DIVREI TORAH

KI SAVO: YES, KILLING PEOPLE CAN BECOME A NORM

OHR TZVI ON THE PARSHA: KI SAVO: YES, KILLING PEOPLE CAN BECOME A NORM

Dedicated in memory of Aharon Ben Shlomo Benchitrit za”l.

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It’s an acid-to-the-soul diary. It’s the diary where Dr. Johann Paul Kremer describes his period as a Nazi surgeon at Auschwitz.

In that diary, Kremer writes about how shocked he was when he first saw Auschwitz’s monstrosities.

That shock saturates an early entry, on September 2, 1942, when he writes: “was present for first time at a special action … by comparison, Dante’s Inferno is a comedy… a transport of 1,000 Jews from Drancy…. 761 people are killed in the gas chambers.”

In a subsequent entry, on September 5th, he writes, “was present at a special action in the women’s camp…. the most horrible of all horrors…”

After September 5th, though, the shock dissipates. From then on, Auschwitz’s horrors don’t seem to trouble Kramer or to stoke his emotions.

Indeed, from then on, Kremer’s diary focuses on Auschwitz staff’s excellent food and entertainment and on the Nazi social scene.

And so, on September 6th, Kremer’s diarizes: “An excellent dinner: tomato soup, one half a chicken with potatoes and red cabbage (20 grams of fat), dessert and magnificent vanilla ice cream.”

On September 9th, Kremer writes “was present as physician at the flogging of 8 camp inmates and at one execution by shooting with a small caliber gun. Got soap flakes and 2 cakes of soap.”

And on September 23rd, he writes: “We had baked pike, as much as we wanted, real coffee, excellent beer and sandwiches. Jews from Slovakia arrive … 294 men and 67 women are admitted, the rest are gassed…it is a week since I came to camp and still can’t rid my room of fleas, despite all kinds of insecticides…”

Why did Auschwitz’s evils stop shocking Kremer?

Probably because Kremer’s continuous exposure to evil made evil seem “normal.” And once something is “normal,” it just doesn’t shock.

It’s the rabbinic dictum: “people who do certain actions repeatedly, view those actions as the norm ….they don’t view them as departures from the norm.”[1] Which is why the Gemara notes: “someone who sins and then repeats that sin, views that sin as permissible.” [2]

And it’s the curious story about Hashem “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” [3] so that Pharaoh would continue enslaving us - despite incontrovertible evidence that continuing that enslavement would destroy Egypt. That “hardening” of heart certainly wasn’t a negating of Pharaoh’s free will - Hashem never negates the free will that is the raison d’être of human existence.

What, then, was that “hardening” of heart?

Perhaps it was the natural acclimatization of heart that stemmed from a long-term enslavement that made slavery seem “normal.”[4] Given such normalization, even incontrovertible evidence wouldn’t change Pharaoh’s mind - because “someone who sins and then repeats that sin, views that sin as permissible.”[5]

It all goes back to pesukim in our parsha that show how acclimatization can “normalize” previously unimaginable horrors.

Those pesukim describe how a ravaging hunger can, as per the following, make human flesh taste “sweet.”

“The tender man will turn against his brother and against his wife… and won’t share with them any of the flesh that he eats, when he eats his own children.”[6]

Why won’t this “tender” man share any of this flesh that he is eating with others? Because human flesh “has grown [so] sweet to him after the deprivations of hunger” that he wants it all for himself.

We read, then, that about experiences that don’t just accustom but “make sweet” that which had once been unimaginable.

These – admittedly extreme - examples of acclimatization aren’t the only such examples. Lashon hara, harsh language and uncontrolled anger can also be examples of acclimatization.

We may have acclimated ourselves to lashon hara because our peers speak lashon hara. Or to harsh speech because our parents used harsh tones. Or to displaying anger because we interact with people who display anger.

We tell ourselves that our acclimatization are different than Kremer’s and Pharaohs acclimatization.

But are they?

Aren’t an openness to lashon hara, harsh language and uncontrolled anger also examples of acclimatization to bad things?

Aren’t they, then – on some level, at least – forms of enjoying “magnificent vanilla ice cream in Auschwitz?”

Do we really want to be enjoying “magnificent vanilla ice cream in Auschwitz.”

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[1] Shemos 10:1, See also Shemos 7:3 and 10:20

[2] Arachin 30b

[3] Shemos 10:11

[4] A development of the Ibn Ezra, Peirush Ha-Aruch, loc. cit.  who writes that “Hashem opens doors” to one who “wants to contaminate himself.” See, though, Rambam, Teshuva 6:30 and introduction to Pirkei Avos, Ramban, Shemos 7:3, Ibn Ezra, Peirush Ha-Aruch, Shemos 7:3 and others

[5] Arachin 30b

[6] Devarim 28:55-57

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