Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5774 (September 5th, 2013)

It's good and wonderful to see you again, and we are also very happy to welcome many who are here for the first time. We welcome you and we hope and pray that you will return for many years to come.

The following joke appeared in this month's "Commentary" magazine. It is titled, "The Suit Joke".

A 65 year old man is finally able to have his dream suit, one made to order. He goes for the first fitting, and a few weeks later returns for the second fitting, and finally he goes to pick up his new, made-to-order suit. He tries it on and looks at himself on the mirror. He can’t believe how elegant he looks.

"Gorgeous!" says the tailor.

"Magnifique!" says the tailor’s assistant.

"Only one thing," says the tailor. "Your left shoulder is higher than your right one. If you want the suit to look great, you need to lower your left shoulder. Great!"

The tailor continues: "Notice how the cuff on your right foot drags on the floor? That's because your left leg is longer that you right. To correct this problem, you need to straighten your right leg and bend your left leg a little." The man bends one leg and straightens the other.

"Wow," says the assistant, "it's perfect!"

"One final thing," says the tailor. "Because you're bending one leg and lowering your shoulder, the crotch area is a little off balance. So tilt your knees out a little."

"How gorgeous!" says the tailor.

"I am crying, it's so beautiful!" says the assistant.

The man walks out of the store into the avenue. He walks down the street with one shoulder up, one shoulder down, one leg straight, one leg bent and the knees bowed. He passes two men. One says "Oh my! Do you see that horribly crippled man? He must have been in a terrible accident, or injured in the war."

"Yes," says the other, "but that's a beautiful suit he is wearing.”

When I read this joke, it dawned on me that this is an appropriate metaphor for the situation that America finds itself in today. America, the most powerful nation in the world, has always stood for what is right. We are not afraid to lead the world in promoting human rights, democratic principles and defending those who are victims of tyrants and dictators. On many occasions, when the United Nations could not agree on which side to be on because of the political games and the veto power of certain countries, we found ways to do what is right, in spite of the UN and in spite of other powers. Following the horrific killings that took place two weeks ago in Syria, and having investigated and becoming totally convinced that, indeed, the Syrian regime did use chemical weapons on its own people, killing more than 1400 people, including more that 400 children, our president together with Secretary of State John Kerry, spoke to the American people, appealing to us to support a military operation against the regime. They told us that we must send a clear message, that the use of forbidden weapons will not be tolerated and that the regime will be held accountable. But then, there were so many mixed signals as to what America was going to do to punish those who broke international norms. They told us that it was going to be a limited operation, not designed to defeat Assad, no boots on the ground, no regime change or even weakening it, for fear that the rebels will gain an advantage. It seemed like the administration was twisting itself into a pretzel to satisfy all the mixed and different advice it was getting. Yes, we need to do something, but what and how? There was much hesitation and delays. So while everyone was expecting some type of action, came the announcement that we would wait for an authorization from the Congress. Just like the poor man who, to fit into his new suit, needed to walk with one shoulder up, one shoulder down, one leg straight, the other one bent, and his knees tilted to the sides. The Arab world looked upon us and concluded: Assad can kill as many civilians as he wishes, using any means he chooses. America is too crippled to do anything about it. America's leaders speak beautiful words, it's a gorgeous suit, but there is no action.

In the last few days, we have been hearing that many in Congress are coming out in support of President Obama, and that some type of resolution will be approved that would give the administration the go-ahead to carry out some military action against Syria. The question we may ask is: did the delay and hesitation on the part of the administration cause America to damage its image and credibility in the world? Would Iran conclude that the assurances that President Obama gave to Israel, that he would not allow Iran to become a nuclear power, are just words without any teeth? Will Iran now continue the race to build an Islamic bomb without fear of interference, until it is too late? Would Hizbullah and other terrorists, who may get hold of such weapons, use them without fear? Yesterday, Secretary Kerry told the Congress that doing nothing is worse than doing something - because of the message that it sends to all these enemies.

