In 1979, Elie Weisel wrote The Trial of God. Written as a play, it takes place in a Ukranian village in the year 1649 following an awful pogram that left only two survivors in the town. A group of actors come to the village on Purim, and they decide to stage a trial of God. The trial accuses God of being silent in the face of tragedy and of neglecting God's own covenant with the Jewish people.
When Weisel was a boy in Auschwitz, he witnessed such a trial, and his memory became the inspiration for The Trial of God. In the forward to the book, Weisel wrote: Inside the kingdom of night, I witnessed a strange trial. Three rabbis—all erudite and pious men—decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. I remember: I was there, and I felt like crying. But nobody cried.
A few thousand years before the Holocaust, our people suffered under Pharoah. Lots of troubling comparisons can be made that show similarities between Pharoah and Hitler. Both subjugated and enslaved our people. Both refused to see us as equals, as God's children. As the Torah says, Pharoah knew not Joseph. (Exodus 1:8) The Pharoah refused to see and know Joseph and the Isaraelite people as fellow human beings. We are painfully aware of just how true this was for Hitler and the Third Reich, as our names were stripped from us, replaced with numbers tatooed on our arms.
There is, of course, one very painful difference between the slavery in Egypt and the massacres of The Shoah. It's the difference that Weisel so beautifully explores in his fictionalized account in the village of Shamgorod, as its citizens ask, Where was God?
The difference is God.
In a traditional Haggadah, Moses's name is not mentioned. This is intentional, as our sages wanted us to be explicitly clear that it was not Moses who saved our people. God saved our people.
God is present throughout the Exodus story. Explicitly present. God inspired Moses and Aaron, as God continually gave them both reassurance and confidence. God performed not one, not two ... but ten miracles in the land of Egypt, the 10 plagues. And finally, in a climatic display of majestic divine power, God split the waters of the Red Sea.
As the Israelites marched safely through the split waters of the Red Sea, they sang, Who is like you eternal God?! Our entire people bore witness to God's love and God's power.
But our loved ones that perished in the Holocaust had only the tale of redemption and freedom. In the concentration camps, there was no burning bush, no miracles, no splitting of the red sea. God did not free them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
Where was God?
In struggling with this question, I keep thinking about the 49-day period of time between Passover and Shavuot, the period known as the counting of the Omer. After counting for 49 days, we celebrate Shavuot, the day we received the Torah on Mount Sinai.
There is one lesson in the Torah that I try and take with me everywhere, and it is especially powerful tonight. It's a lesson that we've heard many times, so much so in fact, that I think it's lost its powerful message: God created us in God's image. I need to treat you with respect and dignity, and I need to treat all people with respect and dignity, for to do otherwise would be an insult to God, especially as each of us are created in God's image. The verse implies something else, as well. Since you are created in the image of God, you are powerful. You are powerful to do wonderful acts of creation and holiness, and powerful to do horrible acts of tragedy and devastation.
God cares so much about how we treat each other, in fact, that following the Exodus from Egypt, God repeats it many times in the Torah: You shall not wrong a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)
Following our 49-day journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai, God gives us the Torah with its repeated messages teaching us how to treat one another. When God gave us the Torah, it seems that God lets us know that from that moment on, God will no longer reach through history in order save us through might and miracle. Instead, it's up to us. And to do so, you shall not wrong a stranger.
We say Never again. These words are not for God to hear, they are for us to hear. Never again can we be blind to those are are still strangers in Egypt. Never again can we look the other way when refugees need a safe haven from perseuction. Never again means that we need to work that much harder to guarantee freedom and safety for others. Because it's not up to God, it's up to us.
I don't think that God abandoned us during the Holocaust. Humanity, however, abandoned God.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, Some are guilty, but all are responsible.
When a small group of people decide to use their God-given power to do horrible acts, all are responsible to speak truth to power, and rightousness to power. These responsibilities answer the question, Where was God?
The Holocaust showed us the darkest side of human nature. We lost six million of our sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, wives and husbands.
And today, more than 70 years later, there are still people that are in their respective Egypts. The lessons of the Holocaust must motivate us to realize that God we are now responsible for our treatment of each other. This is an incredible burden but it is also a holy responsibility. We say never again, but we must do never again. We must free others with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. We must recognize that all people are created in the image of God, and we must constantly fight for the rights and freedoms of all.
Anne Frank, wrote, It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I read words like this and I think that God never left us.
For thousands of years, Judaism has taught us that the course of history does indeed depend on humanity. We can create or we can destroy. We can hate, or we can love. We can walk away estranged, or we can move forward together. Where was God is not the right question. Where are we?! That's the question we should be asking. God never left us.
For the continued memory and blessing of the many millions that died because of hatred and cruelty, I pray this: Let our actions and ideals prove that we have not left God.