When tragedy occurs on a community level, the shock and sense of vulnerability can be paralyzing. Difficult questions are raised, such as “What do we do now? Should we fold up or scale back on our efforts and presence? Is this a sign that we’re in the wrong place, that this will never work?”

In chapter 12 above, we quoted the Rebbe’s response to the stricken residents of Kfar Chabad after their village was attacked by terrorists:

While Judaism does not provide explanations for tragedy, it does have a response. Do not diminish or detract from your noble activities but increase and expand them!

Consolation can be achieved through intensified activity, a heightened sense of purpose, and by redirecting our thoughts from what has been lost to that which thankfully remains.

By choosing to rebuild and intensify growth in the face of loss—and especially in the face of terrorism and acts of hatred—we also make a statement of victory. We become living proof that evil does not prevail, that life triumphs over death. Conversely, reducing positive efforts and activities only contributes to promoting the ideological goals of evildoers.

An ancient iteration of this argument can be found in Midrashic lore,1 as articulated by Miriam the prophetess when she was a child. After Pharaoh had decreed that all newborn Hebrew males be thrown into the Nile, Miriam’s parents, Amram and Yocheved, who held leadership positions among the children of Israel, divorced, leading other Israelites to divorce as well. Miriam went to her father and challenged him, saying, “Pharaoh decreed against the males, but you have passed a decree against the females as well.”

As a result of this argument, which brought about Yocheved and Amram’s reunion, none other than Moses, Pharaoh’s nemesis, was born. And it was this argument that was responsible for the high Jewish birth rate despite the slavery in Egypt.

Miriam’s argument was certainly not intuitive, and the counterargument would echo throughout much of Jewish history including, most recently, the Holocaust: “Who in their right mind could bring children into such a dark and turbulent world?” During the time of the first Jewish holocaust in Egypt—when newborn infants were being used for spare building parts, and a campaign of genocide was being waged against male infants—having children must have seemed, at the very least, irresponsible. And, yet, as Miriam argued, the Jewish people believed that by not having children, they would only be contributing to the program of extermination their enemies planned for them.

In a frank letter he wrote to Eli Wiesel (the Holocaust survivor whose activism and writings won him the Noble Peace Prize), the Rebbe advocated a similar approach to those who had recently undergone the trauma and devastation of the Holocaust:

And now allow me to make a personal observation which is related to our discussion when you visited me last. Your article series titled, “And the world was silent,” reawakened in me the idea I’d like to communicate here.

To remember and not forget, as the Torah teaches, “Do not forget that which Amalek did to you…”2 is obviously an active thing, in the language of the rabbis, a “positive command.”

That notwithstanding, remembering alone is only one aspect of our responsibility. The other, and arguably more important, aspect is the active combat against the so-called “final solution” that Hitler, may his name be obliterated, like Haman in his day, had in mind to do.

This combat should express itself through deeds that recall the Jewish response to infanticide in Egypt, “they would increase, and they would multiply.”

To achieve this aim, it doesn’t help to only feel sad and constantly remind oneself of the horrific tragedies that once were and of the importance not to forget. Rather, we must expand and publicize the efforts to grow the Jewish people literally, and in the spirit of “they would increase, and they would multiply”—in contradiction to the “final solution.”

In this matter, as in all matters, the important thing is to provide a living example, especially someone like yourself who underwent the horrors that you did, who will demonstrate that Hitler did not prevail. Even if only in order to spite him, one should have a large family of children and grandchildren.

With all the conviction I can muster, I’d like to say that notwithstanding the importance of telling the younger generation about the tragic experiences and losses suffered and how difficult it is to be liberated from those terrifying memories and ordeals of the past, in my estimation, the main calling of our times is to fulfill the teaching which states, “Against your will, you must live,”3 with the emphasis on “you must live”…i.e., you must make the effort to establish a Jewish home and family, which will certainly contribute to the downfall of Hitler, proving futile his efforts that there be one chasid of Vizhnitz less….4

At the conclusion of this long letter (only a portion of which is quoted here), the Rebbe ends:

Too long a letter? If, however, with good fortune you will be married after the festival of Shavuot, according to the tradition of Moses and Israel, this lengthy letter, as well as the time you spend reading it, will have been well worth the while.

