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The Truth is Good: What about the Holocaust?

I gave a sermon on Rosh HaShanah about Truth, and the importance of pursuing Truth as the only means to finding healing, meaning, purpose, redemption. I talked about how "Chotmo Shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu Emet," "The seal of God is Truth." (B. Shabbat 55a). I taught about how the Truth, reality itself, is "Tov Me'od," "very good," and that our greatest act of faith in Judaism is to believe in the goodness that can be found in all of our experiences of Truth, no matter how painful or difficult they may be to face. (In a few days, I will post a link to the sermon that will be up at the Adas Israel

After hearing this sermon, someone asked me a wonderful question: what about the Holocaust? This darkest hour imaginable in human experience is undeniably true! Doesn't this teaching suggest that--God forbid!--we should see the Holocaust as "good"?

I am so grateful that this question was asked. In no way am I suggesting that we use our relationship to the goodness of Truth as a reason to deny the horrors of human pain, suffering, and tragedy. Quite the opposite. I believe that when we look squarely at Truth, no matter how painful that Truth may be, only then can there ever be any hope of healing and justice.

I do indeed teach the goodness that can be found in all Truth, but this does not mean that I or anyone else can qualify all past suffering as "all good." When I teach about the goodness that can be found in the Truth, it is a teaching about a radical acceptance of Reality in all its awesome Truth and power. I believe that it is only when we accept the undeniable reality that something as awful as the Holocaust did happen that we can transform our relationship to the past and find the good NOT in that it happened, but in how we respond to this terrible Truth in the present moment.

The Holocaust weighs on many of our hearts like a stone. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that a heart that is clenched close, in fear or hurt or anger at the Truth will always feel weighed down by that stone of Truth. But a heart that has the courage to let that Truth in can be transformed. So I ask us: what happens when we let the Truth of the Holocaust itself into our heart of hearts?

I can tell you that when I do that, the first thing that I experience is unbelievable anger and rage. I want to rail against this Truth. It shouldn't have happened! The next thing I feel is a crushing fear. My God, the whole world betrayed us! In a heartbeat, so-called friends and neighbors turned in innocent men, women, and children--my own people--to die! But no matter what the anger, no matter what the fear, I keep my heart open to the Truth of the Holocaust. Eventually, I reach a place where I begin to realize that no matter how much I struggle against it, this doesn't change the Truth of the Holocaust. I come to realize that when I inhabit a place of constant anger and fear, I'm pushing away the Truth. I begin to see that there's just no reason anymore to torture myself with anger or fear because a Holocaust happened. It happened. It is Reality. By constantly feeding my anger and fear, I'm only succeeding in making myself a victim of the Holocaust's brutality in this present moment. But when I can just come to understand that it really happened, eventually the anger and fear begin to transform into a deeper feeling of pathos. I begin to inhabit a place of compassion for the suffering and murder of millions of my people and others.

So now what do I do in the present moment with the fact that the Holocaust has happened? I look around at my world here and now, and I am grateful that the horrors of genocide are not happening now to my family and loved ones, to my people. But I keep looking beyond my immediate experience, and I see that the seeds of hatred, antisemitism, and bigotry exist in the world, even in my society. I see genocides still happening in this world. Millions still suffer in this world. This too is an awful Truth.

Yes, there were Nazis and their collaborators. There are perpetrators of genocide and terrorists in the world right now. It is all Truth that I can either push away and suffer over, or I can open up my heart to it and understand it as the Truth, and learn from it what to do next.

When I talk about the "goodness" of pursuing Truth, it is a goodness that comes from this radical acceptance of reality as it is right now. I can see a "goodness" in the fact that acceptance of the Truth means that I am not gripped in anger and fear and rage over what I cannot change or control. I can see "goodness" in that, with the Truth squarely in front of me, I am motivated by wisdom and compassion to act for justice instead of anger or fear.

I believe that when we act for justice NOT from anger and fear, but from a place of compassion, then we can do far greater good in the world.

The Truth of Nazis and other perpetrators of evil means that I feel an ever-deeper motivation in my life to create conditions where that kind of twisted inhumanity can never happen again.

The Holocaust was not "good." But I am indeed grateful that my radical acceptance of the Truth of the Holocaust motivates me to a commitment to social justice here, in Israel, and around the world. It motivates me to teach Torat Chesed, the Torah of Kindness, to teach over and over that when we affirm kindness, compassion, and justice with one another we are creating the world anew, a world without Nazis or terrorists.


Rabbi....what joy to hear your teachings of unconditional love & acceptance, and of compassion. You are assuring us that we can overcome our fear of each other; we can trust in a loving God. It is safe for us to love. And by so doing, we will heal ourselves, our families...and ultimately, the world.
I am filled with great hope and gratitude hearing you speak to this, at this time, in this place.
Harlene Bernstein

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