It’s Pesach, when we eat matzah, the unleavened bread that simultaneously expresses our slave ancestors’ hasty departure from Egypt – their dough having no time to rise[1] – and the ‘affliction’ they endured in ‘the house of bondage’. As we read in Aramaic in the Haggadah: ha lachma anya di achalu avhatana b’ara d’mitzrayim – ‘This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt’. Pesach: the festival when we celebrate our ancestors’ liberation from slavery – and recall the persecutions they suffered.

That order: celebration of freedom and remembrance of oppression is significant. As we look backwards into the past we remember the agonies of incarceration through the prism of the Exodus.

The Haggadah we read at the seder, first composed by the early rabbis,[2] echoes the Torah narrative, presenting the Eternal One as the supreme redeemer, who delivered our slave ancestors ‘with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’ – b’yad hazakah u’viz’ro’ah n’tuyah.[3] The Torah also offers this poetic and captivating image of the omnipotent, sovereign Deity liberating the slaves. We read in parashat Yitro, at Exodus 19, verse 4:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on Eagle’s wings, and brought you to Myself.

Atem r’item, asher asiti l’mitzrayim; va-esa etchem al-kanfei n’sharim, va-avi etchem eilai.

I would like you to hold in your minds that image of the Eternal One as a mighty Eagle as I turn for now from the Exodus story to the Sho’ah. On 21st February, I accompanied the 200 Lower Sixth formers of Brighton College on a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, having been invited by a Jewish former pupil of the school, who is working there as an assistant teacher in his gap year. The visit was meticulously organised, and the preparation for it, involving a week-long Holocaust education programme for the whole school and special pastoral guidance for the participants had been very well planned. The care taken in preparing the visit was also reflected in comprehensive staff support. The coaches organised into Houses, the pupils were accompanied by their House Masters and Mistresses. The entire company also included the Deputy Heads, the Headteacher and the full-time Christian chaplain.

There are no words adequate to express the experience of visiting the single most infamous site of enslavement and mass murder in the geography of the Sho’ah. On one level, the simple facts tell you everything: 1.3 million people murdered, including 1.1 million Jews, gas chambers, crematoria, gruelling labour on minimum rations for the ‘lucky ones’ not selected for death, who were packed together at night and driven relentlessly in all weathers during the day. Yes, the hard, bare facts are familiar to us. Being in Auschwitz and then Birkenau, placed in situ so to speak those hard, bare facts, but could not animate them. The reality of the Sho’ah belongs to another time. And, seeing the sites of that depravity did not help make it any more real, either. We have seen the images again and again: Arbeit Macht Frei – ‘Work Makes (you) Free’ – over the gates of Auschwitz; the train tracks leading to the gas chambers and crematoria of Birkenau. But the visceral experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau did make a difference to my sense of what happened there. I felt the Sho’ah; felt it through my feet, my legs, my hips, my body, as we trod the same untreated rough stone paths trod before us by the inmates and the murdered.

Where was God during the Sho’ah? Why didn’t the mighty Eagle arrive to lift the Jews out of Germany and Holland and Poland and Russia and Austria and Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Greece and France and Italy? Those questions have been asked again and again over the years since the horror – and were no doubt asked at the time by thousands, maybe millions of the victims themselves. Why was the Eternal One, the erstwhile interventionist Redeemer of the Exodus narrative, absent, passive, silent? An entire literature has been devoted to the conundrum, and a new discipline known as Holocaust Theodicy emerged in the second half of the 20th century to address the theological problems posed by the Sho’ah.[4] For some, there was only one conclusion possible: God was dead.[5] Importantly, there have been examples in Jewish life since the Exodus of the lack of Divine intervention. The first generations of rabbis, teaching in the shadow of the Roman’s destruction of Jerusalem and the last Temple in 70 CE, spoke of the Sh’chinah, the Divine Presence, going into exile with Her people[6], and so presented a theology of the God who, far from being absent, suffers with us.