Subsequently, Eli Wiesel did marry, and he attributed his decision, in part, to the Rebbe’s prodding. As he related in an interview, the Rebbe was overjoyed at the news: “The greatest bouquet of flowers I ever received was from the Rebbe for my wedding. He was [always] nudging me to get married. I have letters—one letter in which we speak about Jewish theology—seven, eight pages about theology. At the end [of the letter], he said, ‘And by the way, when are you getting married?’ As if the two had something in common.”5

In the Rebbe’s mind, they clearly did.6

In addition to the practical, demographic response, the Rebbe also advocated a spiritual retaliation of sorts as a response to the massive loss the Jewish people experienced at the hands of our enemies.

What follows is an excerpt from an informal discussion session between members of the Young Leadership Cabinet of the U.J.A. (United Jewish Appeal) and the Rebbe, which lasted through the evening of March 4, 1962.

Question: We are going on a pilgrimage to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, going to Warsaw and Auschwitz. As we get deeper and deeper in the reading, we’re all having many problems with the questions that the Holocaust and Auschwitz bring…. What did the whole thing mean?

Rebbe: …if history teaches us something that we must not repeat or must emulate, the best lesson can be taken from the destruction of the Second Temple. We witnessed something so terrible, it must bring every Jew to become more identified with his Jewishness…every one of us has an obligation to fight Hitler, [which] can be done by letting that which Hitler had in mind to annihilate, not only continue, but grow bigger and on a deeper scale. Hitler was not interested so much in annihilating the body of Jewishness as he was interested in annihilating the spirit. [He decreed that the spiritual and moral ideas which the Jewish people embodied7] must not infect the German people, the Russian people, or the Polish people—and because of that, he had all the Polish, Russian, and German people on his side. They regarded the Jews as a foreign body, and a body that does not belong must be eliminated.

If you influence a Jew not to become assimilated but to profess his Jewishness, his pride and inspiration and joy, this is defeating Hitlerism. If someone does his best in his personal life to be Jewish [so that] everyone sees that in the street he is a Jew, that his home is a Jewish home, that he is proud, and that it is not a burden, but his pride, his life defeats the idea of Hitlerism.

When you go to Auschwitz, you must profess there that Auschwitz cannot happen again. You can assure it by becoming a living example of a living Jew. It has nothing to do with chauvinism. You are not trying to convert anyone to be a Jew, but you are fighting, you are struggling for survival not only as a human being, but as a Jew. In our time, it is a very acute problem, because every one of us must do something not only to perform his task but to replace all those Jews that were murdered and annihilated. Their tasks are our direct duty.8

In the years following the Holocaust, the Rebbe often expressed the idea that after the German atrocities, which annihilated nearly a third of the Jewish people, every living Jew counts as two, for through each Jew, those who were murdered live on.

The responsibility of survivors and those not directly affected by a catastrophe to represent those who perished is captured in the following story:

A Holocaust survivor once came to see the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, some years after he settled in America. This survivor was plagued by an all-consuming guilt, the type that afflicted many who saw their peers killed off or who were the sole remnant of their entire families or towns. The question of “Why me?” devoured their waking hours. “Why did I survive while the others did not?” they probed others and accused themselves.

This man, too, was haunted by survivor’s guilt. He had visited many rabbis for counsel so that he could move on, but to no avail. His search brought him to 770 Eastern Parkway for an audience with the Rebbe.

“What zechut (merit) did I have over the others?” he asked desperately. “Why did I merit surviving?”

The emphatic two-word response turned his life around: Zechut? Chov! (“Merit? Obligation!”)