Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5777 (October 3rd, 2016)

Shanah Tova and welcome everyone. We are so happy to see you all as we all gather to welcome a new year - the year of 5777.

This has been a big week for Minnesota. Did you know that this past week, it was impossible to get a hotel room in the Twin Cities? Those that were available charged double and triple the normal rates. All because of a big event in Chaska Minnesota - the Ryder Cup, the golf tournament between Europe and the US. They estimate that 250,000 people will be attending during this event. These are golf lovers who have come to watch these champions from throughout the world.

250,000 - that's a lot more than the people who are here this morning!

I have never developed the skill of golfing. If 250,000 people are coming to watch these players, it's got to be a tremendous skill to hit a golf ball and send it hundreds of yards away, hoping that it will end in a small hole in the ground, or at least close to that hole. This reminds me of a story:

Yankel was an avid golf player. Golf was his favorite sport. He couldn't wait for spring and summer so he can be out on the golf course. One night he woke up with terrible pains. His wife rushed him to the doctor. His doctor told him that he did not have much time left and he'd better take care of his affairs. Yankel asked his wife to promise him that when he is gone, she should place his golf clubs in his coffin. His wife thought it was a ridiculous request. What is he going to do with golf clubs in the world to come? They decided that he should ask his rabbi. His rabbi told him to return in three days while he studied the Talmud and other books, to check as to the availability of golf in the world to come. On the third day, Yankel returned to his rabbi. The rabbi said to him, "Yankel I have good news and bad news. The good news is that indeed there is golf in the afterlife. There are beautiful golf courses, and the sun shines every day." Yankel responded, "Well, that's wonderful news! What could be bad?" The rabbi said, "Your tee time is tomorrow at 8 in the morning."

What is Rosh Hashanah?

We know that all Jewish holidays commemorate historical events or harvest time in Israel. Shabbat reminds us of creation. Pesah, the exodus. Shavuot, the giving of the Torah. And Sukkot, the wandering in the wilderness. In the Torah, Rosh Hashanah is designated as the Day of Sounding the Shofar. But is the name of Rosh Hashanah mentioned anywhere in the Torah? Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of a new month, is mentioned because of the special offering on Rosh Hodesh. But where do we find the term 'Rosh Hashanah', the beginning of a new year?

In the book of Devarim, in describing the uniqueness of the Land of Israel, Moses tells the people:

"The land that you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the L-rd your G-d looks after, on which the L-rd your G-d always keeps His eye from the beginning of the year until the end of the year." (Deuteronomy 11:11-12)

The word used for beginning here is 'Reshit Hashanah', rather than 'Tehilat Hashanah', which would mean 'the beginning'; the word used here is 'Mereshit Shanah', from the head of the year. This is how we came to call the Jewish New Year not 'Shanah Hadasha', New Year, or 'Tehilat Hashanah', the beginning of the year, but rather 'Rosh Hashanah', the Head of the Year.

What is the difference? Does it matter if New Year was called 'Shanah Hadasha', or 'Tehilat Hashanah', or 'Rosh Hashanah'?

We are all familiar with how the world celebrates the secular new year. The observance and celebration of that day occurs mostly on New Year's Eve, the last day of the fading year. There is anticipation for the arrival of the new year at midnight. Everyone wants to be in a festive mood in concluding the old year and to be there to welcome the new year. Rosh Hashanah conveys an entirely different idea. 'Rosh', the head, emphasizes the opportunity for a total beginning. It is not just a cycle - one year fades away and a new year is here. This is an entirely new year that offers us a chance for starting from scratch. In our prayers we say, 'Hayom Harat Olam' - 'Today the world came into being'. Because today is the birthday of the world, it is a day of judgment on what the year holds for us.

The major Mitzvah of this day is 'Tekiat Shofar' - sounding the Shofar. The Shofar ushers in the new year. Everything starts from today.

Rosh Hashanah, while being a Day of Judgment, is really a Yom Tov, a Festival. We are supposed to be joyful and happy for the privilege of being alive and able to welcome a new year - 5777. As we reflect on the year that has just passed, we all realize that we lost two outstanding leaders during 5776 - Elie Wiesel and Shimon Perez. Although destiny would set two different courses for these two outstanding individuals, they were both giants of our time, not only for the Jewish world but for all people.

Who can forget that black and white photo taken in Buchenwald of men in wooden bunks - skeletons, rather than living human beings. And among them a skinny Elie Wiesel. That skeleton of a man would become the most powerful voice of this past century. Elie Wiesel, who as a teenager, witnessed and endured the horrors of the Holocaust. He saw with his own eyes the thousands of ways that the Nazis invented to inflict pain and suffering, torture and death, on millions of our people - all the horrors of what he called "man's inhumanity to man". Elie Wiesel in his many books and memoirs described for us those horrible dark nights that so many endured and that millions could have told of thru their own stories, if only they could speak. But they had been killed and silenced. He became their witness, their voice, their spokesman. He left us a most important legacy of awareness of the Holocaust.

But even more than that, Elie Wiesel became the moral conscience of the world. He spoke out and condemned atrocities and genocides that were taking place in all parts of the world. His tireless work earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. As reported in Moment Magazine, the Nobel citation described him in prophetic terms: The citation reads:

"Wiesel is a messenger of mankind. His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious, is a hard won belief."

Yet with all the honors and achievements, Wiesel continued to be a most humble and friendly person. I remember him well when he visited the Talmud Torah in 1985. He spent the afternoon with Jewish teens answering their questions about his experiences. They marveled at his inner strength not only for surviving, but for continuing his mission of bringing peace to the vulnerable people of the world.

