We are Jonah

Rabbi René’s sermon for Yom Kippur 5782

The Machzor, the other name for the prayer book of the High Holy Days, is a corpus of texts that have evolved over the centuries. The first complete version we have is attributed to a Talmudist sage, Simcha ben Shmuel from Vitry, who lived in the 11th century and died in 1104 in the French city of Vitry-le-François. His work was based on previous prayer books and Talmudic material, some of them as old as the first centuries of our era.

The list of Biblical passages to be read during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur goes back to the early generations of Talmudic Sages, but they never gave any explanation of the reasons of their choices.

The story goes of a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism and came before Shammai and asked, “convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot”. Shammai was furious and stroke the man with a measuring rod. The same man went to Hillel, asked the same question. But instead of being angry, Hillel answered, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the entire Torah. The rest is interpretation. Go and study” (Shabbat 31a).

Go and study. There is no short cut to knowledge, and nobody can tell us what to think. That is the essence of Torah, that is the essence of Judaism. So, when our Rabbis of old chose a portion of the Bible for us to read, without giving us any hint as to why they made this choice, they are telling us, “Go and study”, and see how this passage is meaningful to you, because this day is only about you, not about Rabbis who lived centuries ago. At every generation, we are invited to reinvent ourselves and to renew Judaism.

Hence my question for you today, “Why do we read the book of Jonah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur?” In a nutshell, the Book of Jonah is the story of a reluctant prophet. Who was he? The Sages disagree about his identity. At the opening of the story, God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, Israel’s archenemy, to warn them that because of their iniquities and sinfulness, God was about to destroy them.

Instead of heeding to God’s voice, Jonah fled in the opposite direction, to Tarshish. Some say this city is located near modern day Gibraltar, others say, it is near Tunis. In ancient times, it was on the other side of the known world. Jonah attempted to fled to the other side of the world.

But God sent a storm against the boat Jonah had boarded. The crew were terrified. They threw all cargo overboard, each of them praying to their own god, but the storm did not recede. Meanwhile, Jonah was asleep in the belly of the boat, unaware of the clamour above him. How strange, isn’t it? Is it a kind of numbness that overran Jonah? The captain of the boat woke Jonah, asked him to pray his God, but Jonah remained silent. The sailors decided to draw lots to see who is responsible for the storm, and the lot fell on Jonah. They threw him overboard, and immediately the sea became quiet.

God sent a giant fish to swallow Jonah, and he stayed in its belly for three days. A Midrash relates that Jonah “entered the fish’s mouth just as a man enters a great synagogue. The two eyes of the fish were like windows of glass giving light to Jonah” (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer chap. 10). “Show me wonder, asked Jonah, and the big fish swam down to the foundation stone, the navel of creation, fixed deep beneath the land”. You are now beneath God’s Temple, said the fish to Jonah. You should pray here, in the quietness of the moment and of the place. Stop running away. Listen to God’s call, and respond hineini, here I am[1].

 At that moment, Jonah repented. When Jonah reached the depth of his being and was in contact with his fragility, he said this prayer: “In my distress, I called to the Eternal One, and God answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and You listened to my cry. You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the sea, and the current swirled around me. The waters closed in over me, the deep engulfed me… I sank to the base of the mountains, the bars of the earth closed upon me forever. Yet You brought my life up from the pit, O Eternal my God!” (Chapter 2). The fish spat Jonah up onto the land, and Jonah rushed to Nineveh and delivered his prophecy: Nineveh is wicked and will be destroyed in forty days! And they listened to Jonah and repented immediately. They believed him and changed their lives.

But Jonah was very disappointed by this rapid repentance. Maybe he was expecting to see Israel’s enemies being destroyed? Maybe he thought they wouldn’t trust him as a prophet if the threat was not carried out?

Enraged, he ran into the wilderness, sat on the ground, “made a booth (a sukkah), and sat under to see what happens to the city” (Jonah 4: 5). God sprouted a plant to protect Jonah from the burning sun, and the prophet settled gratefully into its shade. But then God sent a worm that destroyed the plant, and Jonah was again under the burning heat of the sun. He cried out to God in anger, and in return, received these words from God, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow… And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which they are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals?” (Jonah 4: 10-11).

The book ends with this question, and does not record Jonah’s answer, because there is none. Jonah learnt the lesson: God’s mercy is for the entire universe, and not for one group only. It took forty-eighty verses for Jonah to understand this message: the God of Israel is the God of all humankind.

But there is more. There is a lesson in Jonah’s reluctance to follow God’s command. He did not argue, as Abraham did. He simply ran away from the task ahead.

How often do we find ourselves reluctant to act or to change? How often do we refuse to hear a compelling voice? In the prayer of the Unetanneh Tokef, one of the highlights of the High Holy Days liturgy, we read, u’veshofar gadol ytakah, v’kol demamah dakah yshama, “the great Shofar is sounded; the still small voice is heard”. For some, God’s compelling voice is like the great Shofar, loud and clear, impossible to avert. These chosen few, like the Prophets of the great mystics are left with no other choice than to heed to the sound of the Shofar. For most of us, it is a still small voice that can easily be overlooked.

On Yom Kippur, I wanted to ask you a difficult question. But if not now, when? How much space do you leave to God in your lives? I know, it is not the kind of things we discuss in a Progressive community. Our relationship with the Divine can be complex and complicated, but if there is one day in the year it is appropriate to reflect on that, it is today.

It is so easy to run away from this still small voice. The world around us is noisy. We are bombarded by many distractions. But for one day, let’s challenge ourselves and try to listen to this still small voice. What would change in our lives if we listened to it? In that respect, we are all like Jonah. Accepting that there may be a reality beyond the material world can be daunting, harrowing even. Trying to lead a spiritual life in a world that is constantly inviting us to be customers more than anything else is a real act of resistance.

And what about Jonah’s anger when God forgave Nineveh? You would have thought that Jonah would be happy to see that Nineveh was saved, instead of destroyed. Was he hurt in his ego when his prophecy wasn’t fulfilled? Was he shocked that God would forgive non-Jews? Here again, we are like Jonah. It is a human trait to believe that the world should revolve around our fragile egos, and when we don’t understand what is happening, we get angry because we are afraid. We can be so inflated with ourselves that we forget our place in the universe, a mere sand grain in a machine that is so much bigger than us. The Book of Jonah is indeed a lesson in humility. We don’t understand everything. We simply can’t.

The story of Jonah reminds us that God’s mercy extends upon all living creatures. The divisions among humankind are made by us, but do not belong to the fabric of the universe. Nineveh, a powerful Empire, repented, because all human beings have this capacity to return from their bad ways. Yom Kippur could be called the Great Encounter. Once a year, when facing the Being we wouldn’t dare to name, we are put back in the right place. We are told, “if you cannot hear the loud Shofar, at least try listen to the still small voice that compels you to fulfil your destiny, to live as a human”. And what does that mean?  In the words of the poet, “to be human is to be beautifully flawed.”

[1] Velveeten Rabbi : https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2013/09/new-poem-for-yom-kippur-we-are-jonah.html