It was Shabbos when Wagner group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin launched his military assault against Vladimir Putin and his regime. That’s a shame, because Sabbath-observant Jews missed a potential example of God’s existence and how He controls history. But by the time the Sabbath was over, the revolt also was over. Putin, although weakened, was still in charge. Still free to slaughter children. Still free to fire missiles against orphanages. Still free to poison political opponents.
Of all the occurrences in our world that causes us to question the existence of God, the flourishing of evil is highest among them. Those Jews who have defended Putin and called him a friend of the Jews even as he has slaughtered Ukrainian children are guilty of a colossal chillul Hashem. If Putin, who downs passenger airliners, is not evil, then the word has no meaning.
So why did God allow him to remain atop his perch at the Kremlin? Why couldn’t the Wagner group, itself a mostly wicked mercenary group, have continued to Moscow, toppled the tyrant, and shown that God can sometimes use instruments of one evil to defeat an even greater evil, as He did with Stalin and Hitler?
The same question applies to the wicked government of Iran and its chief terrorist Ayatollah Khameini, who is arguably the biggest religious fraud in the entire world. Last week the United Nations Human Rights Commission, from which Trump withdrew and Biden rejoined, appointed Iran to chair one of its principal human rights groups. Now, everyone knows that the United Nations is the most prominent amoral body in the entire world. So appointing Iran — which tortures women to death for not covering their hair, stones them to death on false charges of adultery, and hangs gays from cranes — to a human rights commission is par for the course. The U.N. is a joke. But God is the most serious thing in the universe. How does He watch Khamenei every day and not fell him with a heart attack or stroke?
Why does God hide in history, giving so many cause to deny him?
On July 20, 1944, Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg put a British-made bomb at the feet of Adolf Hitler during his daily midday military conference and quickly exited the room, feigning an important telephone call. A few minutes later the bomb went off. Four people died. Hitler walked away virtually unscathed. Tattered clothing and a burst eardrum was all that he suffered. Two hours later he actually greeted Benito Mussolini, who had come to visit him at Wolf’s Lair, speaking of how “Providence” had spared him for his important mission of, what, gassing 10,000 Jews a day for four years?
And how did Hitler survive? After Stauffenberg left the conference room, a general bent over to get closer to the maps on the table and pushed the briefcase-bomb about four inches away with his foot, placing it right at the giant wooden leg of the table, which absorbed the blast that came in Hitler’s direction. God, on that day, couldn’t have given us just four inches? The mass murder of Hungarian Jewry was under way that summer, and the SS actually hit its all-time World War II record of murdering 40,000 Jews in a single day. Even the four crematoria of Auschwitz could not cope with the number of dead Jews, and the SS therefore ordered the Sondercommando to build a giant pyre to burn the bodies. Two photos of that actually still exist. Had Hitler died that day, a few hundred thousand Jewish lives might have been spared. Was God watching while they were gassed?
Which brings us to today’s world.
I confess that I have grown both more determined but also more morose with the rise of antisemitism in our time. Yes, I am fully immersed in the fight, with our new initiative, the Jewish Defense Network, emerging as a leading force exposing the antisemites in our midst and hitting back hard at them for their vituperative hatred. Truth be told, I never wanted to live this life. When I decided to become a rabbi at the age of 16 at yeshiva, it was to spread the light of Judaism rather than fight the darkness of antisemitism. I have authored 36 books, many on relationships and marriage, some on intimacy and sexuality, others on Judaism, Christianity, and faith. But the last few have been about antisemitism and the demonization of Israel, including “The Israel Warrior” and “Kosher Hate.” Then there was the sad book, my most recent, about my Kaddish year for my father during covid. I dedicated that book to my mother, just before her 80th birthday, saying that she must live until Moshiach because I refuse to ever mourn a parent again. We had the most joyous celebration of her 80th birthday and she danced with hundreds of her friends. Then we lost her three months later, and I saw the dedication of my book as a cruel joke.
Many people believe that a parent dying at 80 is not a tragedy. It’s only children who have leukemia that is cause for questioning God. I disagree. I feel the loss of my mother very badly and I regard it as absolutely unnecessary tragedy.
Which brings us to what has become the central question of my faith. Given all the evil in the world, given that monsters like Putin continue to slaughter innocents, given that Iran inches closer every day toward a nuclear weapon (President Biden just last week released, through Iraq, $2.5 billion to the mullahs), and given that the Jewish people continue to be demonized worldwide, why am I an Orthodox Jew? Why do I cherish the Torah? Why is my Judaism at the absolute center of my world?
Because God made beautiful promises to the world. He promised that one day death would be defeated. He promised that those who lie in the dust will one day awaken and dance. He promised that universal peace would replace the brutality of war. And he promised that hunger and disease would be abolished from the earth.
And if He, for whatever reason, chooses to ignore or delay His promises, does that mean I should do the same? To the contrary. Am I not — are we not – obligated to remind God of those promises by trying our best, amid our extremely finite capacity compared to His infinite ability, to carry them out in His stead? To cure disease, to comfort the bereaved, to prolong life, and to fight evil?
The past two weeks have seen the seventh yahrzeit of my inspiration Elie Wiesel, and a week later, the 29th yahrzeit of my mentor and teacher, the Lubavitcher rebbe. Elie’s life’s work, bearing witness to genocide, can be summed up in a single sentence. Man dare never let God off the hook in the face of unspeakable evil. And the rebbe’s life can be likewise summed up in a sentence. In a world in which you find yourself surrounded by darkness and evil, light a single candle, do a single mitzvah, and it will dispel the darkness until all the light of all those candles banishes the darkness forever and we enter the luminous, perfect world of the
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.