Atheists in the Foxhole
The phrase “There are no atheists in a foxhole” was apparently popularized during World War Two, though some attribute its coinage to “The Great War” (World War I). It refers to a common phenomena exhibited most strongly during intense infantry trench warfare. Namely, that in conditions of extreme stress, people who otherwise did not consider themselves religious, or even believers in God, suddenly start praying fervently.
In Jewish historical memory, there is no day more painful or stressful than the 9th of Av (observed this year tonight and tomorrow). It is the day when God’s wrath descended on his chosen nation repeatedly throughout millennia. The most significant events for which we commemorate and fast on the 9th of Av are the destruction of both Temples, the massacre of the Jewish people and the exile of remaining survivors from the Land of Israel.
However, whether it was the punishment of 40 years of dying in the desert or the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the 9th of Av has repeatedly symbolized death, destruction, exile, and the unleashing of God’s general fury on a people that he generally is assumed to protect.
The various punishments that God will visit upon the Children of Israel are recounted in excruciating detail in various places in the Bible. A more general description is given early in this week’s reading:
“When you beget children and grandchildren and will have been long in the land, you will grow corrupt…and you will do evil in the eyes of Hashem, your God, to anger Him… you will surely perish quickly from the land… you shall not have lengthy days upon it, for you will be destroyed…Hashem will scatter you among the nations where Hashem will lead you… when you are in distress and all these things have befallen you… you will return unto Hashem, your God, and hearken to His voice.”
[excerpts Deuteronomy 4:25-30]
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno is intrigued by the juxtaposition of God’s wrath followed immediately in the next verse, by His forgiveness:
“For Hashem, your God, is a merciful God, He will not abandon you nor destroy you, and He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them.”
Sforno explains that God’s forgiveness is a function of our return to God, and that our return to God is actually a direct and natural reaction to the trouble he inflicts on us.
When cataclysm and tragedy hits us, either on a personal or a national level, it is hard to be philosophical. However, Sforno maintains, that even though we may not or can not understand at the time the reasons for our misfortunes, one aspect of it is actually a call from God to return to Him. And it’s directed towards the atheists in their foxholes as well.
May our sorrows be turned to joy and may we witness the healing of our people and the rebuilding of the Temple speedily in our days.
May you have an easy and meaningful fast and a Shabbat Shalom,
To our modern-day exiles from Gush Katif, many of whom are still reeling and suffering from their communal 9th of Av. May they all find homes, jobs, respect, tranquility and stability quickly.