Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

Yom Kippur 5777 (October 12th, 2016)

In a few moments we will be joining in the Yizkor service, remembering the souls of our dear ones who have joined their maker in Olam Haba. Yom Kippur is the day of the soul. We fast and refrain from food and drink, concentrating on our soul rather than on our physical needs. As the day of the soul, Yom Kippur is also the most fitting time to connect to the souls of our loved ones, wherever they may be - even in heaven. Those of us whose parent or parents have left this world say Yizkor and mention them by name, pledging to commit to doing good and giving charity in their honor. Yizkor is not about honoring death or remembering the past. It is about celebrating life. True life – the life of the immortal soul. Indeed, remembering the departed souls of our loved ones – ironically – reminds us of the true value of our own lives.

In Yizkor we also remember the Jews throughout history who were slaughtered 'al kiddush Hashem' - in sanctifying G-d's name. There is a story told by Leible Zisman in his book "I Believe". It was September 17, 1945, the first Yom Kippur after liberation, at the DP Camp Föhrenwald near Munich. The leading rabbi housed there was the Klausenberger Rebbe (Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam), who had lost his wife, his 11 children and most of his followers in the Holocaust. All the people of the DP camp – several thousand of them – including some who came from the Feldafing DP camp came to hear the Klausenberger Rebbe speak on that Yom Kippur. After all that these survivors had gone thru, Rabbi Halberstam wondered whether the customs and words of the prayers applied to their situation. He asked this question:

"Why do we wear white on Yom Kippur? What is the significance of white? In the Jewish tradition, the groom wears a white robe (called a kittel in Yiddish) on his wedding day and his bride wears a white dress to show they are starting fresh, that they are pure. Also when people die, they are buried in white shrouds for the same reason. And on Yom Kippur, we want to show that we are pure, that our souls are without the stain of sin, as white as snow because we have atoned for all our wrongdoings. Also on Yom Kippur we remember the dead when we say Yizkor, the prayer of remembrance. We remind ourselves of the white shrouds that our deceased parents and grandparents wore when they were buried."

Then the Klausenberger Rebbe paused. His voice cracked:

"Except that our parents were not buried in white shrouds ... Our parents, our grandparents, our brothers and sisters were buried in rags, their bodies mangled in mass graves. So why do we wear white?! They did not go to their judgment in white! If this is meant to remind us of our deceased loved ones, let's look like them!"

And with that, he tore off his white kittel. And everybody started to sob. The Rebbe could not control the crowd. Not too many of the people had kittels – after all where could you get one in a DP camp – but all were crying their eyes out. He told them that they should not cry; anyone who had survived the war was holy, was pure, and did not need to put on white. But the people kept on sobbing. He had opened the floodgates, and nobody could stop the outpouring of pain that day.

The Rebbe's words rang in the ears of the bereaved. Everyone had lost close relatives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts. Everyone was indelibly scarred by loss. The Klausenberger Rebbe stood with his Machzor in hand, calmly flipping through its pages. Periodically he would ask rhetorically, "Wer hat das geshriben – who wrote this? Does this apply to us? Are we guilty of the sins enumerated here?" One by one, he went through each of the sins listed in the Ashamnu confessional prayer and then the Al Chait and concluded that those sins had little to do with those who survived the camps. He analyzed each of the possible transgressions one by one:

And so, the Klausenberger Rebbe concluded with the Ashamnu prayer and turned his attention to the more detailed list of sins, known as Al Chait. Once again, he concluded with the pride of one whose greatness of being supercedes the nullity of being; that the recitation of sins enumerated in Al Chait hardly applied to the worshippers in this DP Camp.

And so the Rebbe z"l eliminated the Al Chaits one by one, emphasizing how all of these transgressions did not apply to his congregation.

In conclusion, he brought the cover of the prayer book, the Machzor, to a close. The only sin that the Rebbe could mention was that, maybe, they had lost faith in G-d and in His saving power:

"None of us expected to survive. Every morning, we saw this one didn't move and that one didn't move, and as we carried the dead out we looked upon them with envy. That showed a lack of faith. We must now work hard to reclaim and strengthen our faith in G-d."

And faith in G-d he had. Because this Rebbe was able to establish one of the largest Hassidic dynasties in Netanya in Israel. The first hospital he established in Netanya was a maternity ward. He encouraged his Hassidim to rebuild the community that had been lost. That hospital has now grown and is known as the Ladiano hospital serving the entire community.

I would like to conclude with two stories:

A Holocaust survivor who settled in the US and build a wonderful family came to see his rabbi. He told the rabbi that, when he dies, he would like to be buried in his camp uniform. In that way, he reasoned, he can show G-d that he had suffered enough and yet never lost his faith. The rabbi tried to explain that it is a mitzvah to be buried in white shrouds, but the survivor insisted. Not too long after this conversation with his rabbi, he passed away, and his children did not want him to be buried in the camp uniform. The rabbi explained that it is a mitzvah to honor a person's wish and they should respect their father's request. The oldest son explained to the rabbi that, for many years now, when the family got together for the Seder, in the middle of the reading of the Haggadah, when it came to the part of 'we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt', his dad would take the uniform from the closet and point to it and tell the children his version of the Haggadah - "We were slaves to Hitler during the Holocaust," etc. The son asked the rabbi, "If the uniform is buried how will the children learn about their grandfather's story?" The rabbi, however, insisted that he had promised to allow him to be buried with the uniform. He told the sons that they must find their own way to educate their children about this terrible period in our history. The compromise was that they buried the man in shrouds, but they also placed the uniform in the coffin.

This second and last story was in the news lately. The oldest Holocaust survivor in Israel reached the age of 113. Since he never had a Bar Mitzvah as a 13-year-old boy, he wanted to have one in observance of his 113th birthday. His children organized it and just a few weeks ago, members of the family came from all over the world to be there with their father, grandfather and great-grandfather to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah.

I believe that the miracle of our time is the families and communities that these survivors were able to build, in spite of all the horrors that they had suffered.

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