In 5776, our generation has indeed lost a beloved and most important leader of our people and the world - Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory.

As the year 5776 was coming to a close, the Jewish community and the world lost another pillar of Jewish history - Shimon Perez, a man who was beloved by the entire country, something very unusual in the multi-party system of Israeli politics. He too was a teenager when his family escaped Europe and came to Israel. He was there for the entire history of modern Israel. He became a leader who epitomized Herzl's words, אם תרצו אין זו אגדה - "If you will it, it is no dream". From a young fighter in the Haganah to an elderly statesman, Shimon Perez reached the pinnacle of leadership in Israel. Serving as a minister, prime minister and president of the country in which he was a key figure, and a founding member of modern Israel. Shimon Perez, the statesman par excellence of modern Israel

Three days ago, presidents, prime ministers, princes and dignitaries representing eighty countries gathered in Jerusalem to mourn the passing of this beloved leader Shimon Perez, another Nobel Prize Winner. Shimon Perez, who was involved in the Zionist dream from its very beginning, and was instrumental in building its defense forces, its growth thru the ingathering of the exiles, and who was the untiring servant of our people, who combined strength with diplomacy in trying to bring peace to Israel.

The President of the World Jewish Congress Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder had this to say:

"Shimon Peres taught us so much by his example. He taught us what it means to live a life committed to the Jewish people and the building of the State of Israel. He taught us that defending Israel and searching for peace are not contradictions, but rather are two sides of the same coin. He taught us that every career has moments of achievement and moments of disappointment, but that you cannot allow the disappointments to embitter you or cause you to lose your confidence in your capacity to lead. He taught us that there is a time for partisanship and debate, and a time for unity and locking arms. He taught us that growing old truly can be a path to wisdom, and that we should all wish to be judged, and to judge others, by the totality of our lives. We have lost a great teacher. May his memory forever be a blessing to the Jewish people and the entire world."

Who would have thought that this young man, an escapee from Eastern Europe, would be there spending his entire life as the beloved leader and as the public servant of the modern State of Israel, day after day, a career spanning over 80 years, until his passing a few days ago. At the funeral, three days ago, Bill Clinton said, "I was honored to be his friend," and President Obama said in Hebrew תודה רבה חבר יקר - "Thank you dear friend."

As we remember these two giants Elie and Shimon, we say 'Yehi Zichronam Baruch' - May their memory always be for a blessing.

The third topic I would like to discuss with you is the United Nations. For many years now, Rosh Hashanah coincides with the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. And guess what - Israel is always on its agenda. Year after year, this gathering of the nations of the world, rather than dealing with major and serious problems that confront the world and humanity, in their great wisdom, they find it necessary to always place Israel on the agenda. The concern this year is that rather than being condemned just by the General Assembly, that the Security Council might also pass a resolution condemning Israel. Will the United States veto such a resolution as it has in the past? We hope so.

In new research conducted by the Wall Street Journal, it has been found that the U.N.'s focus on Israel not only undermines the organization's legitimacy regarding the Jewish state. It also has apparently made the U.N. blind to the world's many situations of occupation and settlements. Their research shows that the U.N. uses an entirely different rhetoric and set of legal concepts when dealing with Israel compared with situations of occupation or settlements worldwide. Consider these statistics:

Israel is referred to as the "Occupying Power" 530 times in General Assembly resolutions. Yet in seven major instances of past or present prolonged military occupation — Indonesia in East Timor, Turkey in northern Cyprus, Russia in areas of Georgia, Morocco in Western Sahara, Vietnam in Cambodia, Armenia in areas of Azerbaijan, and Russia in Ukraine's Crimea - the number is zero. The U.N. has not called any of these countries an "Occupying Power." Not even once.

It gets worse. Since 1967, General Assembly resolutions have referred to Israeli-held territories as "occupied" 2,342 times, while the other territories mentioned above are referred to as "occupied" a mere 16 times combined. The term appears in 90% of resolutions dealing with Israel, and only in 14% of the much smaller number of resolutions dealing with all the other situations, a difference that vastly surpasses the threshold of statistical significance. The Security Council resolutions refer to the disputed territories in the Israeli-Arab conflict as "occupied" 31 times, but only a total of five times in reference to all seven other conflicts combined.

General Assembly resolutions employ the term "grave" to describe Israel's actions 513 times, as opposed to 14 total for all the other conflicts, which involve the full gamut of human rights abuses, including allegations of ethnic cleansing and torture. Verbs such as "condemn" and "deplore" are sprinkled into Israel-related resolutions tens more times than they are in resolutions about other conflicts, setting a unique tone of disdain.

Israel has been reminded by resolutions against it of the country's obligations under the Geneva Conventions about 500 times since 1967 as opposed to two times for the other situations.

It goes on to show so many examples where only Israel is condemned by the United Nations. The article concludes that the U.N. uses a double standard. It shows beyond doubt that the UN has no interest in battling international injustice, unless Israel is the country being accused. So in the words of Bibi Netanyahu, "Rather being an international moral force, the United Nations has become an international moral farce."

Israel will continue to be the scapegoat.

The one positive thing that has come out lately is the inroads that Israel has made among African countries and even among some Arab countries, as many have come to realize that they have much to gain from friendly and cordial relations with Israel, whereas in the past, they would always vote as a block in the United Nations against Israel.

We may have many questions about the year that has just ended, but we look with optimism to a new year and a new beginning, that things will be better.

I wish you and your family a 'Shanah Tovah Umetukah', a good and sweet New Year.