Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

Second Day of Rosh Hashanah 5775 (September 26th, 2014)

In this week's American Jewish World, Mordechai Spektor points out that many rabbis' sermons this year will not be talking about Israel. These rabbis feel that they cannot win. If they take a position in support of Israel, they fear that they might alienate some of the liberal Jews in their congregation. These are mostly young people who are opposed to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, the Settlement movement and Israel's conduct in this last war. On the other hand, these rabbis feel that if they criticize Israel, they would alienate the older members of their congregation who are strong supporters of Israel. Many of these individuals also happened to be the major donors and supporters of their congregation.

So what's a rabbi to do? Mordechai Spektor suggests they should talk about ISIS and America's entry again into a war in the Middle East. Well, yesterday I spoke in total support of Israel and of the hidden miracles that people saw in the Gaza war. I also mentioned how fortunate we have been that the tunnels were discovered and destroyed before Hamas could have used them to launch a full scale surprise attack on Jewish communities in the south which was planned for the eve of Rosh Hashanah. I emphasized how all of us should feel relieved and grateful to G-d that such a tragedy had been averted.

This morning I would like to speak to you about the Musaf Amidah which we shall be reciting soon. The Musaf Amidah contains three sections - Malchuyot (Kingships), Zichronot (remembrances) and Shofarot (soundings of the shofar). At the conclusion of each section we blow the Shofar and recite a prayer called "Hayom Harat Olam". This prayer is short, but it contains the essence of what Rosh Hashanah is all about. "Hayom Harat Olam" is translated as, "This Day the world came into being". Rabbi Irving Greenberg points out that just like the world - which through creation came into being so that it has a beginning and an end - so it is with all creatures. Every individual has a beginning and an end. That is why the second phrase in this paragraph is "Hayom Yaamid bemishpat Kol yetzture Olam" - "Today all creatures come before G-d for judgment". Each person is on trial for his or her life in this period.

The "Untaneh Tokef", which is also part of the Musaf, describes this fact very clearly when we say, "On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed" - "Mi Yichyeh, umi Yamut" - "Who shall live and who shall die".

Facing death, would a person continue to live life the same way? Or, would that person become more considerate, more ethical, more creative? Change is difficult and most people don't believe that they can change. You have heard people say, "I can't help it - that's how I am". As if to say, "I cannot change," believing that we can never remove a stain of guilt once there. The prayer "Untaneh Tokef" teaches us that that is not so:

"Uteshuvah, Utefillah, Utzedaka, Maavirin et Roah Hagezerah" - "Repentance, prayer and acts of charity can change the severity of the evil decree."

Notice that we don't say that by repenting and doing acts of charity that our evil acts are totally wiped out - no, they are not. But by G-d's love and mercy they are forgiven. We are given a new slate, a new opportunity, a new beginning. "Hayom Harat Olam" - Today is the beginning of the world. It is also our beginning. We have an opportunity to re-create ourselves, an opportunity for renewal.

Rosh Hashanah challenges us to open our eyes and see G-d's kindness to us through the very life that has been accorded to us. Rosh Hahsanah is an opportunity to count our blessings of this past year. I am always impressed by my friends Aryeh (Aron) Tsukerman and Moisey Zilberman. Whenever I ask Aryeh, "How are you?" his answer is always, "Baruch Hashem. It zahl nicht zein erger" - "Thank G-d, it should not get any worse." The same with Moisey. In a way it is a recognition that life is not perfect, but we have to be grateful to G-d with whatever we have.

The most popular symbol on our Rosh Hashanah table is Tapuach Bidvash - apple and honey. Why not dip the apple in sugar? Why honey? I think honey reminds us of the source. The bee sometimes can also sting us. When faced by bees, there is a Hebrew saying that dismisses them in this way: "לא מדובשך ולא מעוקצך" - "I don't need your honey, and I don't need your stings." We can't use such a phrase with life. Life does come with stings. Apple at the table is a reminder that the sweetness of life can also include the stings that come with disappointments in our lives, the health issues that we face and the uncertainty of life.

Our community, four days ago, lost a dear friend and a caring person - Rabbi Barry Woolf of blessed memory. He was the spiritual leader of this congregation for many years. He served and helped individuals in different circles. He was a champion for people who were addicted to alcohol or drugs. He visited hospitals and prisons, helping Jews wherever they were. He made a name for himself by showing Chesed to all kinds of people. He taught in many institutions and served thousands with Chesed shel Emet through his work at Hodroff. Even in dying he taught us a lesson, as we learned how fragile and uncertain is our future in this world. This past Sunday evening, Rabbi Woolf studied Torah at Bais Israel until ten at night. He went home and went to bed and just never woke up.

There was a tremendous outpouring of care as people rushed at a moment's notice to the Delta Cargo terminal at Twin Cities International Airport to say goodbye as his coffin was being loaded on a plane to Israel. Rabbi Greenberg of Bais Israel told the people who had gathered what Zena, Rabbi Woolf's widow had told him. That Rabbi Woolf always said that when his time comes, he does not want to be sick or in a nursing home, but to die in his sleep. His wish had been granted.

You are familiar with the Bracha of Shehecheyanu, which we recite on a holiday, at special milestones and when acquiring something new. On Rosh Hahsanah we make as many shehecheyanus as possible. That's why we try to eat a fruit we have not had all year, or to wear a new piece of clothing, just for the chance to say shehecheyanu again.

"Hayom Harat Olam" - Today is the beginning of the universe, and also our individual birthday. Just like we celebrate our birthdays and special milestones with family and friends, Rosh Hahsanah is a day to celebrate with our family and friends. It is a Yom Tov, a festive day, because we are grateful to G-d for the gift of life, the gift of being part of the universal celebration of life, our birthday.

Rosh Hahsanah's message is to pray for a good year, but also to be grateful and appreciative for what we have.

Happy Birthday.