How can our lives pass so fast?
On this day thirteen years ago – September 14th 2006 – which must roughly be around the time that Sara, our bat mitzvah today was born – I know exactly where I was. I was in the German city of Dresden, experiencing a moment of history. It was the day that three rabbis were ordained, the first three rabbis to be ordained in Germany since 1942 and the Second World War. And one of them was my good friend, Rabbi Tomas Kucera, who for the past thirteen years has been working as rabbi for the liberal community in Munich. It was a momentous day, filmed live on one of the major channels of German television, and was reported around the world including a major feature in the New York Times.
After the devastation of European Judaism by the Nazis, few had thought it possible that such a phoenix could arise from the ashes. Germany – the home of Reform Judaism more than 200 years ago, the cradle of the Enlightenment and a Jewish community who had felt so comfortable and proud to be both Germans and Jews, the Judaism of Heine and Buber, Walter Benjamin, Moses Mendelsson and Stefan Zweig – Germany’s Jewish population had dwindled after the Second World War. Those who had survived, mostly left, whether for the US or Israel or anywhere to get away from the land that had betrayed them. Those who stayed were usually those who, for one reason or another, could not leave. And the communities who huddled together in the shells of the few shuls that had not been physically shattered dreamt little of rebuilding what had been there before, the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums – the modern rabbinical seminary built in Berlin in 1872 – which had even seen the ordination of the first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas in 1935 - its gates had been slammed shut by the Nazis in 1942.
And yet – after more than seventy years – the Jewish community had come back to Germany. In many cases these were not the descendants of those who had been there before. To a large part the revival of the Jews in Germany is thanks to an open door policy by the German Government in the 1990s. After the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union, the Germans decided to let anyone who could prove their Jewish origin to settle in Germany. And settle them they did, in towns and cities across the country and they came in waves – revitalizing the small surviving communities and building new ones. These new German Jews were Russian-speaking, creating some linguistic challenges, and even today when you visit a German synagogue you are better off knowing Russian than German, although the children and grandchildren of those who emigrated of course speak both languages and often many more – English and Hebrew – as well. New synagogue buildings were constructed, including in Dresden, and their architecture nods to the destruction of the past as well as the hope for the present and the future. The German government paid for much of this too.
Seventy years – as Honi the circle dweller once pondered – how can seventy years pass like a dream? How can history run so quickly – how can our lives – and the Bible in the Psalms talk about a lifespan being seventy years, or eighty with strength – how can our lives pass so fast? And in the click of a finger we find ourselves all grown-up, a new-born baby becoming a bat-mitzvah, youth becoming lost, as we find ourselves somehow older and aging, often imperceptibly. Seventy years was the length of the Babylonian exile that Sara read about in her Haftarah this morning. The words of the prophet Isaiah, words of consolation, that despite their present circumstances, the Israelites will find redemption. They will be restored to Jerusalem, God’s loyalty – despite all appearances – shall never move from them, nor His covenant of friendship be shaken – God who takes us back in love.
It is an important reminder for this time in the Jewish calendar, as we once again find ourselves in the month of Elul and preparing for the new Jewish year which will be upon us in just over a fortnight. It is the time for Selichot – of making our apologies and ridding ourselves of the burdens of our mistakes and wrongdoings which have weighed us down by the end of this past year. It is time to say sorry, especially to those around us, and it is time to do so with hopefulness that problems can be solved and that there is a pathway to reconciliation and return. The Jewish way is not to see disaster as the final outcome, and whether it is in Babylon or Germany, or indeed in Jerusalem that has seen so much conflict and conquest these past two thousand years, it is the hope of redemption that inspires our continuation, be it at a level both national and personal.
In becoming a bat mitzvah today, Sara, you are taking your place in the present day of this rich Jewish history. As an adult now in this community, you are responsible to hold on to the Torah that you have read today, to follow what you have learned and to continue to take its advice and stay close to its wisdom. The specific verses that you have chosen to discuss today all show the importance of respect, both for people and for animals and for our environment, and we trust that you will remain respectful in your Jewish adult life. At the same time, you have seen that we must engage with these laws and challenge them too, and that by doing so the Torah lives on and remains relevant, and that we are adding to its commentaries and interpretations for a fresh generation. In doing so we embody the Torah and become vessels of Torah, and like this we can share its teachings with all of those around us. Sara, you come from a family with a proud Jewish history of which you and your sister will become the guardians, and I would like to wish you all a big mazel tov on this wonderful occasion. May you remember it in seventy years time like you do today, may it be with you all of your days. Shabbat shalom.