Israel, throughout the two and a half years of the Syrian conflict, has remained neutral and refused to be dragged into this war. They feel that Assad is at least a known entity. The Golan Heights and the Syrian-Israeli border have been quiet for more than 30 years. The rebels that might take over, should Assad fall, may turn out to be even worse than Assad has been towards Israel. It is interesting to note how Israel is being held hostage and made to be a scapegoat in this situation. Iran, Hizbullah and Syria have had the chutzpah to announce and warn that if America attacks they would retaliate against Israel. So, should Israel discourage America from any action, fearing that it would become the target for retaliation? Israel expects that those who commit war crimes should be held accountable. They expect Syria to be punished, which would send a clear message to Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. There is no panic or fear in Israel, but these holy days are being observed with apprehension and the fear of the unknown.

This year being the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War brings many sad memories for that terrible day, when Israelis were caught by surprise and paid dearly for letting their guards down. Not knowing what will happen, and just in case if these enemies carry out their threats, Israelis have secured gas masks for each member of the family, and have prepared their safe rooms and public shelters. It is a sad way of welcoming the New Year. Benjamin Netanyahu has also assured the people by saying that Israel has three irons - an Iron Dome, and Iron Wall and an iron will. Any nation that attacks Israel, he said, will pay dearly.

I believe that the metaphor of the suit joke can also be applied to us as we come together to welcome the New Year and begin the period of Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe) and Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah (the 10 Days of Repentance). What is expected of every Jew during these days? In Hebrew, this process is called Heshbon Hanefesh, a serious reflection and self-scrutiny, on the year that has just ended and our hopes and aspirations for the new year. Thoughts that connect the end of the year with the onset of a new year, the old with the new. This period is not set in any frame of time. We do not concentrate only on the past, nor do we only care for the future. The cliche of "what is past is past" is not acceptable for these Holy Days, because we are told that a Book of Records is opened, where everything has been written, with our own handwritten signature. So we cannot ignore the past. But our thoughts are also on the future. So that this period is like an in-between time.

We define the first ten days of the year as the Ten Days of Repentance. Is repentance a form of regret that we take upon ourselves during these Holy Days? By reciting the Vidui - the confessional - and by saying Hatanu Lefaneicha - we have sinned before you - is that enough to cleanse us of the past, and guarantee us a good future?

This morning, I would like to share with you some thoughts about Teshuvah, and explore some areas of our lives that maybe we did not reach, promises that we made to ourselves this past year, but somehow we were not able to fulfill. In Hebrew, we call these days from Rosh Hahsanah through Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Return. I am sure that many of you are familiar with the term, or have heard the term used in describing someone who has lived most of his or her life as a secular Jew, and decides to become religious, or as we say in Yiddish, 'frum'. People would refer to that individual as a Baal Teshuvah, or hozer bitshuva, one who has returned. It emphasizes that this person has returned, has come back. It is an interesting term. Because if this person was not observant of the Mitzvot in the past, why do we call this person a Baal Teshuva, one who returns. How can that person "return" to a place where he has never been before, to a life style he or she never experienced? Returning in this case would be returning to the old ways - and those were days of no observance - so what does such a person accomplish? The term returning would make sense for someone who strayed from a life of kindness and Mitzvot, one who left the right path, is now remorseful, and wants to return to the time before. That would be a baal teshuvah, one who returns.

It would seem that a Baal Teshuva is really a work in progress. This individual has accepted the challenge to change his/or her direction in life. The return is all the way to G-d's ways, and that cannot be accomplished by the adoption of one or even many mitzvot. It's a long road, a journey that would bring that individual closer to G-d with the acceptance and observance of Mitzvot. We assume that every individual was at one time or another a servant of G-d - not being a practicing Jew was the result of not knowing, rather than having chosen a life of no Mitzvot. Returning, therefore, is appropriate because it is the beginning of the search and discovery of a new way of life. We call these days the days of Teshuva to emphasize, not so much returning to where we have been, but going to where we in our hearts feel we should have been. The Torah tells us that we are all in need of Teshuvah, because, "There is no person in this world who is so righteous and has never sinned." Yes, this past year we have strayed from the right path and these days remind us to return.

