The ABC of Evil
After witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichman in 1963, Hannah Arendt coined a new concept - the banality of evil.1 Arendt hypothesized that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, like Eichmann, a top administrator in the machinery of the Nazi death camps, may not be crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary people who simply accept the premises of their society and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats.
Arendt labored to make sense of how people that seemed so overwhelmingly ordinary, banal, had been capable of such monstrous deeds. To understand this phenomenon, however, she need not have looked further than the Torah that was her neglected inheritance.
In the Book of Eicha (Lamentations), the prophet Yirmiyahu catalogues with terrible poignancy the destruction of Jerusalem. Eicha is constructed on the pattern of the alphabet: In the majority of the chapters, the first stanza begins with Aleph, the second with Bet, etc. The Talmud says2, Rabbi Yochanan said, Why were they stricken by the Aleph Bet? Because they transgressed the Torah that is given through the Aleph Bet. In other words, why did Yirmiyahu structure the horrific punishments of Eicha according to the alphabet? To which the answer is given, because they transgressed the Torah that is given through the Aleph Bet.
Nothing in the Torah is merely poetic. Why didnt Rabbi Yochanan just say because they transgressed the Torah. Why did he add those words that is given through the Aleph Bet? Obviously the Torah was given by means of the Aleph Bet. How else could it have be given if not through the Aleph Bet? The Torah is a book. No book can exist without the alphabet. What was Rabbi Yochanan communicating with those seven seemingly redundant words that is given through the Aleph Bet?
Everyone is familiar with the train transports that carried the Jewish People to destruction in the Second World War.
To co-ordinate the transportation of millions of Jews along railroad lines and into death camps with timing so precise that the victims were able to walk right out of the boxcar and into the waiting gas chambers called for a computer.
But in 1933, no computer existed.
However, another invention did exist: the IBM punch card and card-sorting system - a precursor to the computer. IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, or Dehomag, made for Hitler 2,000 of these multi-machine sets. Thousands more were shipped throughout German-dominated Europe. Card sorting operations were established in every major concentration camp. People were moved from place to place, systematically worked or gassed to death, and their remains, their hair, their gold fillings, their spectacles and their pets, were catalogued with icy automation. The slaughter of millions, an unthinkable task, had become orderly, banal. The unspeakable had become unremarkable.
Megilat Eicha abounds with events so grotesque that they defy belief. They seem like something out of a nightmare world:
Those who were brought up on scarlet clothing embrace garbage heaps.
Hands of merciful women have boiled their own children.
Should women eat their own offspring, the babes of their care?
Rabbi Yochanans question Why were they stricken with the Aleph Bet? means why were things that are totally outside the natural world made part of the order of the world? What did they do that caused the monstrous and the unspeakable to become part of the natural order of things? The punishments of Eicha contradict all order in this world. Why then, are those punishments arranged in the most basic order in the world the alphabet?
In other words, the punishments of Eicha are really twofold: Not only did G-d punish the Jewish People with terrible, unbelievable punishments, but those punishments became part of the natural order of the world, part of the alphabet of creation. This in itself was an additional punishment.
The same was true in the Holocaust. That the whole monstrous process ran like a clock controlled by a fledgling computer reveals a deeper level of punishment. Something completely outside all the boundaries of the natural, something monstrous beyond human understanding, became part and parcel of the natural order of things, no different than the organizing of a hotel or a factory.
Why were we punished thus?
In the Sefer HaYeztira, which is ascribed to Avraham Avinu, the letters of the alphabet are referred to as stones. Words, sentences, paragraphs - all the multitude of possible meaning conveyed through those letters - are called houses. Some houses are small, some vast, but all are built on the building blocks of the alphabet. The number of houses that can be constructed from those blocks, those stones, is endless. Think of all the words in every language in the world, and all the possible sentences, paragraphs and books that can be made from them!
Everything, every thought, every emotion can be expressed through those permutations - everything from the loftiest ideas and sentiments to the most debased and repulsive. For everything there is a word. But, just as in architecture, not every building should be built; similarly, not every sentence and sentiment should be expressed.
The building that is supposed to emerge from that myriad of letters is the Torah. The Torah is the true edifice that is supposed to be constructed from those stones. In other words, the Torah is the way that G-d wants the world to be built.
There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. There are twenty-two days from the 17th of Tammuz up to and including the 9th of Av. Throughout history, these have been days of destruction in the Jewish calendar. These are the days when the stones of the buildings are taken apart, when they sit on the ground separated, unable to express the true meaning for which they were created.
When we say in our prayers, Torah and mitzvot, You have commanded us, we mean that there are two separate aspects to Torah. There is Torah and, quite separately, there are the mitzvot. The mitzvot instruct us how to realize all our potential in this world (and there is not one word of Torah that does not contain a mitzva3). However, there is Torah that exists apart from the mitzvot. Ascend the mountain, and I will be there, and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the mitzva that I have written to instruct them4.
Torah and Mitzva are two distinct entities: There is Torah that commands, and there is Torah that reveals. The Torah that commands is the mitzvot of the Torah. The Torah that reveals is the book of the Creation, the blueprint of all that is. This is the aspect of the Torah that is called light, the Ohr Hatorah. For it is the light that reveals existence.
Because we have disobeyed both the mitzvot and the Torah itself, we have been punished by both of them. Not only have we transgressed the mitzvot of the Torah but we have counterfeited the blueprint of the Torah the alphabet of existence. This is the explanation of the appearance of the banality of evil of those Nazi monsters. We, the guardians of the Torah, took those letters and concocted foreign ideas, concepts estranged and inimical to Torah. Thus, those very letters the order of the world itself - turned round and punished us by subsuming the unnatural and the grotesque into the natural order of the world.
1. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. 1963
2. Sanhedrin 104a
3. Vilna Gaon
4. Shemot 24:12