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Peter J. Rubinstein
Noah, Germany, and Life After

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  October 13, 2007

Perhaps the only comprehensible justification for my having watched Evan Almighty was that I was flying back from Europe unable to sleep and willing to watch any available movie. For those of you unfamiliar with Evan Almighty, it is an updated version of the Noah story from which we read this morning. The difference in the cinematic version is that God actually does appear (in the person of Morgan Freeman) and Noah (in the person of Steve Carell) does have lengthy, if not comedic, conversations with the Almighty about love, the environment, personal responsibility, and politics.

But since rabbis are inclined to find sermonic meaning even in the most unexpected places, I was well aware that this modern tale of Noah was being screened on a flight that was bringing me home from a congregational trip to Germany, more specifically from Berlin.

We had determined to visit Berlin as part of this congregation’s commitment to world Jewry in our hope both to support Jewish life, especially liberal Jewish communities around the world, and to learn from the communities we visit. Though many countries we previously visited had histories of past persecution, Berlin was Ground Zero for the Shoah, the Holocaust, the planned extermination of Jewish life and the single greatest destruction of life since Noah’s epic. It was there that Hitler took the reins of power. It was there that orders for Kristallnacht, the systematic destruction of synagogues and Jewish businesses on November 9, 1938, were formed. There the Gestapo and the SS had headquarters. Berlin and Germany proved that unimaginable evil could be real, and that never again would anyone say that the unbelievable can’t happen.

There is good reason that most Jews who visit Germany experience immediate uneasiness when setting foot on the soil that encrusts the ashes of our forebears and strolling on the same wide boulevards down which the German army goose-stepped.

A visit to Germany is filled with irony, paradox and tensions. As one friend said, “I wanted to hate Berlin, but didn’t.” Berlin has recreated itself. Its new buildings are architecturally brilliant. Art and culture abound. But of greatest import, Germany continues to confront its past and its historical responsibility for the most vicious annihilation in human history. The architectural design of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is viscerally unsettling and powerful, and the Holocaust Memorial, designed by Peter Eisenman, is beautiful and wrenching.

Germany, aware of the anti-Semitism embedded in its past, is committed to supporting a Jewish future. The irony is that Germany is the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe and possibly the world. The German government supports rabbinic and cantorial students and the liberal movements of Abraham Geiger College. Government subsidies pay for the building and restoration of synagogues. And the German people, most of whom were born after the Holocaust, are reflective about their nation’s crimes against Jews and committed to making amends for the brutality and complicity of their parents and grandparents.

Thus the paradox. Out of the sadness and loss that brutalized Jewish life has arisen a commitment to life and rebirth, and joy. We cannot forget and scars remain but we turn our eyes to a future filled with celebration and growth and yes, indeed, magnificence.

So, it was opportune that as I flew back from Berlin, I watched the retelling of Noah’s story. For Noah’s epic is about the annihilation of all human and animal life except for those aboard the ark. The story is about loss and rebirth. It is about beginnings and starting again. It is about the sadness of the flood and joy for the incredible future of humanity.

When Noah and his family and all the animals disembarked onto dry land, God made a promise in the sign of the rainbow: that no matter how hard it may rain, the rain eventually will stop, and the sun will come out again. That is the story of Noah. It is the story of Jews in Germany. And it is our story, each of us as individuals and all of us as a people. The Jews of Germany reclaim Jewish life as Jews have reclaimed life with remarkable resilience. And so should each of us. No matter how great the challenge, how profound the loss, how stormy the day, we gaze skyward, we lift ourselves up and embrace the blessings of the present and the promise of the future.

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