Every Jew, deep in his/her heart, understands what is right, doing what is good in the eyes of G-d and humans. There are many areas where we might have failed or where we could have done our better. Let me suggest just four:

  1. As Jews, we understand the importance of strengthening our homes by providing an environment that is filled with Jewish rituals and practices. A home where there is love and Shalom Bayit, hospitality and caring for others. A home where we set time for our children and give them our undivided attention and where we instill in them through role modeling, Jewish values of education, Tzedaka and caring. These are desires and wishes that come form the heart. Teshuvah, returning, in this area would mean that these have to be of utmost importance, and at the top of our priorities. Did we forget those priorities? Did we have to bend our own values to do something else, to fit in anew suit? Was our essence twisted because we chose other things?
  2. As Jews, we understand how we are counted upon to strengthen our community through our participation in the community. I believe that those who make special efforts to attend the daily Minyanim and Shabbat services understand that their presence makes a difference in the health and well-being of our congregation. As members and friends of our Shul, we understand the importance of helping our synagogue by our presence and with financial support. We strive to ensure that our congregation can continue to provide a sacred space for prayer and for our people to get together for celebrations as well as for times of sadness. This commitment, if it is from the heart, will move us to be there for our congregation with support and participation to the best of our ability. Here again as we reflect on this past year - Could we have attended more often? Should we have participated and supported our little Shul even more? Did we neglect our true commitment because we wanted to fit into a new suit, other distractions, other priorities? Teshuva - returning - would mean that we cannot do it half-heartedly. We commit to do it from a full heart.
  3. As Jews we are commanded, "Veshinnatam Levaneicha" - teach Torah to your children - "vedibarta bam" - study the words of the Torah yourself - "Vehagita bo Yomam valailah" - study the Torah day and might. Our sages teach us that studying Torah is equivalent to many important Mitzvot. They understood that Torah learning is the secret ingredient that has enabled us to last thousands of years and will enable us to continue to be a vibrant Jewish community, adapting to the times and places wherever we might be. What is our personal commitment to studying Torah? In last week's Torah reading, Moses put it at the reach of every Jew when he told the children of Israel, "This thing (learning Torah) is very close to you - in your mouth and in your heart to observe it." There are many opportunities for studying Torah. In addition to all that is available in the community and online, Sharei Chesed offers a Hebrew reading class to those who would like to learn Hebrew for the purpose of being able to follow in the Siddur. We also have a Torah and/or Talmud class on Tuesday evenings and a lunch and learn on Thursdays at noon. So what does it take? "This thing (learning Torah) is very close to you - in your mouth and in your heart to observe it." It takes giving up a little time from something else - but one has to come to it from 'levavecha' - from the heart - because a commitment from the heart is sincere and can be counted on. Did we neglect it because of other distractions, like a new suit? Teshuva - returning - yes, we may have neglected this important commandment, but we can return if it comes from the heart, and if we commit special efforts to study Torah during the coming year.
  4. As Jews we care about the Jewish community and what is happening in Israel. We care about the needs of our community, through our participation in the annual campaign of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. We are proud for what we do as a community in providing programs of Jewish education to our youth. We are proud for what we do as a community in terms of welfare and social services for our elderly and those who need help. As Jews we care of what happens in the general community and we get involved on different levels. As Jews we understand the concept that all Jews are responsible for one another. We care about what happens to a Jew, no matter how far from us that Jew might be. When we are asked to help the Jewish elderly in Minsk, where their state pension can hardly provide them with food on the table. We show that we care when we help resettle Jews in Israel, and we open our hearts and resources to our community. Teshuvah - returning - yes, we may have our differences with Israel, the politics and other problems there, but it is the only country we have. We must do everything to defend it whenever we can. By participating in the Federation campaign, we help our community and Israel.

There are many examples of Jews coming to the aid of fellow Jews. There is turmoil and civil war among Israel's neighbors. Thousands have been killed, and millions have lost their homes because of the unbelievable destruction of neighborhoods and towns, especially in Syria. People who have lost everything and have flooded refugee camps in neighboring lands, fleeing the killings and sufferings of Muslims at the hands of other Muslims. And while all this is going at Israel's doorsteps, Israel this past week welcomed 450 Ethiopian Jews who were finally re-united with their families in Israel. Two chartered airplanes landed at Ben Gurion Airport, bringing the remnants of this ancient Jewish community of black Jews to Israel, where they can live with pride and dignity. This brings the total to almost 100,000 Ethiopian Jews that were brought to Israel in operations during the past 36 years - you probably remember some of those operations - Operation Moses, and Joshua and Solomon. The American Jewish community played an important role in this project from the start. Your annual gifts to the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, together with the help of other Jewish communities, provided a significant share of the costs of bringing and settling Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Minnesota played a major role throughout the years, thanks to the hard work and untiring efforts of our own senator, Rudy Boschwitz, who brought this cause to the Senate and continued to work on saving the Ethiopian Jews for many years. So, while Israel's enemies in the media, in the UN and in the liberal US college campuses continue to accuse Israel of apartheid, Israel takes the time from other burning issues to save the remnants of a community of black Jews.

NGOs continue to find faults in Israel's treatment of minorities, but they close their eyes to all the horrors that exist in many Arab lands. They never even discuss the fact that Arab countries, with the exception of Morocco, have for all practical purposes conducted a thorough ethnic cleansing, by ridding their countries of all Jews and all memories that Jews had ever existed amongst them. We get upset - and rightly so - when the UN finds every excuse to condemn Israel, and when its Human Rights Commission exists solely for the purpose of condemning Israel.

Simon Deng, once a Sudanese slave, recently addressed the Durban Conference in NY. He spoke of the injustices he saw in the way the UN and this Conference targeted Israel and ignored all the massacres and genocide that were being conducted mostly by Muslim Arabs against Muslim blacks and Christian blacks. He could not understand why, over the last 50 years, 82 percent of the UN emergency meetings have been called strictly to condemn Israel. The Durban Conference has been an outrage, he said, yet the UN is not embarrassed to lend its name to a group established mainly to condemn Israel and Jews who support Israel. He pointed out that by exaggerating Palestinian suffering, and by blaming the Jews for it, the UN has muffled the cries of those who suffer on a far larger scale.

For over fifty years the indigenous black population of Sudan - Christians and Muslims alike - have been the victims of the brutal, racist Arab Muslim regimes in Khartoum. In South Sudan, his homeland, he pointed out that about 4 million innocent men, women and children were slaughtered from 1955 to 2005. Seven million were ethnically cleansed and they became the largest refugee group since World War II. He could not understand why the UN has a special agency - UNIFIL - dedicated totally to helping Palestinian refugees for the last 65 years; yet, there is no UN agency that would help his people who have been ethnically cleansed, murdered and enslaved. He spoke of the Nuba Mountains - another region of Sudan - where genocide is taking place at this time. The Islamist regime in Khartoum is targeting the black Africans - Muslims and Christians. Nobody at the UN has told the truth about the Nuba Mountains. What Israel does is portrayed as a Western sin. But the truth is that the real sin happens when the West abandons the Sudanese, the real victims of Arab/Islamic apartheid.

He believes that up to 200,000 Sudanese were kidnapped, brought to the North and sold into slavery. He was only nine years old, he told the committee, when an Arab neighbor named Abdullahi tricked him into following him to a boat. The boat wound up in Northern Sudan where he gave him as a gift to his family. For three and a half years he was their slave going through something that no child should ever go through: brutal beatings and humiliations; working around the clock; sleeping on the ground with animals; eating the family's left-overs. The United Nations knew about the enslavement of South Sudanese by the Arabs, but did nothing and continues to do nothing against it.

He explained why many refugees from the Sudan risk their lives to reach Israel, a Jewish state, when there are so many Muslims countries nearby. He said Egypt and other Arab countries refuse to accept these refugees and many are killed or turned back. Only Israel offers a humanitarian approach to this problem. On his visits to Israel, he met and was impressed by the way the black Jews form Ethiopia have been integrated and given dignity and freedom.

Well - Israel, with all its problems, is talked about with such respect and admiration by a Muslim Sudanese.

We can stand straight and proud for what the American Jewish community has done and continues to do to strengthen its institutions, and being of great support to Israel.

By doing all of these things - creating a home full of Jewish rituals and practice, participating in the community, learning Torah and teaching Torah, and helping our fellow Jews here at home and all over the world - our new suit will look gorgeous on us. We need not bend or limp, but stand tall and proud for what our contributions have achieved. We must commit to continue to do even more in the coming year. We will stand straight and our suit will look great on us.

Shanah Tovah to all.