you don’t hear that. The whole subject is not even mentioned.
People are busy carrying out a propaganda campaign against Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
You know what they say? They say that they were all tzadikim in Europe.
Ahh, it was a wonderful place – they were all righteous, all kedoshim, and we just don’t know why Hakodosh Boruch Hu would do such a terrible thing to them.
Even now, who am I?
But Rav Miller can say it. He has that right.
And then the dvar Torah gets very sharp.
I appreciate it; I want to hear it. It's the truth.
But his message definitely bothers a lot of people.
On page 13, Rav Miller opposes all the blame placed on European rabbanim for not telling Europe's Jews to go to Eretz Yisrael.
These rabbanim constantly exhorted their beloved brothers and sisters to do teshuvah, to prevent the Destruction.
The truth is that when you run away, you leave people behind.
Maybe there's not much choice. At one point, there really was no choice.
But if you really love your brothers and sisters, you will try and prevent bad things from happening to them.
If you really care about someone, you're not just going to run off and leave them behind.
You'll try and prevent them from being harmed.
(I want to add also that in the memoirs I've read, sometimes big rabbanim were asked about escape, and the rabbanim said something like, "You can try. But there's a Heavenly decree on us and success isn't likely. But you can try."
Also, in A Sun and A Shield, the great talmid chacham Rav Yosef Paneth (also known as the Illeander Rav) found himself in a forest ghetto with around 7500 Jews.
He and his family struggled to convince other Jews to escape with them into the forest. He told his fellow Jews where they were going.
Yet who listened?
Out of 7500, only the rav, his wife, their children, a couple of men, and a young widow and her son agreed to escape.
The only children to survive that ghetto was the Paneth children (though not all of them) and the widow's son.
That was it.
So you have to understand that even when an extremely chashuv and holy rav actively told people to escape and even offered to help them escape with them, they simply would not.
(You can read more about that episode HERE; just scroll down to the middle of the post.)
Furthermore, Rav Miller makes a practical point that many don't consider (page 13, boldface my own addition):
They said that the gedolim, all the tzadikim, the Chofetz Chaim zichrono l’vracha too – all the leaders of the generation are at fault because they didn’t preach that the Jews should get up and move to Eretz Yisroel.
That six million Jews should get up from Europe and go to Eretz Yisroel in those days when nobody would let them in anyhow!
(Personally, based on what I've read of the history of that time, I feel they were pushed off because they were frum. The secular Zionists did not want frum people in Israel. I can't prove it, but if you read the book, it's weird that they kept replacing the Kanners with others whom the secular Zionists claimed were in immediate danger and therefore needed to take precedence. But even when Mr. Kanner faced life-threatening danger and was actually sent to a concentration camp, the Zionist Resettlement office still did not allow him to use his rightful visa. See HERE for more on that.)
The Most Helpful Response to Jew-Hatred
If only the Am Yisroel would have huddled together in their homes with their parents and grandparents and discussed the news with a clear mind, a great many lessons could have been learned.
“Why is this happening?” they should have thought.
All of a sudden, Germany – a civilized country – is committing such barbarous acts against them? What’s it for?
They should have thought about and discussed it with the ziknei hador; the same way the Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim spent time thinking about what Hashem was doing, the German Jews could have done the same.
There still remained a small island, the Torah World – wonderful yeshivos.
But they were a tiny minority because they had already been abandoned by the people.
The heart of the people was already in the hands of the misleaders.
And these misleaders didn’t say, “Look at what Hitler is doing! It’s time to do teshuva.”
The Chofetz Chaim zichrono l’vracha said it; Rav Elchonon Wasserman said it, “Do teshuva,” but who listened to them?!
Germany forbade intermarriage.
(Just as a side point: As a young secular girl first learning about the Holocaust, I was confused as to why this decree was presented with such offense by Jews in Holocaust books and lectures. After all, I wondered, weren't Jews NOT supposed to marry non-Jews anyway? Yeah, I got the basic idea that the Germans weren't coming from a good place. Sure. But why were the Jews so offended? Weren't they against intermarriage anyway? That's what I wondered back then.)
Then Jews must add Hebrew names to their identity papers: "Israel" for boys and "Sara" for girls. This is highly symbolic and obvious if you know that one of the reasons why Hashem redeemed the Jews from Mitzrayim was because of they kept their Jewish names.
I had no idea about that when I first learned about the Holocaust. But it became obvious later.
Rav Miller continues along this vein until page 19, but I don't have the stomach to write about it anymore.
It's just that we really, really need to listen to our real talmidei chachamim. Our real Gedolim.
If we love ourselves and love each other, that's what we need to do.
(If you want to see the whole picture of that time period, it's very worth reading everything Rav Miller describes on pages 11-19. A lot is left out of this post.)
Just the Act of Trying Reaps So Much Reward!
Rav Miller also answers the complaint of "What, I need to drive myself crazy trying to think about what Hashem is hinting at when I bite my tongue or stub my toe?"
As Rav Miller reassures us on page 21:
If you’ll make use of the opportunity, even if you won’t guess the real reason, you still struck gold!
Let’s say you’ll blame yourself for something else that wasn’t the real reason – but at least in that one thing you’ll improve.
And that’s already a great hatzlacha.