Making Sense of the Holocaust Remembrance Day

As we reflect on the Holocaust, we should also remember that we have a way to prevent it from recurring.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is an opportunity to reflect on the reason for the world’s unending hatred toward Israel and the Jews. I believe that understanding the causes for anti-Semitism and taking appropriate action are likely to prevent a repetition of the tragedy.

Michael Laitman as a child in Vitebsk, Belarus

I was born and raised in Vitebsk, a midsize town in Belarus, one year after the end of World War II. A river ran inside the tranquil, picturesque and largely Jewish city, and a big square connected the streets at the center of the town.

During the war, the Nazis conquered the city and turned it into a forced labor camp. The Jews who did not run away in time were murdered. As a child, the heaviness of the aftermath of the war lay heavily upon the city. The Holocaust was very much a part of my childhood, and even though I did not experience it personally, the ordeal became very much a part of me.

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As with any Jewish family, I received a good education. By age seventeen I had already applied to the prestigious University of Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). There, for the first time, I encountered anti-Semitism first hand. I was initially refused acceptance to the university because of my heritage. Eventually, however, my determination won and I was accepted.

I knew that there was anti-Semitism in my country, but feeling it directed against me shook me up. I decided to make Aliyah, to move to Israel. For four years I was a refusenik (a Jew denied permission to immigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel). When I finally received my exit permit in 1974, I was out of the USSR in less than 48 hours.

What Is the Meaning of My Life?

When I arrived in Israel I was a young and inquisitive scientist. I searched for a job in my field of expertise, which was bio-cybernetics, but at the same time, I kept asking about anti-Semitism. It bothered me that Jews were hated all over the world, and it made me ask about the meaning of life in general.

Naturally, I first turned to science for answers. I came up empty handed. Science answers “how” questions, not “why” questions.

I did not feel inclined toward mysticism or the occult, so I avoided Eastern teachings and various psychological techniques, as well. Yet, the search for answers made me hungrier for the truth.

I began to look into Orthodox Judaism. I attended numerous lectures and seminars, learned with various rabbis, and read hundreds of books. I still did not understand the meaning of life, but I began to feel that somewhere within Judaism lay the answers to my questions.

One rainy February evening in 1979, I drove with a friend of mine to Bnei Brak, an Orthodox city near Tel-Aviv, hoping to find a Kabbalah teacher. At a crossroads on the main street, I asked the only man who was out in the rain if he knew where I could find a kabbalist nearby. In those days, Orthodox Jews did not dare mention the word, “Kabbalah,” much less inquire as to where they might study it, or even worse, direct other people toward such places. Yet, that man nonchalantly said, “Make a right and go all the way to the end of the street. In the last house on the street, right near the orchard, they teach Kabbalah.”

I followed his instructions and found what I had been searching—the wisdom that answers the question about the meaning of life. Within that house was Rabbi Baruch Shalom Halevi Ashlag (RABASH), the firstborn son of the greatest kabbalist of the 20th century, Rav Yehuda Leib Halevi Ashlag, author of the Sulam (Ladder) commentary on The Zohar, for which he was known as Baal HaSulam (Author of The Ladder). For twelve years I studied with RABASH. He taught me everything I know about the meaning of life, the meaning of Jewish existence, and anti-Semitism. To this day, the notions I convey in my columns and publications throughout the world are the ones that I had learned from him, and which he had learned from his father, Baal HaSulam.

The memorial in Berlin for those murdered during the HolocaustJohn C. Watkins V

What Caused the Holocaust?

Our sages had summarized what I discovered in Kabbalah with the words: “No calamity comes to the world but for Israel” (Yevamot, 63a). Great Jewish leaders throughout the ages circulated this message however they could. They did so in order to remind us of the only remedy that can protect us from trouble—the power of connection. Rabbi Kalman Kalonymus wrote in Maor va Shemesh (Light and Sun): “When there are love, unity, and friendship between each other in Israel, no calamity can come upon them.” Similarly, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain wrote in Shem mi Shmuel (A Name out of Samuel): “When Israel are as one man with one heart, they are as a fortified wall against the forces of evil.” Likewise, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Arieh Altar, the ADMOR of Gur, stressed in Sefat Emet (True Tongue): “Israel’s unity induces great salvations and removes all the slanderers.”

Many great leaders also stressed the connection between Israel, peace, and the world. Rav Kook declared in Orot Kodesh (Lights of Sanctity), vol. 2: “In Israel is the secret to the unity of the world.” In Likutey Halachot (Assorted Rules), Rabbi Nachman of Breslev wrote similarly to other Jewish sages: “The essence of correction is to have unity, love, and peace in Israel.” The Midrash (Tanchuma, Devarim [Deuteronomy]) states likewise: “Israel will not be redeemed until they are all one bundle.”

The more I delved into the texts, the more I realized that one simple message connected them: Love your neighbor as yourself, brotherly love, and mutual guarantee are the keys to Israel’s security and prosperity.

Israel Determines the State and Fate of the World

Through my studies, I learned that the unity of Israel determines more than the state and fate of the Jewish people. I learned that when we unite above our conflicts and disputes, we unleash a positive force that exists in all of nature, except within humanity. That force maintains the balance throughout nature, and its absence among us causes human society to decline into the narcissistic havoc we are seeing all around us. In his ”Introduction to the Study of the Ten Sefirot,” Baal HaSulam called this force “reforming light,” and explained that it can balance our self-centered nature and thereby heal human society.

Abraham the Patriarch was the first to discover and disclose this force to others. He taught his disciples and descendants how to rise above their differences in a way that unleashed this positive force, which is why to this day he symbolizes mercy and compassion.

Moses, too, aspired to disclose this corrective power to the world. In his book, The Commentary of Ramchal on the Torah, the great Ramchal wrote, “Moses wished to complete the correction of the world at that time, but he did not succeed because of the corruptions that occurred along the way.”

Our special unity at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when we committed to be “as one man with one heart,” earned us not only our peoplehood, but also the task to be “a light unto nations.” The “light” we were tasked with conveying is that very method of uniting above differences, which unleashes the reforming light and creates love and peace where hatred reigned before.

Over many centuries, our ancestors fought to maintain their unity above their growing selfishness. But two thousand years ago, they succumbed to unfounded hatred and were exiled from the land. Since then we have lost the ability to be a light unto nations because we have lost our unity. This is when anti-Semitism as we know it began.

Today’s growing hatred toward Jews must remind us of our task. We would like nothing more than to excuse ourselves from it, but there is no such option. Only if we rekindle the brotherly love we cultivated centuries ago, and share the method for achieving this with everyone, the world will stop hating and blaming us for all its troubles.

Like it or not, our unity determines the state of the world and its fate. Through our unity, we allow the world to unite, as we stream into the world the positive, uniting force it needs so desperately. Conversely, our separation denies humanity this power and invokes within it hatred toward Jews. This is what causes the nations’ aggression toward us and why they perceive us as the source of all evil.

In his essay, “Mutual Guarantee,” Baal HaSulam writes, “The Israeli nation was established as a conduit… to the extent that they purify themselves [from egoism], they pass on their power to the rest of the nations.”

Remember the Unity

International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates more than a tragedy. It is an opportunity for us to reflect on the reason for anti-Semitism, and remember that we have a method for connection, a way to prevent the atrocities from recurring.

No doubt, today we Jews are a divided nation. But now that anti-Semitism is intensifying all over the world, we must strive to connect above our differences and unleash the positive force that will unite us, unite the world, and uproot all hatred. Now is our time to be “a light unto nations,” to bring unity to Israel, and peace and quiet to the world through our example.