How can I have faith that God is within each of us if I mistrust humanity?

Humanity and the Holocaust (Topic 2, part 3)

In April 2020, to coincide with Yom HaShoah, the day in the Jewish calendar dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, and the 75th anniversary of the liberation, Rabbi Sacks launched a series of videos offering his perspective on many of the big questions raised when studying the Holocaust.

I do believe that God is within each of us. God actually is what Abraham Lincoln called, “The better angels of our nature.” He’s what Matthew Arnold called, “The force not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.” He is the other within the self, the total other within the self that says to me, “I can’t act for self-interest alone. I have to acknowledge something larger than me.” Something that indeed embraces every human being, something of which I am a part, not the whole.

And there is within us what the Sages called the Evil Inclination. Christians have a slightly different idea which they call Original Sin, and it is that voice which tells us, “No, I’m all there is and my interest, my passions and my view of the world is all that matters.” And that is when you get hubris. That is when you get nemesis. That is when you get human beings destroying other human beings and ultimately destroying themselves.

So there is this war within us, and anyone who’s reflected deeply on human nature has known that. All the Prophets knew it, Plato and Aristotle also knew it, Plato talked about a chariot with two horses pulling in different directions. So this is something really quite fundamental and it constitutes our freewill. Which voice will we listen to: The narrow voice of self or the large voice of all humanity in the cosmos? And that is the free will. And when you shut one of those voices down, you just refuse to listen. You’re only listening in mono, and not stereo. You’re only functioning with one hemisphere of the brain. Then, somehow or other, you’re going to do bad things.

And of course it is very, very easy to make this fatal error. Hitler really understood, and took advantage of, how easy it is to make people feel fear and hate. And those are two things within us that that are the most powerful at confining us. It’s something called the amygdala, it responds to threats and to what it sees is as bad things, threatening our environment. What happened to Germany in the 1930s, and what constitutes a perennial danger in humanity, is when a country or a culture suffers disappointments or crushing blows.

Germany suffered three crushing blows, one after the other. Number one, losing the First World War. Number two, the punitive conditions of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. And number three, hyperinflation which just wrecked people’s lives and savings. And when bad things happen to any group, there are two questions you can ask. And the whole fate of the group will depend on which of those questions you ask. You can ask, “What shall we do?” Or you can ask, “Who did this to us?”

To ask, “What should we do?” means self-reflection, hard work and putting yourself back together again as a country. But the easy and the really dangerous response is, “Who did this to us?” Then you generate a scapegoat whom you blame for all your troubles. And you are able to let that infect an entire culture because of this thing called the amygdala, which reacts with overwhelming power to what it sees as a threat.

Hitler knew that the only way he could unify a deeply divided Germany was to identify a hate object, who could be blamed for all three. For loss of the World War, for Versailles, and for hyperinflation. He managed to blame Jews for running both the capitalist United States, and the communist Soviet Union. When asked how Jews could do both, he replied, “Well, Jews are that clever. They can do both.”

So that is how the bad side of us, which is prevalent within all of us, can overwhelm the good side. And we have to constantly be on guard, to avoid listening only to the negative, small and fearful voice of humanity when it feels scared, and instead to maintain that freedom of choice by being open to hearing the greater, but more difficult, Voice of God.

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This series, created in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.

View the full Holocaust series of curriculum resources with additional discussion questions and historical background