If people were punished for their sins in the Holocaust, then are the Nazis guiltless?
During a lecture I watched, the question was addressed to Rabbi Yosef Ben-Porat: “Where was G-d during the Holocaust?” From watching the video it seems that his view is that the Jewish people were punished during these days of wrath and experienced the horrors of the Holocaust due to their assimilating and deviating from the straight path. The Nazis carried out the punishment and were merely tools implementing the Creator’s punishment.
If this is the case, then we have to accept heaven’s decrees, and how can we complain against the Nazis? This sounds absurd and incomprehensible, but there is no other logical conclusion from his well explained and organized lecture. Nevertheless, we say may the Germans and Nazis’ names and memory be blotted out. Isn’t this remark implying defiance of G-d’s Will? His words are incomprehensible. His excellent and coherent explanation and his conclusion seem to completely contradict each other.
This question is similar to one that all the Bible commentators posed: why were the Egyptians punished, because after all, it was G-d’s decree, as is explained in the Torah section of Lech Lecha, chapter 15:13-14: “And He said to Abram, "You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.”
It seems to me that Nachmanides’ explanation is correct: even though G-d decreed on the Children of Israel that they will live in a land that is not theirs and they will be slaves and be tormented, nevertheless G-d will judge the nation that enslaved them and they will not be exempt because they fulfilled G-d’s decree. Maimonides also explains in His Book of Knowledge (Laws of Repentance 6:5) that G-d did not sentence a particular person to carry out His decree, and all those who did evil to Israel were not required to behave as they did; each one could have chosen not to do it because no particular person was ordered to carry it out.
Therefore, even if a man was written down on Rosh Hashanah to be killed, the bandits who killed him will not be guiltless for carrying out the decree. A wicked person will die for his sins, but his blood will be sought from the murderer.
However, when a prophet announces a decree, then the one who fulfills it because he heard it and wants to fulfill his Creator’s Will, has not done a sin but a virtuous thing, as was said about Jehu (Kings II 10:30) “And the Lord said to Jehu, ‘You did well by executing what was proper in My eyes; you have done to the house of Ahab according to all that was in My heart. Therefore, your descendants until the fourth generation shall occupy the throne of Israel.’”
But one who heard a commandment and killed a person out of hatred or to get rid of him, is punished because his intention was to do the sin, and it is considered a transgression for him.
The Bible says similarly about Sennacherib (Isaiah 10:5-6) “Woe that Assyria is the rod of My wrath, and My fury is a staff in their hand[s]. Against a hypocritical nation I will incite them, and upon the people of My anger will I command them, to plunder and to take spoils, and to make it trodden down like the mud of the streets.” Assyria was not motivated to fulfill G-d’s will but simply conquered for its own purposes, and therefore it was punished at the end, as it is written (ibid. 10:12) “And it shall be, when the Lord completes all His work on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, I will visit retribution upon the increased arrogance of the Assyria king's heart and upon the boasting haughtiness of his eyes.”
The verse also says (Jer. 50:17-18): “A scattered sheep is Israel which lions have driven away. First the king of Assyria devoured him, and this last one, Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, broke his bones,. Therefore, so said the L-rd of Hosts, the G-d of Israel; Behold I visit retribution upon the king of Babylon and upon his land, as I visited upon the king of Assyria.” Here is a proof that the king of Assyria was punished for the evil that he did to Israel.
Nebuchadnezzar had heard that the prophets had unanimously called him to destroy Jerusalem, and he and all his people had been commanded to do it by the prophet, as it is written (Jer. 25:9) Behold, I send and I will take all the families of the north, says the Lord to Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, My servant, and I will bring them upon this land and upon its inhabitants and upon all these nations around, and I will destroy them and make them for a desolation and for a hissing and for perpetual ruins.” It is also written (Jer. 32:28-29) Therefore, so said the Lord: Behold I deliver this city into the hands of the Chaldeans and into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, and he shall capture it. And the Chaldeans who are warring against this city shall come and ignite this city with fire and burn it.” It was even said about the holy Temple itself (Jer. 26:6): “I will make this house like Shiloh and this city I will make into a curse to all the nations of the earth.”
The gentiles knew that G-d had commanded its destruction, as Nevuzaradan told Jeremiah: “And the chief executioner took Jeremiah and said to him, ‘The Lord your God spoke this evil upon this place. The Lord has brought and performed as He spoke, for you sinned against the Lord.’”
Despite this, all the Chaldeans were punished in the end. The reason why is because they destroyed Israel’s land to expand their empire, as the verse says (Isa. 13:11) “I will cut off the pride of the presumptuous, and the arrogance of the tyrants I will humble.” Another verse (ibid. 14:13-14) shows this: “And you said to yourself, 'To the heavens will I ascend, above G-d's stars will I raise my throne, and I will sit on the mount of the assembly, in the farthest end of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will liken myself to the Most High.'”
It further says about his nation (ibid. 47:8): “And now, hearken to this, delicate one, who sits securely, who says to herself, "I am, and there is none besides me.” Habakkuk also said about this nation: (Hab. 2:9) “Woe to him who gains evil gains for his house to place his nest on high, to be saved from the hand of an evil one.” This was similar to the punishment that befell Sennacherib. Therefore the verse says (Jer. 50:18) “Therefore, so said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel; Behold I visit retribution upon the king of Babylon and upon his land, as I visited upon the king of Assyria.”
The same thing can be said about the evil Nazis, may their name and memory be blotted out. They will without question be punished for their evil deeds.
May we merit to see G-d’s revenge speedily in our days.