Seasons of the Moon After witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1963, hannah Arendt coined a new concept: "the banality of evil" ("Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil"). 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 who 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 Yirmeyahu catalogues with terrible poignancy the destruction of Jerusalem. Eicha is constructed on the pattern of the alef-bet. In the majority of the chapters, the first stanza begins with alef, the second with bet, and so on.

"Rabbi Yochanan said: Why were they stricken by the alef-bet? Because they transgressed the Torah that is given through the alef-bet" (Sanhedrin 104a). In other words, why did Yirmeyahu 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 alef-bet."

Nothing in the Torah is merely poetic. Why did Rabbi Yochanan add those words "that is given through the alef-bet"? The Torah is a book. how else could the Torah be given if not through the alef-bet? No book can exist without the alphabet. What was Rabbi Yochanan communicating with those six seemingly redundant words?

Everyone is familiar with the train transports that carried the Jewish people to destruction in the Second World War. To coordinate the transportation of millions of Jews on railways and into death camps with timing so precise that the victims walked out of the boxcars and into the waiting gas chambers required a computer.

In 1933, however, the computer did not exist.

But there was another invention that could do the same job: the iBM punch card and cardsorting system.

IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, Deutsche hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, or Dehomag, produced for hitler some 2,000 of these embryonic computers.

Thousands more were shipped throughout German-dominated Europe. Card-sorting facilities were established in every major concentration camp. Jews were moved from place to place, systematically worked to death, and their remains, their hair, their gold fillings, their spectacles and their pets, were catalogued - all with icy automation. The slaughter of millions, an unthinkable task, had become orderly, even banal.

The unspeakable had become unremarkable.

Megillat 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?"

The Gemara's question, "Why were they stricken with the alef-bet?" means, why were things that are totally beyond 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, asks the Gemara, are those punishments arranged in the most basic order of all - the alphabet?

in other words, the punishments of Eicha are really twofold: not only did God punish the Jewish people with terrible, unbelievable punishments, but those punishments were made part of the natural order of the world, part of the alphabet of creation. This in itself was an additional punishment.

The parallel to the holocaust is striking. 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 from the organizing of a hotel or a factory.

in Sefer Yetzira, which is ascribed to Avraham, the letters of the hebrew 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 infinite. Think of all the possible words in every language in the world!

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, 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 emerge from those stones. In other words, the Torah is the way that God wants the world to be built.

When we say in our prayers, "Torah and mitzvot...You have commanded us" (Ma'ariv prayer), 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 mitzva). 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 them" (Shemot 24:12).

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.

The Torah was given to us as the true picture of all those myriad building blocks that are the letters of creation.

"For a mitzva is a candle and the Torah is light" (Mishlei 6:23). There is only one combination of those letters that reveals the light. All other combinations eventually will break down and vanish into darkness. They were not the intended combination of the letters.

There are twenty-two letters in the hebrew alphabet. There are twenty-two days from the seventeenth of Tammuz up to and including the ninth 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 purpose for which they were created.

The Torah is the alphabet of Creation, its blueprint. If we construct a world that is inimical to that blueprint, those very letters - the order of the world itself - can subsume the unnatural and the grotesque into the banality of evil.

More articles available at Ohr Somayach's website.