But still, that starting point; the Pesach narrative: The Eternal One liberated our ancestors from slavery in Egypt. We are so familiar with the Exodus story that we forget some elements that challenge our assumptions about the ever-ready interventionist God. Near the beginning of the Torah narrative, following the account of Moses fleeing Egypt after he has killed an Egyptian taskmaster, we read in Sh’mot, Exodus chapter 2, verses 23 to 25:

And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the Israelites groaned from their bondage, and they cried out, and their cry came up to God from their bondage. / And God heard their cry, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. / Then God saw the Israelites and took cognizance of them.

‘God heard their cry, and God remembered the covenant’. Hadn’t the Eternal One already been listening? Had God forgotten the covenant? ‘Then God saw the Israelites and took cognizance of them.’ Hadn’t the all-seeing omniscient God known all along what was happening? We read later in the story that ‘the time that the Israelites dwelt in Egypt with 430 years’.[7] Allowing for the generations in which the Israelites dwelt unperturbed in Egypt prior to the arrival of a new Pharaoh ‘who did not know Joseph’ and was determined to ‘deal wisely’ with the alien people in his land[8], we might estimate that the Israelites were enslaved for more than 200 years. So, where was God during that time? If we examine the language of this passage more closely, the text suggests that a process provoked God’s remembrance: ‘… the king of Egypt died; and the Israelites groaned from their bondage, and they cried out, and their cry came up to God from their bondage. / And God heard their cry, and God remembered the covenant…’ Perhaps, the death of the king disturbed the relentless rhythm of perpetual enslavement; perhaps, this moment of change would herald a change in the fortunes of the slaves; and so, instead of simply enduring the hardship of bondage, they groaned, and then, more than that they cried out in protest, expressing their desperation to be free. Only at this point does the text relate: ‘And God heard their cry, and God remembered the covenant…’

Perhaps, the process that led to the Exodus was triggered not by Divine intervention, but by political developments that created the potential for change, stirring the slaves to reject their chains. And there are other examples in the Exodus story of the role of human intervention: the midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, who resisted Pharaoh’s genocidal decree to kill the new-born baby boys[9]; Moses’ mother and elder sister, who saved his life and ensured his survival[10]. And, of course, there were the human leaders of the Exodus, Miriam, Moses and Aaron. Interestingly, while all these characters populate the Torah narrative, they are entirely absent from the traditional Haggadah, which focuses exclusively on the Eternal One alone.

Rabbi Hugo Gryn, zichrono livrachah – may his memory be for blessing – a former inmate of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, who was one of my teachers at Leo Baeck College, and died in 1996, used to say that the crucial question was not, where was God during the Sho’ah, but rather, where was humanity? Whatever your theology, whatever you make of God, and whether or not you make anything of God, whether in our post-Sho’ah world, you think of God as dead or hiding or absent or a presence suffering with the victims, the question remains concerning what people were doing and not doing while the Nazi regime pursued the ‘final solution’ in the quest to make Europe Judenrein, ‘clean of Jews’, and Judenfrei, ‘free of Jews’.

I mentioned earlier that we look backwards at the enslavement of our ancestors through the prism of the Exodus. For many people, their understanding of the Sho’ah is framed by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 three years after the defeat of Hitler. And so, the rebirth of Israel, albeit an entirely human achievement, indicates the redemption of the Jewish people after the catastrophe. Of course, there is no doubt that the existence of Israel proclaims in no uncertain terms that am Yisra’eil chai – ‘the Jewish people lives’. However, I would suggest that the creation of the modern State of Israel, however remarkable, still cannot, in my view, redeem the Sho’ah. There is no redemption possible out of that abyss. Of course, we can feel some sense of relief that Hitler was defeated and that his much-vaunted ‘Thousand Year Reich’ lasted just twelve years. And as we acknowledge the murder of half the Jewish population of Europe, we can also acknowledge that half the Jewish population of Europe survived. But let us be in no doubt: the continent of Europe is a vast cemetery, and those who survived the torments of Nazi genocidal tyranny, scarred physically and psychologically, were also victims.

