While the Rebbe always insisted that we take tragic events to heart, using them as catalysts for spiritual reflection and growth (see chapter 11 above), he also rejected summary “explanations” for tragic events.

On several occasions and in different contexts, the Rebbe spoke out against those who sought to blame disasters—either impending ones or those already visited upon the nation of Israel—on a lack of Torah observance. As was his wont, the Rebbe went to great lengths not only to view his fellow Jews positively but to find reasons for their behavior, even if it was at times flawed.

Repeatedly, the Rebbe stressed that G‑d loves His children—as the Torah states over and over1—and that He does not wish to hear derogatory words about them. Even the prophets, of whom it is said that “the spirit of the G‑d spoke through them, and His word was on their tongue,”2 were warned that “G‑d does not desire one who speaks badly of His people.”3

Nowhere was the Rebbe’s defense of the Jewish people—and his adamant insistence that they be viewed with a loving eye—more pronounced than when he spoke about the Holocaust. In 1990, as tensions increased in the Persian Gulf and Iraq was threatening Israel with chemical warfare, there was one influential Israeli rabbi who claimed (in a speech that was published in the Israeli media) that the impending war would be another Holocaust, which, as its predecessor, would be a punishment for the abandonment of religious practice. The Rebbe’s response to this claim was strong and unequivocal:

This generation, the remnant of the Holocaust in which six million Jews (may G‑d avenge their blood) were killed, may be compared to a “smoldering ember rescued from the flames.” G‑d forbid, therefore, [that anyone] speak ill of them to the extent as to warn them of another holocaust!… Such an outburst against this generation is made sevenfold worse when it is connected with desecrating the honor of those who died in the Holocaust by stating that the Holocaust happened because of their sins….4

Instead, the Rebbe reiterated what he had said on numerous prior occasions, that there are things that happen in the world not as a punishment for sins, but rather as a result of a Divine decree for which even great Torah scholars cannot find any rationale. For example, who can explain why one of the greatest Sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva, was murdered in such a brutal manner by the Romans or why the “ten martyrs5 died in similarly horrific ways. When the Sages sought the answer from G‑d, they were only told: “Be silent…”6 or “It is My decree.”7

The prime example of such an inexplicable decree is G‑d’s revelation to Abraham: “Know with certainty that your children shall be strangers in a land not their own. They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.”8 This decree, said the Rebbe, was not due to any sins, rather it was a Divine decree.9 And so it is with the Holocaust:

The destruction of six million Jews in such a horrific manner that surpassed the cruelty of all previous generations could not possibly be because of a punishment for sins. Even the Satan himself could not possibly find a sufficient number of sins that would warrant such genocide! There is absolutely no rational explanation for the Holocaust except for the fact that it was a Divine decree—definitely not the inner will of G‑d—rather a moment when “for a brief moment I (G‑d) left you.”10 Why it happened is beyond human comprehension, but it is definitely not because of a punishment for sin. On the contrary—all those who were murdered in the Holocaust are called “holy ones” (kedoshim), since they were murdered in sanctification of G‑d’s Name because they were Jews, and it is only G‑d who will avenge their blood.

So great is the spiritual level of the kedoshim—even disregarding their standing in mitzvah performance—that the rabbis say about them, “No creation can stand in their place.”11 How much more so [can this be said] of those who died in the Holocaust, many of whom came from the finest of Europe’s Torah-observant Jewry, as is well known.

[Therefore,] it is inconceivable that the Holocaust be cited as an example of punishment for sin.173

The Rebbe found as particularly reprehensible the idea that G‑d sits in heaven calculating the sins of His people in anticipation of punishing them. Such a perspective on the way that G‑d conducts the affairs of this world is nothing less than an insult to G‑d:

[It is] the opposite of Heavenly honor to describe G‑d as one who sits and calculates the number of sins and waits until there is enough to take retribution and then when punishment is exacted, He again starts counting…. This is surely the opposite of respect for G‑d, as it gives the impression that G‑d can be compared to a cruel king who is waiting to punish. This is, in fact, the opposite of the truth, for G‑d is a “Merciful Father,” as is explicitly stated in numerous verses, particularly [in the book of Exodus which lists] the “thirteen attributes of mercy….”12

Moreover, when the Almighty does punish for sins—after He has been abundantly patient—the punishment is not revenge, rather it is for the good of the person in order to cleanse and purify him from the impurity of the sin. In the words of the Alter Rebbe: “Like a merciful father who is wise and righteous but who strikes his son…like a great and awesome king who himself washes the excrement off his only son out of his great love for him.”13 And since this cleansing is done out of love, it causes pain to G‑d, and He also cries out, “Woe to Me…” and “I am with them in their troubles”14….

On a separate occasion, the Rebbe spoke passionately about the importance of speaking positively about the Jewish people:

All Jewish people are one single, unified entity…. We must appreciate the importance of speaking positively and the detrimental effects of speaking negatively. Anyone who has true fear of G‑d will also fear to speak negatively of His children. Criticizing or speaking unfavorably about any portion of the Jewish people is like making such statements about G‑d Himself. It is like one who strikes G‑d in the apple of His eye. An attack against any Jew is an attack against G‑d. When one speaks, his motives are irrelevant; what matters is how people understood his words. This is certainly the case when such statements are made in public, with great publicity, to the extent that they are publicized even by the secular press and in particular when the person making the statements is a public figure who has influence on others.15

In classic form, the Rebbe concluded on a positive note: “Those who were spoken of negatively should know that these words will have no effect on them. On the contrary, G‑d will bless them in both material and spiritual matters with good health and long years.”16

The Rebbe advocated that we emulate the example of those great Jewish leaders in history—Moshe, Aaron, the Baal Shem Tov, and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev17—who always sought to find merit in the Jewish people, even when the nation of Israel was at a spiritually low point.