Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

Kol Nidre 5777 (October 11th, 2016)

Bruchim Habaim. Welcome to our Kol Nidre service.

This will be our eighth year in this sanctuary. After our building on Rhode Island was sold, we had spent a year using the Sabes Jewish Community Center, both for regular Shabbat services, and for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Twin City Fellowship, the Evangelical Church that had bought our building, was very kind to us. They allowed us to use the main sanctuary for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, until we could find a new home. True to their word, they did not make any changes to the Sanctuary, nor did they place any Christian icons in it, so that we could comfortably pray in our old home. Recently, the members of Twin City Fellowship split into two congregations. Our old shul was too big for the group that remained. So they in turn sold the building to Sar Shalom, a Jewish Messianic group. While Twin City Fellowship, now known as Anchor Bible Church, was looking for a new home, they asked us if they could use our sanctaury on Sundays, until they could find their own home. Our Board of Directors unanimously agreed to offer the use of our sanctuary on Sunday mornings. They appreciated our offer, but at the last minute they found an alternative in Plymouth that would better meet their needs on a regular basis. We can all be proud of our Board. They were willing to return the favor, and be hospitable to this group that has been a real friend to Sharei Chesed.

Moving to Minnetonka has been a blessing to Sharei Chesed. You will be pleased to know that, since our move, our membership has grown by more than fifty percent, and even more significant is the fact that we have earned the trust of many young families who have now joined our congregation and enrolled their children in our Religious School.

We have come together on this evening of Kol Nidre because we all realize the seriousness of this day and our need to be together, physically and spiritually, with other Jews throughout the world, seeking G-d's atonement for us, for our people, and for a troubled world.

One of the central prayers in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy is the Unetaneh Tokef, which will be chanted in a beautiful and inspiring way by our choir during the morning service. It tells us that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed - "Berosh Hashanah Yikatevun, uvyom Tzom Kippur Yehatemun".

What is written? "Mee yihyeh, umee yamut"

As we look around us we see the empty places of those who left us this past year, and we don't know who will not be with us next year. The Unetaneh Tokef is a wake-up call. It is the sound of an alarm, urging us to make a 'Heshbon Hanefesh' - a soul searching of the way we live our life. What the future holds for us is introduced by the words, 'Unetaneh Tokef kedushat hayom' - 'Let us declare the sanctity of this day' - 'kee hu norah veayom' - 'for it contains an awful truth'. What is that truth? That that future can be the next decade, the next year, or just the next day.

A very inspiring article appeared in the Sunday New York Times of two weeks ago. Its title was the enduring lessons of "Five Minutes to Live". Some of you may have read it already. I would like to share parts of that article, because it describes in a most powerful way the lessons that we find in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer.

Avigail Needleman and her sister, Ilana Glazer, shared the story of their father, Rabbi Kenneth Berger, who served as the Rabbi of Rodeph Shalom Congregation in Tampa, Folrida. In 1986, Rabbi Berger delivered a sermon on Yom Kippur. He spoke to his congregants about a tragedy that was still fresh in their minds, as many of them, including his daughter, had witnessed in the Florida sky - the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. He focused on one particular detail - the revelation that Challenger's seven astronauts had remained alive during the 65,000 foot plunge to the ocean. He called the homily "Five Minutes to Live". He likened the crew members to Jews who are called upon during the High Holy Days to engage in the process of 'Heshbon Hanefesh' - taking stock of one's life. "Can you imagine knowing that in a few moments death is imminent?" Rabbi Berger said to his congregants. "What would we think of if, G-d forbid, you and I were in such a circumstance? What would go through our minds?" Rabbi Berger touched on the ordinary ways that people forget to express love for their families, always assuming that there will always be another day. He recounted the story of a father, facing imminent death during the Holocaust, who bestowed a final kiss on his young son he was sending away in safety. That scene still haunts him, Rabbi Berger said, and returning to the Challenger he said, "The explosion and then five minutes. If only I... If only I... Then you realize it's all the same - five minutes, five days, 50 years. It's all the same, for it's over before we realize. 'If only I knew' - yes, my friends, it may be the last time. 'If only I realized' - yes, stop, appreciate the blessings you have. 'If only I could' - you still can, you've got today."