This morning, I have spoken about the Exodus and the Sho’ah. It is no accident that the Jewish commemoration of the Sho’ah takes place less than a week after the end of Pesach. As I have mentioned on National Holocaust Memorial Day, the date of 27th Nissan was deliberately chosen by the Israeli government as Yom Ha-Sho’ah because of its proximity to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis, which lasted for three weeks in April 1943, and began on Erev Pesach.[11] It is good to remember the young ghetto fighters, but as we applaud their valiant heroism, we must also face the stark reality that resistance against the Nazi murder machine was virtually impossible. That is why the Jewish philosopher, Emile Fackenheim, spoke of ‘planet Auschwitz’[12].

So, if redemption after catastrophe is impossible, what does that say about hope? When the king of Egypt died, the slaves cried out against their bondage and dared to hope. It’s also apparent in the testimony of some of the survivors of the Sho’ah that keeping hope alive was what kept them alive day after day. As Rabbi Hugo Gryn’s father put it to him when the young Hugo objected to using their tiny margarine ration to kindle a Chanukkah flame, when they were confined in the Lieberose camp of the Sachsenhausen complex: ‘You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water. But you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope.’[13] Ultimately, for the generations after 1945, staring backwards into the abyss of the Sho’ah, hope is the only alternative to despair. May we celebrate Pesach and commemorate Yom Ha-Sho’ah in that spirit. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, 15th Nissan 5788 – 31st March 2018

  1. Bo, Exodus 12:39.
  2. Mishnah Pesachim, chapter 10. The Mishnah, the first code of rabbinic law, was edited c. 200 CE.
  3. Va-etchannan, Deuteronomy 5:15
  4. See, for example: Berkovits, Eliezer. Faith after the Holocaust. New York, 1973. Cohen, Arthur A. The Tremendum. New York, 1981. Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. Holocaust Theology: A Reader. New York, 2002. Fackenheim, Emil L. The Jewish Return into History. New York, 1978. Greenberg, Irving. The Third Great Cycle in Jewish History. New York, 1981. Maybaum, Ignaz. The Face of God after Auschwitz. Amsterdam, 1965. Raphael, Melissa. The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust. Religion and Gender. London and New York, 2003. Rubenstein, Richard L. After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism. Indianapolis, 1966. Rubenstein, Richard L., and John K. Roth. Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy. Rev. ed. Louisville, Ky., 2003.
  5. See Richard L. Rubenstein’s, After Auschwitz: History, Theology and Contemporary Judaism cited in note 4)
  6. Midrash Eichah (Lamentations) Rabbah, 1. 5:22.
  7. Bo, Exodus 12:40.
  8. Sh’mot, Ex. 1:8-9.
  9. Sh’mot, Ex. 1:15-22.
  10. Sh’mot, Ex. 2:2-10. The ‘mother’ and ‘sister’, Yocheved and Miriam, are unnamed in the story.
  12. Fackenheim, Emil L. “The Holocaust and Philosophy.” The Journal of Philosophy, Volume 82, Issue 10, Eighty-Second Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (Oct. 1985), p. 511.  
  13. The full story is related by David Wolpe in “What We Really Need to Live,” in Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom in the Modern World (Behrman House, Springfield, NJ: 2004), p. 197): “My father took me and some friends to a corner in the barracks. He announced that it was the eve of Hanukkah and produced a small clay bowl. Then he began to light a wick immersed in his precious but now melted margarine ration. Before he could recite the blessing, I protested at this waste of food. He looked at me, then the lamp, and finally said, ‘You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water. But you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope.'” That last phrase is included in the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust account of ‘The story of Hugo Gryn’ – See: