Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5775 (September 25th, 2014)

We welcome you and wish you and your family a very happy and healthy 5775. It is so wonderful to see you all.

We are very pleased and delighted by the growth we have experienced the last few years since moving to our new home here in Minnetonka. We are a little crowded, but we don't mind. It is a good sign.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known in Hebrew as ימי הדין - days of judgment - or ימים נוראים - Days of Awe. But here in America, for a long time now, these special days in the Jewish calendar have been called the High Holy Days. Rabbi James Diamond wonders, "What does it mean 'High'? What do they have to do with height? Does that mean that there are also some low holy days?" Someone else pointed out that maybe the spelling of the word High is wrong. It should not be written as high h-i-g-h but just 'Hi' - h-i - because on these days Jews gather in the synagogues and are able to say 'hi' to people they have not seen for a long time.

I believe that both spellings are correct. Attendance at services on these Days of Awe could or should help us to reach some new heights, like they say in many circles 'to get high'. The High Holy Days offer an opportunity to get 'high' in a reflective and spiritual sense. Not through chemicals or magical mantras, but with the help of the messages that we find in the liturgy, which enable us to understand the seriousness of these days. The beginning of a new year is an opportune time to reflect on our lives as individuals, as a people and as members of the world at large.

There is also something good and valuable when we, as a people can be together with other Jews, even if we don't always understand all the prayers, or if we are unfamiliar with some of the melodies, but we are here, sitting together, re-connecting in a social as well as in a spiritual way. Like King David said "הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד" - "How good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters sit together."

So please join me as we welcome one another first with "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem" followed by "Hinne ma Tov uma na-em".

We probably all agree that 5774, the year we have just concluded, has not been a very good year. It has not a been a good year for the U.S., the world and the Jewish people. There were wars going on in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions have been driven from their homes and joined the ranks of refugees. We were all shocked by the cruelty and horrors of the militant Islamic group that has declared a caliphate and has been engaged in ethnic cleansing, barbaric killings and beheading anyone they deem to be an infidel.

Our people in Israel also were not spared. There were kidnappings, missile and rocket attacks leading to a full scale war in Gaza.

Our brothers and sisters in Europe saw the rise of anti-Semitism. They were the targets of incitement by the large Arab communities in Europe, as well as by political parties of the extreme right and extreme left. It has come to the point that Jews in Europe no longer feel safe walking down the street, wearing anything that might identify them as Jews.

It would seem that 5774 was a very gloomy year.

But the truth is, that is not the message that I wish to convey to you on this Rosh Hashanah. On the contrary, I would like to point out to you, the many positive elements that should give us reason to be grateful to G-d for the protection and support that we witnessed with our own eyes, and make these Holy Days a source of inspiration for prayer and gratitude. I will concentrate on two topics: The Gaza war, and the Jews in Europe.

On June 12, 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in Gush Etzion, in the West Bank, as they were hitchhiking to their homes from their Yeshiva. The three teens were 16 year-old Naftali Fraenkel, 16 year-old Gilad Shaer, and 19 year-old Eyal Yifrah. These three young men will always be remembered by the people of Israel and the Jewish people. In attempting to find them or to find their bodies, Israel arrested many Hamas members on the West Bank. This led to rockets and missiles being fired on Israel by Hamas from Gaza, leading to the Gaza War - known as 'Operation Protective Edge'.

During the ground invasion, Israel discovered thirty tunnels meticulously dug over the years by Hamas as a means to infiltrate under the border and launch attacks on Israel. In documents found on captured Hamas members, Israel learned that Hamas had planned to send 200 terrorists through each tunnel simultaneously, to six Israeli communities in southern Israel for a shocking attack. The plan was to attack on the evening of September 24. The night of Rosh Hashanah. Once there, the Hamas gunmen planned to kill and kidnap as many Israelis as possible and bring them back later to Gaza, again via the tunnels. Their plan was thwarted because of the war that broke out, and the tunnels were discovered and destroyed. Imagine the tragic results, had Hamas been able to implement their horrible plan. Just like the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur forty-one years ago, which caused thousands of Israeli casualties, Hamas planned to use Rosh Hashanah to inflict terror and destruction.

We are all familiar with the festival of Purim - a day of merriment and joyful activities. The Jewish community of Persia was spared because Haman's plan to annihilate them did not come to fruition, because of G-d's providence through the intervention of Mordechai and Esther. This Rosh Hashanah also has certain elements of Purim. The Hamas plan was thwarted because of the kidnapping of the teenagers and the chain of events that followed - September 24, which was going to be a tragic night for the Jewish communities bordering Gaza and all of Israel, is being observed with families and friends like it should be. Eyal, Naftali and Gilead were sacrificed in order to save thousands of innocent men, women and children.

