When the Wehrmacht invaded France in June, 1940, R. Menachem Mendel fled Paris with his wife, Chaya Mushka, heading south to Vichy. For several months they lived in Nice, but they knew that until Hitler’s defeat nowhere in Europe would be safe. After more than a year of frustration and displacement in Vichy France, they finally received the requisite papers and were able to travel to Lisbon, Portugal, where they boarded the Serpa Pinto, bound for New York.1

An entry in R. Menachem Mendel’s journal dated just one day before the couple sailed for America, shows that while his personal rescue was now close at hand, he was yet preoccupied with the precarious future of the Jewish nation and humanity at large.2 His thoughts dwell on the dual message of an enigmatic Talmudic passage referring to the arrival of the Messiah: “The Son of David will not come except in a generation that is entirely worthy or entirely unworthy.”3 R. Menachem Mendel explains this to refer to two alternative scenarios. In the first, the redemption is well-deserved due to the lofty station at which society has arrived; in the second, redemption is The moral health of humanity can only be preserved if we are consciously aware of G‑d’s all-encompassing presence.bestowed because the alternative is utter deterioration.

In this journal entry, Rabbi Menachem Mendel confronts the paradoxical possibility of evil in the presence of G‑d. When spiritual illness grips the world, he wrote, its cause is human forgetfulness. The moral health of humanity can only be preserved if we are consciously aware of G‑d’s all-encompassing presence. You can only do evil if you forget that you stand in the company of G‑d. It is therefore at a moment when G‑d’s existence is utterly hidden, in a generation that is “entirely unworthy,” that G‑d will intervene and usher in the final redemption.

But so long as the hand of G‑d has not yet been forced, R. Menachem Mendel continued, so long as the redemption has not yet arrived, the burden of responsibility yet lies on the shoulders of humanity. If the Messiah has not yet come it is a sign that we can yet repair the world, that it is incumbent upon us to act, bringing society to a state that is “entirely worthy” and ripe for redemption.

Standing at the crossroads between Nazi-occupied Europe and the free world, R. Menachem Mendel laid out a dual vision for the future of humanity. Either the evil being perpetrated would be the final straw to force the hand of G‑d, or the unyielding efforts of good men would yet persevere, raising the earth to its ultimate station.

The Rebbe lost several family members at the hands of the Nazis, including a brother, grandmother, sister-in-law and several cousins. When the full extent and horror of the Holocaust became known, he insisted that no human could claim to understand why G‑d had allowed humanity to perpetrate such inexplicable evil. But the inexplicability of the Holocaust, he argued, could never be grounds to shake our faith.4

In a 1965 letter to Elie Wiesel, the Rebbe asserted that only a true believer could sincerely confront G‑d with the question,The question, “Will the Judge of All the Earth not do justice?” ...assumes that there is an absolute standard of justice. “Will the Judge of All the Earth not do justice?”5 The question assumes that there is an absolute standard of justice, and only absolute faith in G‑d provides ground for such an assumption. The question can only be sincerely asked as an expression of deep faith in the unfathomable transcendence of G‑d’s truth. And when you apprehend the fundamental assumption of the question, you must apprehend too that no human can hold G‑d to task, nor hope to discern any answer.6

Instead of offering answers, the Rebbe turned the question around, directing it as a challenge to humankind. Twentieth century thinkers, the Rebbe argued, had deluded themselves into thinking that they could create a morally superior culture, a secular civilization based only on science and reason. They thought that G‑d could be rendered obsolete, and that in this enlightened climate, the barbarities of the middle ages would never be repeated. For Germany, the most cultured nation in Europe, the rise of the Third Reich was the dawn of this new age. It was precisely because they abandoned G‑d and scorned faith in an absolute moral standard, that they were able to perpetuate a moral travesty of such immensity.7

The challenge for humanity, the Rebbe concluded, is not only to remember the Holocaust, but to actively work against Hitler’s “final solution.” The Nazis may have been defeated, but we must yet ensure that their plans do not come to fruition. It is up to us to create a viable Jewish future, building communities in which each family is valued, and educating our children to live positive Jewish lives. Decades after the Holocaust, the Rebbe reiterated the two visions of the future that are to be embraced at every moment: Only by investing long term effort to overcome evil and transform the world for good, can we anticipate the imminent arrival of the Messianic era of moral clarity and eternal truth.8