Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

Yom Kippur 5775 (October 4th, 2014)

You have probably noticed that on Yom Kippur, we say the Shema as well as the verse of "Baruch Shem" in unison and out loud:

Shema Yisrael - Listen O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one.

Over the ages, this verse has been the affirmation of Judaism and the declaration of faith in one G-d. It is also the verse that was recited by Jewish martyrs throughout the generations as they were led to their deaths. During the recent Israel/Hamas war in Gaza, an article appeared in Ynet under the title "The Shema That Saved Lives". It told the story of a group of Israeli soldiers who had gone into a mosque looking for weapons, explosives, and rockets. They encountered a female suicide bomber who was about to detonate the belt she wore, which would have resulted in many deaths. One of the soldiers, instinctively cried out "Shema Yisrael". The female suicide bomber hesitated and began trembling, giving the soldiers a chance to grab her and disable the device. Turns out the terrorists' mother was an Israeli Jew who married an Arab, and the would-be suicide bomber was in fact a Jew whose soul was rattled upon hearing Shema. The soldiers then took her prisoner and turned her over to a counter-intelligence unit. Their investigation uncovered the fact that the female suicide bomber's mother was a Jew who had married a Palestinian in Israel and, after the wedding, was smuggled against her will into Gaza. There she lived a life filled with abuse and humiliation, and was basically a captive. In addition to the female suicide bomber, there were two smaller children as well. An armored force went in and rescued the two small children. The Shema saved those Israeli soldiers and rescued three Jewish souls – the suicide bomber and her two children - from the bowels of Gaza. Something she heard startled her. Her Jewish soul, buried by years of indoctrination, hate and abuse, was stirred. In researching this story, Rabbi Stephen Baars concludes that as rabbis and educators we need to find the words that will stir and penetrate our Jewish soul.

This story is also reminiscent of Rabbi Eliezer Silver who, after the Second World War, rescued Jewish children in Europe who had been hidden during the Holocaust in Christian orphanages and monasteries. The children themselves, raised as Christians for years, no longer knew they were Jewish. And there were times the local priest denied harboring any Jewish children. So how did Rabbi Silver discover the Jewish children? Dressed as a high ranking U.S. Army officer, he would visit the children during bedtime and loudly proclaim "Shema Yisrael" – "Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One!" Many children burst into tears and cried out "mommy" in the various languages they spoke. The Shema which their mothers had said to them each night was so deeply ingrained in their minds they had not forgotten it. And that is how the chaplains were able to identify the Jewish children.

In a few moments, we shall be joining Jews throughout the world on this most important day in the Jewish calendar in the Yizkor service. We remember members of our families who are no longer with us, but will always live in our hearts and minds. We will remember members of this congregation who, just last year, were sitting with us, right here in this sanctuary, surrounded by their loved ones. They are gone, but they have left a void in our lives.

As Jews we have a long collective memory of the history of our people. We will again remember individuals and entire communities that were part of our people, but their lives had been cut short because of the hate and cruelty of the enemies of our people.

The Holocaust has taken a central role in the Yizkor service. With the passing of time and the passing of many of the survivors, we must remember what happened. For many years, we had used the slogan of "never again" and truly believed that the horrors of what happened to our people during the Second World War will never happen again. Not to our people or any other people. The mass killings, beheadings and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East demonstrate that, in the words of Elie Wiesel "man's inhumanity to man" continues to exist. We can be proud of America for taking the initiative in bringing together a coalition of nations who are saying "Enough!" to the cruelty shown by this group, and are willing to go to war to stop this cancer from spreading.

Israel faces Al Qaida, ISIS and other extremist groups on its borders all alone. During his visit to the United Nations this week, Binyamin Netanyahu compared Hamas tactics and goals to those of ISIS. Even more worrisome for Israel is the fear that ISIS has become the focus and number one priority of America and the Western allies. They have taken their eyes off the serious negotiations with Iran, and they might water down their demands in stopping Iran's nuclear advancement, in order to get Iran to help with the war against ISIS. That would place Israel in a most dangerous position. At his meeting with President Obama this week, Netanyahu tried to get the president to keep the focus on Iran.

Unfortunately, adding to Israel's trouble this week, was the announcement by the Peace Now movement that Israel had issued new permits for the construction of new neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The truth is that the building in this Jerusalem neighborhood was approved two years ago, and placed on hold. A week ago the commission finally approved the plans and submitted them for bids. The truth is the building of apartments is for both Jews and Arabs who live in Jerusalem. Peace Now, however, kept the information away from the media for a whole week and issued it a few moments after the meeting of Netanyahu and President Obama. There was no question that it was done purposely to embarrass Israel and make the President and the White House criticize Israel at a time when Israel needs the full support of America in dealing with Iran. The Peace Now movement, as you all know, lost much of its support among Israelis with the outbreak of the Intifada and the Gaza wars. This week they found a way to hit Israel below the belt, as the media was more than happy to again jump on the issue and criticize Israel. An opportunity for Netanyahu to press the Iran issue with the President and the media was lost as he had to spend the rest of the time defending and explaining what was happening in Jerusalem.

Shema Yisrael is our affirmation in the oneness of G-d. It is also a call to the Jewish people to be united. For many years, Israel found in the American Jewish Community a staunch supporter. Today, our Jewish community is divided. The Gaza war has demonstrated the real intent of Hamas and, lately, the Palestinian Authority. The thousands of rockets and missiles, the sophisticated and extensive tunnels, showed the tremendous amount of money coming from all over the Arab world to help Hamas with weapons and war plans, rather than improving the lot of the Palestinian people. This is why Abbas continues to refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish State, and is not willing to give up on the idea that Israel must be willing to take in another 3 to 5 million Arab refugees.

If we, the American Jewish community, cannot see in this situation how it would affect the future of Israel, who will? The world has its own priorities. The one and only Jewish State is not on any other nation's priority list. We, the American Jewish community, must do everything in our power to continue to present a united front when it comes to our support for Israel.

Shema Yisrael Hashem Echad is also Am Echad - one nation. Yesterday, the Times of Israel, on the occasion of the Shloshim since the passing of Joan Rivers, commended her for her strong, unwavering support of Israel. I would like to quote a few passages of this tribute in her memory:

"For most of her 81 years, Rivers was hard to ignore: she made her mark as a comedienne, a television personality, a fashion icon, and — in her later years — a champion of Israel. Rivers delighted many (and infuriated some) by coming to Israel's defense in several recent television appearances. In July, she was approached by a TMZ reporter who asked her to comment on the escalation in Gaza and southern Israel. Rivers responded, 'Let me just tell you,' she said, raising her hand for effect, 'if New Jersey were firing rockets into New York, we would wipe 'em out. If we heard they were digging tunnels from New Jersey to New York, we would get rid of Jersey.' In a less-noticed video taken a few days later, she was even more emphatic. Asked when she was planning on visiting Israel, she said, 'I called the embassy. Sooner the better. I'm outta here. I plan to get a gun and stand next to anyone that throws a rocket near my cousins' house.'"

The article ends by saying that, what Joan Rivers taught us all was that we are one family.

As the High Holy Days draw to their climactic close, let us learn from Joan Rivers' example by internalizing, as she did, that Judaism is a collective experience. When Jews anywhere hurt, we all hurt. When Jews rejoice, that joy is ours. There is no "you" or "they" amongst Jews — there is only "we". It would be wonderful if we in the American Jewish community will always remember the importance of standing up with our family, even when we don't agree with everything.

Wishing you a Shanah Tovah and a 'ketivah vahatimah tovah'.