Why Jews Should Look to Germany for Inspiration This Rosh Hashanah

The transformation of a nation from last century's murderous aggressors to this century's kind saviors of refugees gives us hope that change is possible.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink
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A migrant takes a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. September 10, 2015
A migrant takes a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. September 10, 2015Credit: Reuters
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the starting block and finish line of our yearlong journey. The High Holidays offer us time to reflect, repent, and redo. We are seeking a chance to start over, aspiring to a better life.

As we start over in synagogue, tens of thousands of impoverished families across the world are quite literally leaving their homes in desperate search for a better life. Over four million refugees have escaped Syria - innocent victims of war wandering around the globe on foot, hoping to settle someplace better, someplace new, aspiring to a better life.

No one wants these people. Wealthy nations in the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas are doing comically little to absorb refugees and the crisis is only getting worse. Our modern international community may pride itself on ethics and morality, but it’s all talk. The facts betray the empty promises of life and liberty to all. Refugees are being turned away on the threshold of freedom and the doorstep of redemption.

One country has led the way of light, pledging to absorb 800,000 refugees. Some other countries have followed the lead of this international bastion of moral clarity and kindness. Somehow, Germany has emerged as the beacon of light in this darkness. Every other country comes off terribly. Germany can proudly look herself in the mirror. Germany?! Germany.

For so many Jewish people, the Holocaust has left an indelible mark on our collective soul. All the savage imagery of the Holocaust reopens old wounds. But it can be difficult for us to connect to a historic event. I think this explains the ubiquitous reluctance of American Jews to purchase German products, and a resistance to treating Germany, her land and her people, just like everyone else.

Focusing on the past crimes of Germany creates cognitive dissonance with reality. Presently, German Jewry is flourishing. There is no place in Europe that is more welcoming and helpful to Jewish people. This week, Germany invited refugees to make a new life on the same soil that could not tolerate non-Aryans and was soaked in their blood.

What happened? How did Germany go from being an aggressor to being a savior in a few short decades? What about the stereotypes and assumptions? Can Germans really be friendly?

The answer is of course they can. More importantly, they have been friendly.

Through legislation, education, social programs, and plain old kindness, Germany has produced a tolerant and benevolent society. It is built on top of the ashes of people who were murdered because they were different. As Danielle Berin writes in the Jewish Journal: “Seventy years ago, who could have imagined that the country that nearly annihilated God’s Chosen would one day be chosen as a light among nations?"

In many ways, we all have a little Germany in us. We’ve all sinned grievously. We’ve all harmed others. Others identify us based on our worst behavior. Sometimes, we identify with the way others may think of us. We don’t believe that we can change because “leopards don’t change their spots.”

Look to Germany for inspiration. A short 75 years ago, Germany and many of her citizens were efficient murderers. They were stoics with no soul. But two generations later, we’ve discovered that change is possible. If they did it, we can do it.

Perhaps above all, take hope for the future. I hear equally horrible, and oftentimes deserved, descriptions of Arabs and Middle Eastern Muslims. People are certain that they are inherently evil or hardwired for violence. We thought the same things about Germans a just a few years ago. Germany showed us that Jew hatred and Jew killing is a temporary problem meant to be solved, not a conclusion meant to be presumed eternally.

Freedom, justice, and modernity are the tools a society needs to be just. We must encourage these ideals anywhere they are lacking. Reciprocation of bigotry or aggression in response to violence may embolden the baser elements in a society. Of course, we must be careful and protect ourselves, but our primary efforts must be in building good societies. Like Germany.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur loom on the horizon. Around the world, Jewish people will be asking for forgiveness and promising to do better. Many people will just go through the motions. They’ll be certain to check off the boxes they need to cover in order to earn a prize. But many others take it seriously and try to refine their character. It’s too easy, and too lazy, for us to settle into our comfortable roles as we have been. It’s too easy, and too lazy, to put others into the same old tired boxes. Instead, let’s celebrate the human capacity for change and embrace the infinite possibilities for a better future.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is a rabbi, lecturer, and writer in Beverly Hills, CA. He blogs at Finkorswim.com. Join the conversation on Facebook at Facebook.com/eliyahu.fink.

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