The story of the Exodus and the Passover Haggadah, which will be read this weekend, carry perennial relevance and significance. “In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as though he actually left Egypt,” the Haggadah tells us. Then we sing the well-known verse Vehi Sheamda: “This is what has stood by our fathers and us. For not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” What has stood by our fathers was the promise of the Almighty to save and redeem the Israelites, as the preceding verse of the Haggadah states.
In their book The Haggada of the Sages, Professors Shmuel and Zeev Safrai comment on the verse Vehi Sheamda, explaining that “the promise of the Almighty is a continuing reality that is passed on from generation to generation. It ties in with other Haggadah verses that underscore the religious and contemporary significance of the Exodus.”
Yet ever since the Holocaust, to my mind, this verse has become problematic — especially for the believers. It touches a raw nerve pertaining to faith, contending with a most profound and tormenting issue for which no one has the answer. Where was the Almighty that was to “save us from their hands” during the Holocaust? Where was He during the greatest attempt to bring about the extinction of the Jewish people — or in fact that of any people?
Delving into the quintessential issues of our existence, this acute dilemma has shaken the belief of many people in the aftermath of the Holocaust, driving them away from religion. Others who remained steadfast in their faith continued to be tormented for the rest of their lives. God works in mysterious ways and we must not do any reckoning in His stead — that was the explanation provided by religious leaders. In effect, they said that "this is too big for us." (But that did not stop them from explaining to us God’s reckoning in connection with other matters, when lesser disasters struck.) Still, that explanation was unsatisfying and could not heal anyone’s soul. I know some people who would skip Vehi Sheamda. They may have muttered something, but saw no reason to sing the verse.
Since the very beginning of its founding, the State of Israel has had to combat forces that have sought to destroy it. Like David’s victory over Goliath, the Israeli victory in the War of Independence seemed a miracle to some people. They perceived it to be a kind of a heavenly tikkun — mending fences if you will — that compensated for the disappearance of God’s saving hand just a few years earlier.
Once the State of Israel became stronger, we wanted to believe that the danger of "every generation rises against us to destroy us" had faded. And if that was the case, Vehi Sheamda had also become obsolete. Threats to throw us to the sea were still being made, but they were primarily blustery bravado. Indeed, there were times of concern and apprehension, such as on the eve of the Six Day War or the Yom Kippur War, yet Israel emerged triumphant. The belief that what had befallen the Jewish people during the Holocaust would not happen again became an axiom, as did the assumption that if the State of Israel had existed at that time, the Holocaust would not have happened. As a premise, that is quite dubious.
And now, on the eve of Israel’s sixty-fourth year of independence, we are facing yet another attempt at our extinction — this time by villainous Iranian despots. Once again, this part of Vehi Sheamda has become relevant. Although there is no more room to make any comparisons with the Holocaust, we are once again experiencing concern and apprehension, perhaps even fear, of whether we would be able to rise up to the test. Unfortunately, part of this intimidation hails from our own leaders who talk too much. Instead of letting them alarm us, both the IDF and the home front should be making appropriate preparations. It seems that the preparedness of the home front is deficient, already portending the establishment of a commission of inquiry.
Those who still believe in divine help, despite the trauma of the Holocaust and the religious questions it raises — and all the more so those who utterly do not believe in such a thing — should know that such heavenly help would not be forthcoming without our own more earthly self-rescue.