Not quite three years after Rabbi Berger had delivered this sermon, he and his family were on a flight from Denver to Chicago, returning from a family vacation. Their middle child Ilana who was twelve at that time was not on this flight as she was at a summer camp. The plane's tail engine exploded en route, cripling the controls, and for forty minutes, the passengers prepared for a crash landing. The rabbi's wife, Aviva, fainted from the shock. Avigail, his 16 year old daughter, would later recall how Rabbi Berger reached across the seats and gathered her hands and the hands of his 9 year old son Jonathan, trying to reassure them that everything will be alright. The plane burst into flames when it landed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 people, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, both in their forties. Can you imagine what those forty minutes were like for Rabbi Berger and all those passengers?

After this tragedy, Rabbi Berger's brother Samuel and his wife Trisanne stepped in and took care of the children. While cleaning out his brother's office, Samuel Berger found the sermon "Five Minutes to Live", which he presented to the oldest daughter. She laminated it and she keeps it in her jewelry box.

This sermon took on its public life as many rabbis have quoted parts of it, just like I am doing this evening. It illustrates in a most powerful way the message of the Unetaneh Tokef and what we all must face on a daily basis.

This past year, we have witnessed the passing of outstanding individuals. A few days after last Yom Kippur, the tragic and untimely death of our co-president Terry Schwartz of blessed memory, in a motorcycle accident. He was with us on Yom Kippur. And two days later he was gone.

In the last few months I have witnessed the passing of other individuals who took advantage of the last days in their lives to do exactly what the Untaneh Tokef asks us to do. In one case, a patient expressed to me that he wanted to live so that he could express to his family how much he loved each and every one of them. On my second visit he told me how much he was satisfied with his life. He was ready because, you see, during his last days on earth, he was able to express his love and appreciation to his wife, children and grandchildren. He died as a very fulfilled person.

As the year of 5776 was ending another brave and courageous person passed away. She had been an inspiration to her family and friends. This lady who was never sick had returned from an out of town family Simha, with abdominal pain. First, she thought it was due to something she ate, but as the pain got worse, she and her husband went to see her doctor immediately upon their return home. After a few tests, she was given the sad and terrible news that there was not much that could be done for her. There was no cure for the type of cancer that she had. Though she was given only a few weeks to live, this courageous lady became a source of strength and inspiration for her family and friends. When family members came to visit her she was more interested about their well-being than her own condition. She loved to reminisce with them on the wonderful memories she had from each and every one. Her husband and daughter were with her every single day. Her strength and positive attitude enabled her to live for almost three more months. She used that time to continue to be in touch with her family, and responded to all text messages and phone calls. She made sure to let everyone know how much she loved them and how much she appreciated everything they did for her.

After listing all the unkowns of what the future might hold, the Untaneh Tokef ends with a positive and hopeful message. It tells us that the future is really in our hands:

"Uteshuvah, utefillah utzedaka, mamvirin et roah hagzerah."

Our tradition teaches us that we can have a direct and active role in changing our life for the coming year, if we perform Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedaka.

'Teshuva' is the call that we return to our source. Because we are all good. The life that G-d has alloted us is a gift that is all good and full of blessings. We may not have appreciated that gift and, in the course of time, we may have strayed away. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner describes the concept of Teshuva in this way. In one of those little frames that stands upright in your mother's apartment is a photograph of you when you were a child. You have come a long way since those days in many beautiful ways and in a few shameful ones. If you were given a time machine, what would you tell the child in the photo that was once you? Just looking at who you were seems to awaken the possibility that you could go back to that time and, if not relive your life. at least begin again. That is the beginning of the return, Teshuvah. Teshuvah calls on us to return to the good that is within each and every one of us.

We can discover the goodness and blessing that is within our power thru 'Tefillah' - Meditation and Heshbon Hanefesh, soul searching - because it is within our power to bring blessing to us and to those around us.

And finally 'Tzedaka', acts of kindness. Our world is broken. Through our actions we can fix things, we can change things. We should not wait until we only have a few days or years, before us. 'Kedushat Hayom' - the sanctity of Hayom - is this day, today.

