I visited the United States Holocaust Museum soon after it opened in 1993. I remember riding up to the top floor on a large industrial elevator full of tourists who were laughing and chattering away. Then the doors opened, and a palpable hush fell over the crowd. We were greeted by life-sized photomurals of the gut-wrenching scenes that greeted American troops when they liberated the Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II. Not even the horrors of war could have prepared the G.I.s for the unspeakable sights that awaited them in the camps.
The museum itself was sparing in its display of grisly subject matter. The most visceral impact came from the most ordinary artifacts: a room full of shoes confiscated from inmates before they were sent to their deaths, discarded luggage and eyeglasses, piles of human hair shorn from the victims and intended for use as mattress stuffing. I walked along a hallway whose walls were covered floor-to-ceiling with hundreds of pre-war photographs of men, women and children from a single Jewish community in Lithuania that was obliterated in two days of mass shootings by the Nazi Einsatzgruppe in 1941. How does one begin to grasp the full measure of such crimes, except in their awful particularity?
I am reminded of how God confronted Cain over the murder of his brother Abel: "What have you done?” he demanded. “The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground.” We might well confront God himself over crimes of such magnitude, as a rabbinical court did at Auschwitz. Certainly, there is ample biblical precedent for such a step. The essential complaint is two-fold: first, that God allows bad things to happen to good people; and, to a lesser extent, that God allows good things to happen to bad people. The Book of Job addresses the former at excruciating length, while the Prophet Jeremiah saved some of his thunder for a jeremiad against the Lord for unwarranted leniency toward the undeserving: “Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?” he fumed. “Wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously?”
One can readily see in such complaints an age-old cry for justice. Under the covenant that God established with the Hebrew people, they were to receive his blessings and protection in return for their obedience. As the Lord laid it out for Moses at Mt. Sinai, the terms could not be more explicit: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.” Job’s friends were so thoroughly indoctrinated in this that they wrongly assumed Job must have sinned mightily to deserve all the abuse he suffered at the Lord’s hands. Job himself refused to release God from his obligations, even after it became perfectly obvious to him that God had reneged on the deal.
So what recourse do we have once it sinks in that life is not fair? If, in fact, all God’s children do not necessarily live happily ever after, you can always extend the terms of the covenant into the hereafter. In Christian theology, there is a final settling of accounts on Judgment Day in which the righteous receive an eternal reward and the wicked get their comeuppance. According to the law of karma in Hindu and Buddhist belief, our thoughts, words and deeds have consequences for good or ill that can extend from one lifetime into the next. Ralph Waldo Emerson never mentions karma by name in his essay on “Compensation,” but he clearly had something similar in mind. For Emerson, justice is never deferred but inexorably plays itself out in the circumstances of one’s life. Even seeming calamities can produce benefits in the long run. “A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable,” he wrote. “But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts.”
Emerson musters numerous aphorisms and examples from classical mythology to buttress his arguments. He might even have found some consolation in his own life, having suffered the untimely death of his first wife and a young son. Yet even a casual visitor to the Holocaust Museum would be hard-pressed to discern any remedial force that could mitigate the facts in this situation. Unquestionably, the German people suffered grievously for the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. But what of their victims, not the least the one million children who perished in the Holocaust? What tidy explanation can we offer that does not profane the dead?
Job mysteriously falls silent after his demand for justice is cruelly rebuffed. One might imagine that Job is simply intimidated when God at last speaks from the whirlwind. But I think not. This is a silence as palpable as the silence that fell upon the occupants of the elevator I rode to the top of the Holocaust Museum, when the doors opened and we were confronted by the unspeakable. It is a silence that swallows up any sense of oneself as a separate being, a silence in which the immensity of the world’s suffering disappears utterly into the still larger immensity of God, and they are found to be one and the same.