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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Hardening Pharaoh's Heart

After the sixth plague – boils – the Bible says that, "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" (Exodus 9:12). This seems grossly unfair! How can God warn Pharaoh to obey and then harden his heart so he can't listen?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

God doesn't want to coerce Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. He wants Pharaoh to admit he is wrong. But the plagues are so overwhelming and frightening, Pharaoh almost gives in against his will. So God hardens Pharaoh's heart to help him do what he wants to do, which is to go on saying "no."

There is another, more unsettling, explanation of God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Having been pig-headed for so long, Pharaoh loses the ability to change. If you recognize the truth and refuse to act on what you know, you dig yourself into a rut that gets deeper and deeper.

Sheep to the Slaughter?

I cannot fathom how 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. Can you explain why so many people wouldn't fight for their life? They all heard the stories and some even managed to relay first-hand what they themselves had seen. I understand that many put their trust in God, but after so many bad things continued to happen, why not try to protect yourself? It seems that many people died because they believed that nothing bad could happen to God's chosen people and that “works makes one free!"

Can you help me understand how all this happened?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Regarding the issue of why the Jews did not rise to action, let us clarify:

1) Did any other group persecuted by the Nazis successfully rebel? Every group followed the Nazi's beck and call. Some of these groups even had weapons, unlike the Jews who were civilians (many women and children) and untrained in combat. By the end of the war, a few million Russian POW's had been killed by the Nazis. Why didn't these soldiers resist?

2) How could Jews rebel, knowing that any infraction of Nazi law was punished with the torture and murder of hundreds of other Jews in retribution. Who could risk that?

3) In truth, there were incidents of Jewish rebellion all over Europe. The famous examples were in the Warsaw ghetto and the death camp of Treblinka, where the inmates revolted and destroyed the camp. The few dozen survivors of Treblinka (of the 750,000 who entered) lived to testify against Eichmann in Jerusalem. There were also groups of Jewish partisans hiding out in practically every forest in Europe. They often had to fend off not only the Nazis but their former friends and neighbors as well.

A survivor of Auschwitz, Edith Reifer, writes in The Sun Will Rise (ArtScroll):

"This familiar accusation – that we were led to our deaths like sheep – makes me want to weep. We had no weapons, we were not organized. We had undergone months, in some cases years, of ghetto life, starvation, brutalization, terror, uncertainty. And they were so clever, so diabolically clever. The concealment lasted up until the very last moment. We knew that death was their ultimate intention for us. But the gas chambers were disguised to look like shower rooms? Notices, in many European languages, exhorted the victims to hang up their clothes, tie their shoes neatly in pairs, as they would need them afterwards. It was only once inside that they realized...

"The nauseous, sickly-sweet smell, which we later knew to be 'death,' hung over the camp like a pall. It was with you every waking moment, and settled over you as you slept. We all saw the black vans, the flames, although we tried to convince ourselves that it was rubbish they were burning. The fact is that this truth was always known to us, but there is a certain safety device which will not allow one to internalize 'too' much of the truth. It is this that keeps one alive."

One final idea: Ingrained in Jewish consciousness is the knowledge that we will survive against all odds. This trait leads to optimism that the situation will improve and a disbelief of such tragic reports as the existence of "death camps." This consciousness may mean that less risks were taken. But it also enabled many to hold tenaciously to their will to live – when others may have given up.

The whole argument is designed to turn the tables and make the Jews to blame for their own fate in the Holocaust. It is a great dishonor to the memory of the Six Million. In the end, given the choice between being a Holocaust victim or being a Nazi, I know what I would pick.

Recognizing God

On one hand, I sense that God exists. On the other hand, I have a hard time seeing Him. What can I do to bridge that gap?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

A guy is riding his motorcycle down a mountain rode when suddenly he loses control and goes hurtling off the cliff. As he's sailing through the air, he shouts out: "God! Please make a miracle! Save me!"

Within moments his shirt gets caught on a protruding branch - and he is left dangling thousands of feet above the ground.

There's no way out, so he looks heavenward and shouts: "God! Please save me!"

"Do you trust Me, my beloved son?" calls the voice from heaven.

"Yes, God, I trust you. Just please save me!"

"Okay then," says God. "Let go of the branch and I'll catch you."

The man thinks for a moment, look around, and calls out: "Is anyone else out there?!"

The key to forging a relationship with God is to trust Him. God is not some vindictive, punishing old man in the sky. God is our loving Creator, who wants only our best. Sometimes that calls for Him to “test” us with difficulties; but the intention is only to bring out our very best.

When we are children, we think we are the center of the universe. Then, through experience and trials, we become increasingly aware of the fact that there are things in life beyond our control. Whether it's earthquakes, cancer, the rise and fall of fortunes, circumstances of our birth - and even birth itself... this can only be ascribed to a Higher Power.

Maimonides writes that there are two primary ways to attain recognition of God: by observing the wonders of Creation, and by performing mitzvot. Through nature, we see the beauty, splendor, and perfect unity of the world. Through mitzvot, we see how humanity can likewise attain unity and perfection.

To learn more, see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's essays on “Divine Inspiration.”