Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

Kol Nidre 5775 (October 3rd, 2014)

I welcome you to Sharei Chesed. It's wonderful to see such a wonderful attendance. I am sorry that there is not much elbow room. But it is Yom Kippur, and it is OK to be a little uncomfortable.

There is this synagogue in L.A. that has grown so much that to accommodate all their members and friends on Yom Kippur, they hold 4 or 5 services. This happened during the second service. The visiting rabbi introduced himself and started delivering his sermon. After 20 minutes, he noticed that half of the congregation had left. At thirty minutes into his talk another half left the shul. Fifteen minutes later, he noticed that everyone had left, except for one gentleman who was sitting in the back of the sanctuary.

The Rabbi said to the man, "I really appreciate it that you remained until the end."

"I don't have a choice, I have to be here," the man answered. "You see, I am giving the sermon at the next service."

I promise to be short and to the point.

The most important and recurring theme throughout the High Holy Days liturgy is the concept of Teshuva, Repentance or Return. During the year, we may have strayed away from the right path, the path of Mizvot, kindness and compassion. Teshuva is a gift from G-d, enabling us to return to the right path, before we stand in judgment on this Yom Kippur. During the last few weeks, we were given three opportunities to do Teshuva:

The first opportunity was during the entire month of Elul, the last month of the year, when the shofar is sounded every morning after the Shachrit service, starting with the first day of Elul.

The second opportunity comes on Rosh Hashanah and throughout the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of repentance - the first ten days of the year.

Yom Kippur is the third opportunity.

So what happened to us that we need all these opportunities? Haven't we prayed enough throughout the month of Elul, on Rosh Hashanah and this past week? Of course! I am sure that there are some among us who have taken advantage of the first two opportunities and completed their Teshuvah. But for most of us, we like to wait. The shofar that was sounded each morning during the month of Elul, and even the sounds of the Shofar of Rosh Hahsanah and the prayers we offered, may not have been strong enough to awaken us sufficiently, to examine our ways and to be ready to do Teshuvah, to ask for forgiveness and return to the right path.

Yom Kippur is that third and last opportunity. There is no more time. With the Neilah, the closing of this 24-hour period, comes the Hatima, the sealing of our fate. At all opportunities, we have come before G-d on these days of judgment with confidence. After all, each and everyone of us has a bag full of good deeds that we have performed this past year. These Mitzvot, good deeds and commandments we performed, will help us secure forgiveness and a guaranteed good year.

But how can we be certain? Do we have enough meritorious acts to outweigh our shortcomings? Maybe we have forgotten the times when we wronged others and did not take our Judaism seriously? To illustrate this situation, the Midrash describes the day of judgment with the following parable:

The animals of the jungle had gathered in great distress, because their king, the lion, was angry with them and was ready to punish them. The fox stood up and said, "Do not worry. I can go up and entreat him to forgive you and be kind to you."

"How are you going to do that?" they asked.

"Well," the fox responded, "I know 300 hundred jokes. I will tell him all my jokes. He will laugh and be in a good mood and certainly forgive you and be good to you."

The animals thought that the fox had spoken well. "All right," they said to him, "come with us. Let us go and appear before the king."

After walking for a mile or so the fox stopped. The animals asked him, "Why are you stopping?" The fox answered, "I just realized that I forgot 100 of the 300 jokes I knew."

"Well," they said to the fox, "You still have 200 jokes. That should be enough to appease the king. Come - let's go to see the king." They resumed their walk.

After going for another hundred yards, the fox stopped again. "Now, what? Why have you stopped?" they asked.

Well, I just realized that I forgot 100 of the 200 jokes I knew," answered the fox.

The animals said to him, "Well, 100 jokes should still be enough to appease the king, come with us."

As they got closer to the opening of the den, the fox stopped again, this time shaking and worried.

"Why did you stop and why are you shaking?"

"I forgot all the jokes I knew. I have nothing to offer to the king. But my advice to you is that each one of you pray and plead your case, and maybe the king will forgive you."

In the prayer Darkeicha Elokeinu we plead:

למענך אלהינו עשה ולא לשנו - Help us for Your sake, not for ours,
ראה עמידתנו דלים ורקים - Because we stand before you bereft of virtue - we have nothing in our bag.

And we read in Proverbs:

כי אין צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא - There is no such a person in the world, who always does good and never sins.

So we are all in need of Teshuvah, of repentance. In our dealings with the world, our friends and neighbors, our faith and observances, even with our own family, we are not perfect.

When Elul comes and we hear those early warnings of the coming of the High Holy Days, we figure we've got time; then Rosh Hashanah comes around, and still we wait. But tonight we are all here, as a community and as individuals, all in need of Teshuva and forgiveness.

