A few years ago I had the honor of being a member of the Jewish Theological Seminaries Rabbinical Student mission to Germany. It was an incredible and moving experience to see both the Germany of the Holocaust and the horrors involved, as well as the Germany of today and the German people's valiant efforts to make amends. We visited the main Berlin synagogue, the Abraham Geiger College (the first liberal rabbinical seminary founded in Europe since the Shoah), the Jewish Museum, the Holocaust Memorial, and finally the Sachsenhausen Concentration camp. The latter was three hours outside in frigid weather—we all had a new appreciation of the torments suffered by the victims in the cold amidst hunger, disease, and terror.
We participated in a Masorti (Conservative movement) shabbaton at the Conservative synagogue in Berlin. My most vivid memory is the reflection of the Havdallah flames on the boys and girls faces only a few years older than my boys. Watching the light shine upon the future in a place where there was such terror portends well for the future, both for us as Conservative Jews, and, at the same time, peace.
This week we conclude the book of Breishit, Genesis. Parashat Vayechi begins with “Vayechi Yaakov bieretz mitzrayim. Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.” This verse is surprising because Jacob came to Egypt to die, yet he wound up living there too. Indeed, Egypt was a refuge before it became a cage. We Jews often think of Europe as a graveyard or smokestack for Jews, but it has been and continues to be a place of life. So much of who we are today is a result of our collective experience in places like Berlin. We cannot have Shabbat without remembering Mitzrayim; we would not have Conservative Judaism without the positive and negative of our experience in Germany where Conservative Judaism was created as part of the emancipation.
While it is tempting to view Egypt only as a place of oppression, let us remember that it was also a place of life where we became a nation. Likewise, Germany is the place of Shoah, but it was also where we became a movement. As the very fitting Hebrew song by Naomi Shemer so poignantly says:
(Please view the beautiful rendition by Yossi Bani at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gbw2FTYHCTg)
Al kol eleh, al kol eleh, Shmor nah li eyli hatov. Al hadvash ve'al ha'okets, Al hamar vehamatok.
Al na ta'akor natu'a, Al tishkakh et hatikvah. Hashiveyni va'ashuva, El ha'arets hatovah.
Don't uproot what has been planted
So our bounty may increase
Let our dearest wish be granted:
Bring us peace, oh bring us peace.
For the sake of all these things, Lord,
Let your mercy be complete
Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham