Barmitzvah Address to Jonathan Seifert
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Shabbat 19 November 2005
My dear Jonathan,
Congratulations on the excellent way you read your maftir and haftarah today. It is a pleasure for me to be addressing you on your barmitzvah, because my association with your family goes back some 25 years, from the time when I was the rabbi of your grandparents and parents’ shul in Kenton. I have officiated at quite a number of barmitzvah and wedding events in your family, including your own parents’ wedding, and I remember particularly your late paternal Grandma, Barbara, a delightful person who died so young, and whose amazing courage was an inspiration to the entire Kenton community. So I was delighted when, about 18 months ago, your dear parents decided to join our Stanmore Shul, and meet up with me again before it was too late!
The truth is that your family already had a long-standing Stanmore connection. Your dear parents, Alison and Steve, were married here, as were your uncle Martin and Aunt Claudine; and your grandma Anita Norman and Great Aunt Rita Susser are both very long-standing members of ours.
You are a very talented young man, with considerable experience of acting and media work behind you. You’ve been on TV’s Blue Peter, and the children’s magazine programme, Xchange. You’ve been in a TV games competition and you’ve done a review of a book, a video film and a play station game. You appear regularly on BBC Radio 7 where you have also reported on Jewish topics, such as the festivals, as well as on various TV programmes. You also did a Pesach programme which you submitted for a competition, and won. Not surprisingly, you are an avid watcher of TV soaps. (I naively thought that they were called that because they were all so ‘clean’), and you know the names of all the actors and actresses in all the soaps. You will shortly reach the summit of your ambitions when you appear in our own Haim Potter III. You also like cooking, you play the keyboard, you’ve been through cubs and beavers, and Stanmore Scouts for a while, and you have participated in SMILE, the B’nei Mitzvah weekend programme and you went on our shul’s Europe trip. So, all in all, you lead a very busy, active and enjoyable life. May that always be the case. I mustn’t forget to mention the fact that you had the pleasure of having your dad as your barmitzvah teacher; which is an experience that not many boys are fortunate enough to have, and which has made your performance on the bimah today a special family, as well as personal, event. You have learnt other very important things, from your dad and mum, namely the importance of serving the community. Dad has been a governor of Sinai for the past 9 years, as well as a trustee and treasurer of the Parents and Staff Association, and both mum and dad have been on the school fund raising committee throughout all those years. So you can be as proud of them, Jonathan, as they are of you.
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A Barmitzvah is a joyous occasion, and one would normally like to keep one’s message to you light and cheerful. But I’m sure that you and your family will appreciate that we simply cannot ignore today’s most tragic anniversary and commemoration. Becoming an adult Jew involves an understanding of, and a profound sense of identity with, our past, and an appreciation of the fact that our fate and destiny has been inextricably shaped by the struggles and the sacrifices that past generations have made to live and survive as Jews and to hand down intact our proud and glorious heritage.
So what do we make of the events of Kristallnacht, of that terrible night of 9th November 1938 when the German SS, together with other Nazi mobs attacked the innocent and peace-loving Jewish neighbourhoods, beating and murdering indiscriminately, and setting on fire hundreds of shuls and Jewish shops and businesses, followed by mass arrests of some 26,000 Jews. They were thrown into concentration camps and brutalised, and a fine of one billion marks was exacted from the Jewish community.
What do we make of those events? The brutality of the Nazis was not unsurprising. Their attitude to Jews had been publicised long before in a book, called Mein Kampf, written by their deranged leader, Adolph Hitler. What did come as a bitter surprise to so many was how the ordinary inhabitants of Germany and Austria, just stood by and watched while the mobs went around murdering and destroying. Neighbours, friends, fellow workers and professional colleagues - no one felt any sense of outrage. No one organised any public outcry or demonstration. They just watched, as if witnessing a fascinating public spectacle, a Guy Fawkes’ Night firework display. They just stood by and stared, as if what was happening was quite normal, as if it had no moral implications. The Jew, at that moment, became invisible, depersonalised in the eyes of the general population. And if one stands back and allows one’s neighbour to be mocked and beaten, his property to be destroyed and his life endangered, for the sole reason that he belongs to a different faith – then one becomes an accessory, a collaborator in whatever fate is ultimately meted out to him. The fires of Kristallnacht inevitably became the torches that before long lit the crematoria of the concentration camps.
In Hebrew, the verb ra’ah means “to see.” But that same verb also means “to consider,” to reflect deeply upon what one is seeing; to foresee its moral implications, to reflect on what its effect will be in the future. This is the true meaning of the phrase in Genesis, Vayar Elokim kiy tov, “God saw that it was good.” Vayar means that God surveyed every single aspect of the creative process and how it furthered the complex interdependency of plants, animals and humans.
This also explains an otherwise unnecessary repetition of the verb Vayar at the beginning of today’s sidra. Avraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Vayissa einav vayar, “And he lifted up his eyes and he saw (three men standing by him);” Vayar - “And he saw - vayarotz likratam, “and ran to meet them.”
The Torah was clearly referring here to two types of seeing. The first vayar tells us, simply, that Abraham “saw” them; they caught his eye. The second vayar tells us that Abraham reflected deeply on what responsibility the presence of three tired desert wayfarers imposed upon him, what mitzvah of hospitality he was now being called upon to extend.
And this also explains the otherwise problematic phrase v’lo ra’iytiy tzaddik ne’ezav, ‘And I have never seen a righteous man forsaken and his children begging for bread.’ Of course he must have seen that. What then did he mean by v’lo ra’itiy? He meant it in the first sense of the verb, namely, ‘I never just looked on, unconcerned, when there was a righteous man and his family starving. I was never just a spectator to any calamity or injustice. I looked at things both visually and morally. I ‘looked’ and ‘I considered the implications of what seeing.’ And that was something that the ordinary German citizens criminally failed to do.
This is just one of the many messages that we can draw out of your special Barmitzvah week, Jonathan. That the Jew must never be a mere spectator, watching as people around suffer danger, poverty, famine and devastation. When the Jew sees something, it must never be a simple vayar, a superficial, detached glance. The Jew has always to take a second glance, to make a second vayar. He has to look at the moral implications of what he sees. He has to assess it closely to see if his help is required to relieve the pain or lighten the burden of the person and the situation he is observing.
I hope you will take this message into your adult life. The very name of your sidrah Vayeira comes from that verb ra’ah ‘to see.’ Abraham always had his eyes open. He was sensitive to everything and to everyone. Abraham taught us how to make the world a safer, fairer, happier and more peaceful place. If you will make that your goal in life, then you will be fulfilled and will bring great pride and joy to your dear parents, grandparents and family, to your community and your people.