(And God Said…) I am Sorry
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Every spring, a number of days of commemoration are observed. Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, established by the government of Israel, are days in which we honor the memory of the fallen – first for the victims of the Holocaust and then for those who gave their lives to create and defend the State of Israel. On these solemn days, we remember the fallen as individuals, just as we attempt to transmit the lessons learned from tragic loss to the next generation.
Yom HaAtzmaut immediately follows Yom HaZikaron, marking the establishment of the State of Israel and celebrating our continued freedom and sovereignty in our homeland. These three days, clustered together in a very intensive sequence, create a period of national introspection and stock-taking in which we consider, on the one hand, our many achievements and the unprecedented success of the Jewish nation-state, while on the other hand, the extreme sacrifices that were made to achieve our freedom. By creating the juxtaposition between Remembrance Day and Independence Day, this was the underlying message Israel’s founders hoped to convey - a lesson they apparently learned from the juxtaposition of the solemn fast of Esther and the celebratory holiday of Purim: Our victory, our survival, was made possible by almost-unthinkable sacrifice.
Similarly, the darkness of the Holocaust is contrasted with the dawn of the emerging Jewish state – not to insinuate a correlation or “barter” of six million souls for the establishment of the State, but to help us appreciate the contrast between these two eras through their juxtaposition. The Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel should be seen as polar opposites – not only in the political or physical sense, but also, as Rabbi Soloveitchik encouraged us to understand them, in terms of their theological implications.
The Holocaust is an archetypical example of darkness, of the hester panim (literally “hidden face”) mentioned in the book of D’varim: “I will surely hide my face on that day…” (31:18). Conversely, the establishment of the modern State of Israel is a revelation of God’s presence and active involvement in Jewish history, a dazzling gilui panim (revelation) in which God’s hand is unmistakable. The contrast between the darkness that we experienced and the emergence into the light and warmth of modern Israel is almost startling.
In a very real sense, the relationship between God and the Jewish people may be likened to the cycle of the moon, which disappears and then reappears, at first as a sliver, and eventually as a full moon. A brief rabbinic comment regarding the new moon may help us reframe this strange shift from darkness to light from a theocentric perspective: On each holiday, we are commanded to sacrifice a sin-offering, just as a sin-offering is brought on the eve of every new month. However, the biblical passage that describes the sin-offering on Rosh Hodesh – the new moon – differs from all the others. In all other instances, the Torah refers simply to the “sin-offering.” Only the sacrifice brought on Rosh Hodesh is described as “a sin-offering for God” (B’midbar 28:15). The Talmud (Hullin 60b) offers a philosophical explanation for this anomaly: God asks that a sin offering be brought each month to atone for His own sin – the sin of diminishing the moon.
The implications of this teaching are extraordinary, and they speak to the very core of our reality. The world was created with a delicate balance between light and darkness, between clarity and obscurity, between revelation and hester panim. Presumably, this balance is necessary in order to create an atmosphere in which man can retain free will, which is the very foundation of our independent existence. In a world in which God’s constant, active involvement in human history is always apparent, free will is eclipsed, and man cannot thrive. Ultimately, the periods of darkness, the terrible bouts of existential loneliness, are as spiritually beneficial for us as the periods of light. The waves of hester panim, as they are juxtaposed with gilui panim, sharpen our awareness of the Divine and encourage us to seek out the spiritual message contained in the darkness, in the silence, in the pain that precedes the appearance of that sliver of moon. It is the struggle with the darkness that allows us to grow.
And yet, God expresses remorse for inflicting upon us the hours, days, even years of darkness and doubt. God takes responsibility for the pain we must experience. “Pray for Me,” He says. “Bring an offering to atone for My sin. Forgive Me.” By commanding us to bring this offering, God says “Forgive Me for the pain you have experienced.” We might consider this the flip-side of the coin of the human condition: We all, unavoidably, sin. When we do, we turn to God, we desperately pray and plead for forgiveness. Once each month, the proverbial shoe is on the other foot, and God seeks our forgiveness for the pain inherent in the human condition. Can we rejoice in the loving reunion that ensues as the light overcomes the darkness and we realize that the pain was an indispensable stage in our spiritual growth? Do we have the moral fortitude to forgive God?
This essay originally appeared in the Times of Israel, April 28th 2014