During the 50-day war, Israel lost many brave soldiers, but the more than 4500 rockets that were fired, and that were directed at Israeli towns and cities, killed less than ten civilians. While we can give credit to the defense alert system, the bomb shelters and the Iron Dome, religious and secular Israelis see G-d's providence and protection in sparing so many lives.

We live in a society and at a time when we don't believe in miracles, and rightly so. Because our sages taught us "אין סומכין על הנס" - "You never place yourself in danger and hope for a miracle." Israel did everything possible to protect its citizens - the fact that it worked is a miracle.

I heard an interview of an Israeli scientist who was one of the main developers of the Iron Dome. He explained that while discussing the science and technology and the goal of this project, the American representative said that this will never work. Even the Israeli developer, after seeing the effectiveness of the defense system, could not believe that it was working.

The shelter or safe room that is required in all new construction in Israel is also a marvel in saving lives. During the Gaza war before this one, a rocket hit an apartment building about two blocks from my daughter's house in Rishon Letzyion. She sent me pictures showing the entire third floor gone except for the safe room that was still dangling in the air. Fire trucks were used to bring down the family, since the stairway and elevator were destroyed. I have no doubt that in the eyes of that family that was a real miracle.

It is interesting that in an interview with a Hamas leader, when asked how come their thousands of rockets and missiles miss their targets and cause no harm, his reply was that the rockets are accurate. When they fire them they direct them at populated areas. But it is the G-d of the Jews who intervenes and changes their direction. So if a Hamas leader can say such a thing, we who are here can certainly see G-d's intervention in protecting our people and should be most grateful on this Rosh Hashanah.

Though Israel lost over sixty brave soldiers, it could have been worse. For that, we must be grateful.

We who live in this land of freedom with laws protecting the rights and safety of minorities, feel terrible for what is happening in Europe. However, let us remember what it was like not too long ago. These are the same countries where, less than 75 years ago, their citizens were more than happy to cooperate and collaborate with the Nazis in rounding up and killing six million of our people. Yes, there were exceptions. There were many individuals who risked their own lives to hide and save a Jew. Yad Vashem makes every effort to recognize and honor those individuals, because they were the exception. They had the courage to risk their own life to save a Jew.

A couple of weeks ago, during the honor and support Israel night sponsored by the Church of the Living Word, Dudu Fisher told the story of his own parents. They were Holocaust survivors because of the kindness of a neighbor who hid Dudu Fisher's parents and other family members. Sixteen of Dudu Fisher's family owe their lives to this brave individual and his wife. Dudu told us how, on his father's eightieth birthday, he surprised his father by bringing the man who hid him to Israel. It was a total surprise. His father was sitting and studying at the synagogue when his savior walked in and called his name. It was an emotional reunion as Dudu's father embraced and hugged his savior for a long time.

Those were brave individuals who saved Jews. The majority, however, had no problem ridding their community and country of the Jews. At that time, as a people, we were helpless. Even America could not do much because saving Jews was not a war priority. But today, thank G-d, no Jew has to live under fear or physical threat. Israel welcomes every Jew from every corner of the world. We hear of the negative events in Europe. But we should also remember that there are many growing and thriving Jewish communities in Europe. It is interesting that the fastest and largest growing Jewish community today is in, of all places, Berlin. In comparing our situation with what it was like less than 75 years ago, it should give us cause to be grateful and appreciative.

So the question for us today is, are we ready to observe these High Holy Days from both perspectives. With the word 'Hi' as a greeting, it's a time to celebrate with our families and friends the onset of a new year and hoping and wishing everyone that it be a good year. And also with the second aspect of the High Holy Days. Are we going to get 'high' on the spiritual aspect of this day? Are you appreciative to G-d for what happened to our people and to your own individual life? It is indeed a time to get 'high' and expect a better life for ourselves, our families and community. But we must be prepared to open our eyes and our heart and take the lessons that we find in our Machzor, in our liturgy.

The story is told about two individuals who go for a walk in the streets of Chelm. Chelm as you know in Yiddish culture is a village that does not have too many wise people. Well, as they are walking it starts to rain. So Hayim tells Yankel, "Well, open your umbrella. It's raining." Yankel answers, "It wouldn't help."

"What do you mean it wouldn’t help? Open your umbrella so we don’t get wet!" Yankel answers, "It wouldn't help because my umbrella is full of holes."

"So why did you bring it, if it's full of holes," asks Hayim.

"I did not think it was going to rain," said Yankel.

We have come to be with our friends and pray for a good year. Are we ready to be uplifted and inspired by our liturgy and special day - or is it part of our routine without many expectations?

May these High Holy Days inspire us all to feel G-d's love for granting us the blessings of health, family and friends, as we show gratitude for G-d's protection and kindness.

Shana Tovah.