As we observe Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day on a yearly basis, we are told the stories of death and the stories of survivial in the midst of the most tangible evil imaginable. The 6 million Jews who were murdered, and also the millions of others killed, can never be forgotten, lest we allow this evil to rear its head once again on this earth. As famous survivor and eventual “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal once said, “For evil to flourish, it only requires that good men do nothing.” I would alter that to say “good people.” In the Talmud, Rabbi Assi said: “At first the impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer, but in the end it is as thick as a cart rope” (B. Suk 52a).
What do we make of Rabbi Assi’s words? Let’s examine for a moment. The gut-wrenching scenes of death, murder, and genocide that were left in the wake of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” did not happen overnight. The seeds of all hatred and evil are sown and take time to grow. They need to be nourished, watered, and given sunlight in order to blossom into the full-fledged and realized nightmare that was the Holocaust. “At first the impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer…” The evil impulses that sparked the Shoah or any other hate-filled evil campaign likely began as what one might call a series of microaggressions. A microaggression can be something as seemingly miniscule as a dirty look or an off-color comment. “They are all like that, or, “Those people all do that.” Have we ever seen someone cross the street to avoid even passing by someone who was perceived as different? An eye roll, a rude sigh, the feeding of a stereotype–all of these microaggressions are the ammunition that can ultimately culminate in actualized shots fired.
We must ask the question–How do people get to a place where others are perceived as somehow less than human, or how does the spider’s gossamer become as thick as a cart rope, as Rabbi Assi would say? Psychology tells us that the group that is being dehumanized is first categorized, not as human at all, but as beast or sub-human. The Nazis were well-known for propaganda that crudely depicted Jews as rats and parasites. The categorization, along with vivid imagery and metaphor are meant to evoke an emotional reaction from the dominant group. If a rat is perceived as dirty and needing to be exterminated in someone’s mind, how does one convince them to feel the same way about a Jewish person? The Jew is described, depicted, and compared to something less-than-human, and becomes, over time, in the mind of those who are being fed the information, less than human. The screams of a Jew exiting a train at Auschwitz, or being ripped from their homes and families, become nothing more than the equivalent of the squeals of a rat caught in a trap.
This process is systematic and sneaky. This is why a microaggression is never “just a comment,” or “just an isolated incident.” There is not “just,” and there never can be, if we wish to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust from ever happening to the Jews, or any other marginalized group, ever again. We must cut the gossamer long before it ever becomes a cart rope.
We know that we must remain vigilant, remember, and continue to teach the horrors of the Holocaust to future generations. But, what about G-d? Perhaps we have heard people question the existence of G-d altogether based upon the Shoah. “How could G-d let this happen?” or, “If G-d exists, wouldn’t He have stopped such horrific things from occurring?” While these questions are large, and perhaps mostly unanswerable, it does not mean we should avoid broaching them. Remember, “Israel” quite literally means to wrestle with G-d. Jews do not have to be wary of questioning. Rabbi Nahman of the Talmud brings up an interesting scriptural insight into man’s capacity for evil. In reference to Genesis 2:17, Rabbi Nahman points out how the Hebrew word “Va-yitzer” is spelled with two yods. “Va-yitzer” translates to “He formed man.” Why are the two yods in the word? Rabbi Nahman attributes this spelling to the fact that G-d created two “yetzers,” or “impulses” in man. One impulse was created to good, and the other to evil (B. Ber 61a). The good impulse is referred to as “yetzer hatov,” and the evil as “yetzer hara.” The Talmud tells us that the evil yetzer hara can be reined in completely by yetzer hatov.
What can we take from this? Good can overcome evil, and the light of our deeds and mitzvot will outlast the darkness of evil. We can garner evidence of the ability of good to overcome evil directly in the Torah. In Genesis 8:21 G-d says: “…for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” If evil is the original dominant impulse of man, how does there exist so much good in the world? How could Anne Frank write in her famous diary at such a tender age that, “Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart.” Perhaps it is because G-d is in Anne’s diary. Even as Anne and her loved ones faced unimaginable hardship and death, Anne saw the overwhelming and unflappable goodness of G-d in humankind. G-d is in even what seems like the smallest act of tzedakah, or the seemingly flash in the pan mitzvah. If a microaggression is the seed of the flower of terrible evil, then the smallest act of good is the seed of an entire tree of kindness, good, and righteousness.
We see the good among evil in our world right now. How many beautiful acts of kindness do we see in response to the current and brutally unforgiving pandemic? We hear stories of selfless heroism in the form of “essential work.” When hope appears hard to come by, it does seem as if people really are good at heart. Yes, the yetzer hara exists, and it is our job to make sure that yetzer hatov addresses evil impulses and then exiles them into oblivion. It is our job to do good. The Mishkan T’Filah says “Pray as if everything depended on G-d. Act as if everything depended on you.”
The presence of evil in the world does not imply that G-d does not exist, it proves that we still have work to do.
We must “overreact” to words, actions, and hints of hatred and evil. We must cut the rope of evil while it is in its gossamer-like infancy, never letting it reach the actualization of a sturdy rope. The snowball of hate is like a thief in the night, so we must keep the lights on at all times, remembering that evil has happened, but G-d has given us all the blessing of preventing it from ever happening again. We are armed with knowledge, tradition, and awareness. We must never forget the 6 million Jews of the Shoah. Their memories are even more than for a blessing, but also an impulse to do good now and in the future–the breath of yetzer hatov.
I would like to close with the prayer El Malei Rachamim (God Full of Compassion)
Fully compassionate God on high:
To our six million brothers and sisters
murdered because they were Jews,
grant clear and certain rest with You
in the lofty heights of the sacred and pure
whose brightness shines like the very glow of heaven.
Source of mercy:
Forever enfold them in the embrace of Your wings;
secure their souls in eternity.
Adonai: they are Yours.
They will rest in peace.