Most of the time by changing ourselves, we change the way we treat those who are the closest to us; however, change is not easy. The story is told or Rabbi Levy Yitzhak of Berditchev - of how at the start of his rabbinic career, he wanted to change the world. After several years, he realized that that was too hard, so he decided to change his community. Several years later, that goal was also abandonned as being too difficult. Then he decided to concentrate on his own family and finally he concluded that the only one he could change was himslef. That's the only person we can truly change anyway.

During this period in our Jewish calendar, we wish one another 'Leshanah Tovah Tikatevu' - May you be inscribed for a good year. The word 'year' - in Hebrew 'Shanah' - comes from the word 'shoneh' - different, changing. 'Leshanot' - to change. Without change it's the same old thing. What makes this a new year is the resolution of growth, of change, of returning to your source, which was filled with the potential for so much goodness. That is what is required as we face a new Year, a new Shanah.

Unetaneh Tokef urges us to take actions that we might take if we knew that our time was very limited. 'Tzedakah' does not only mean to give charity. It also means perfoming acts of kindness. Acts of kindness to those near us as well as those whose lives are in need of support. It can be a kind word, it can be a listening ear or a gift to someone in need.

Another aspect of 'teshuvah' is the call on us to repair our relationships not only with G-d but also with our family, our friends and our community. With G-d, it is not too difficult. All it takes is a sincere and humbled heart, to be able to express remorse and ask G-d for forgiveness.

Yom Kippur guarantees a positive answer as the verse implies: "Kee bayom Hazeh yekhaper Aleichem" - "on this day atonement will be granted to you." With people, however, it is a little more complicated. To do 'teshuvah' means to ask forgiveness which is great for our ego, but not easy at all. It is difficult to ask forgiveness from a spouse, a family member, or a close friend with whom we have deep and long relationships. Why is it so? One reason might be that the incident for which we ask forgiveness is only the tip of the iceberg, reflecting disappointments, hidden anger and resentments of a relationship that has been hurt. The 'Asseret Yme Teshuvah', and especially Yom Kippur, offer opportune time to repair and improve rusty and damaged relations.

There are several incidents in the Talmud related to asking for forgiveness. You might have heard the classical one dealing with two great rabbis. Rabbi Abba was angry at Rabbi Yirmiya. What did Rabbi Yirmiya do? He went to Rabbi Abba's house and sat under the balcony waiting for an opportunity to see Rabbi Abba and ask forgiveness. The maid who had just finished washing the floor did not notice Rabbi Yermiya and threw a bucket of dirty water from the balcony, which landed on Rabbi Yermiya's head and clothing. When Rabbi Abba heard what happened he came down and told Rabbi Yermiya, "Now it's my turn to ask for your forgiveness." This story teaches us how, in a relationship, one who hurts someone's feelings can easily become the injured party himself.

Another story that taught Rabbi Abba the power of forgiveness is found in the Book of the Zohar, the central text of Jewish Mysticism. It tells how Rabbi Abba once sat at the gate of the city of Lod. He saw a traveler sit down on a pile of rocks, at the edge of a mountain overlooking a cliff. The man was exausted from his journey and fell asleep. Rabbi Abba was watching this man and suddenly he saw a deadly snake slither out of the rocks and make its way to the sleeping man. Rabbi Abba froze at his place, not knowing what he could do to save the man. But then a giant lizard came and killed the snake. When the man awoke and stood up, he was perplexed by the sight of a dead snake lying in front of him. He quickly gathered his possessions and rose to continue his journey. As soon as he stepped away the pile of rocks upon which he had fallen asleep collapsed and fell into the ravine below. Rabbi Abba ran towards the man and told him what he had witnessed. He asked him, "My friend, to what do you attribute all these miracles that just happened to you?" The man answered, "If anyone ever hurt me, I always endeavored, with all my heart, to resolve whatever animosity was between us. And lastly, I would turn the hatfeful situation into an opportunity to do acts of kindness for the person involved in the misunderstanding." When Rabbi Abba heard this he burst into tears. The man received G-d's blessings because of his ability to forgive.

If we refuse to forgive others, how can we ask G-d to forgive us, to bless us in the coming year? That is why one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves on Yom Kippur is, "Who do we have to forgive in order to be at peace in our life?"

I wish you and your family 'Leshanah Tova Tikatevu Vetehatemu'.