Maimonides defines Teshuva as a three-step process. After having gone through a self-scrutiny for our actions of the past year, we must (a) confess the wrongs, (b) show sincere regrets for those wrongs done or for lost opportunities for good deeds, and (c) make a commitment to do better. Maimonides bases this teaching on the verse in the Torah that states: "...And they shall confess the sin which they committed". This was part of the Yom Kippur service in the Temple, when the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, first asks for forgiveness for himself and for his family. Then, he prays for atonement for his tribe, and then for the entire people of Israel. It would seem kind of selfish for the High Priest to pray first for his family and his tribe and then the rest of the community. But this order drives home the point that those we love, those to whom we are closest, are probably the ones we wronged most. They must hear from us that we are sorry for deeds committed or omitted - that we were wrong when we said certain words which we never should have said, which we didn't really mean.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin points out that true communication – even and especially within families – requires sensitivity, time and great emotion. We must reach out in love and contrition to those who are closest to us, take nothing for granted, and attempt to express our innermost feelings. This evening before coming to shul and before the start of the fast, we had the opportunity to bless our children and at the same time ask for forgiveness from one another. Only then are we worthy to ask for G-d's forgiveness for ourselves.

This evening of Yom Kippur, the very opening prayer, Kol Nidre, stresses the critical importance of words in relationships. In our relationships with others, when we seek forgiveness from someone, it helps to offer an apology for the wrong that was done. In the Al Chet prayer, which is recited after each Amidah, we list the transgressions which we have committed against G-d, the places where we have fallen short in our Jewish living. We list the sins we committed wilfully and unwittingly, and then we conclude with the words, "Ve-al Kulam, Eloha Selichot, selach lanu, mechal lanu, Kaper Lanu" - "For all of them, G-d of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement."

You will notice that the sins listed in the Al Chet are very specific. There is a lesson here for us - that if we wronged someone and want to offer an apology, it should be an expression of regret that is clear and coming from the heart. When someone says to you, "I am sorry if I offended you," is that a sincere apology? Or does the 'if' make the offense questionable and, therefore, no apology is needed? Or when someone says, "I am sorry, but you misunderstood me," in this case the guilty one is the one who was offended - because he/she was misunderstood. These are not really apologies, because all they do is hurt the wronged person for a second time.

While it is the duty of the offender to offer an apology and ask for forgiveness, our sages teach us that the wronged person should show flexibility and accept the apology. We ask G-d to forgive us; therefore, we too should be ready to forgive and forget.

Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur is not only about apologizing and asking for forgiveness for wrongs we have done. The Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur is also about expressing in words and deeds gratitude to those who were kind and helpful to us. Just like we thank G-d for His gifts of life and for a new year, we are supposed to remember to thank and show appreciation to those who helped us along the way. Sometimes we take our parents, spouses, children, family members - as well as friends and the community - for granted. We must never forget the kindness of others towards us. We find in the Torah, this commandment: לא תתעב מצרי - "Do not detest an Egyptian,” even though they enslaved us and embittered our lives. Why? Because in the time of famine they opened their hearts and resources to our people and allowed us to dwell among them. They were hospitable - and we are not to forget that fact. The obligation of remembering someone's kindness towards us is supposed to remain with us forever. The cliche of "What have you done for me lately?" is not acceptable. A favor is a favor that should be remembered and appreciated. This is also one of the reasons that on this holiest day of the year we recite the Yizkor service - to remember and show appreciation to parents and grandparents, siblings and friends who gave us life and made a mark on our lives.

The story is told about two good friends - we will call them Reuven and Shimon - who were crossing a desert. It was a long, hot and most tiring trip. An argument developed between the two friends, and Reuven lost his temper and slapped Shimon. Shimon kept quiet, but he picked a stick and wrote on the sand, "Today, my best friend slapped me on the face."

They continued on with their trip and finally came out of the desert and came upon a river. They were delighted to see water and entered the river to wade and refresh themselves. But soon, Shimon lost his footing and was dragged into the deep and started drowning. Reuven, the friend who, not too long ago, had slapped him, swam to his friend and brought him to shore, thus saving his life. When Shimon regained his strength, he used his knife to carve on a nearby stone the following: "Today, my best friend saved my life."

Reuven looked at him in wonderment and asked, "Today you engraved your words on a stone, but when I slapped you you wrote them on sand. How come?"

Shimon answered, "When someone does something good for us, we should engrave it in stone, so no wind can ever erase it. But when someone hurts us, we should write it on the sand so that the winds of forgiveness can wipe out what happened."

In Psalm 30 we read, "כי רגע באפו חיים ברצונו" - "G-d's anger lasts but a moment. His love, however, is for a lifetime." Yom Kippur teaches us not to burden our hearts with resentment towards others because of past hurts. We should learn to write those memories in the sand so that the winds of time can blow them away from our hearts. But joys and kindness from G-d and from those we come close to, shall be engraved in stone so that we can always show appreciation and gratitude to G-d and to those who have brought us joy and happiness.

May all your memories be positive and uplifting and may we all be granted מחילה סליחה וכפרה - pardon, forgiveness and atonement, Amen.