As always, I enjoyed the High Holiday services and this time of year. Although it can get a bit cumbersome juggling life and the seasonal demands, it is all worthwhile. One piece that really continues to mystify me, however, is the Book of Jonah and its reading on Yom Kippur at such a critical moment of the day. It always leaves me perturbed. Why does Jonah run away? Why is Jonah, a Jewish prophet, sent to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, of all places? What of the righteous sailors and the lottery that just happens to fall on Jonah? If they are righteous, why do they throw him overboard? Then a fish swallows him — and he survives? He goes to a town, tells them all to repent and they all repent?! After this amazing unprecedented prophetic success, Jonah is upset, then deeply sad because the gourd tree withered? Please settle my unsettledness.
This sounds like a Porgy and Bess-like query, as in:
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale
For he made his home in dat fish’s abdomen
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale.
Though I will probably not share Ira Gershwin’s contention that
It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
De things dat yo’ liable to read in de Bible
It ain’t necessarily so.
Even if the melody does strongly resemble the liturgical reprise, “Barchu et Hashem Hamevorach.” I will, however, agree that the Book of Jonah is a puzzler.
Let us approach the issue of the book being read on Yom Kippur by thinking about when it is read and how its message connects to this holy day. At a particularly poignant moment on Yom Kippur afternoon, as the sun begins its descent, hunger begins to feel real, and caffeine deprivation is starting to kick in, that the Book of the Big Fish is taken in hand. This is a very real moment. Our humanity is becoming frighteningly palpable. We’ve recited the confession enough times that by now it is sinking in.
We are not as perfect as we seem on the other 364 days of the year. We have a full palate of flavorful foibles. Life has given us ample opportunity to express a full menu of weaknesses, with many an opportune moment to fall somewhat short of our potential. And right now it hits us as we poise to read the afternoon haftarah, Jonah.
It is no accident that at this time our tradition has us open this book. Many a Jewish thinker has tried to identify the reason for the reading of this book at this particular instant. None seem overwhelmingly satisfying. Yes, we notice a theme of teshuvah, of prayer, of fasting.
But the book does not end with any of these crescendos. It ends with man, under a tree, alone, dissatisfied, distraught — about a gourd. The verses end with a rhetorical question that leaves us hanging with the most pedestrian of dangling pronouncements: “And should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also great cattle?”
Great cattle? Really?
Could it be that the book of Jonah is read now as an eloquent reprise of our humaneness, a mirror to our shared human condition? It is an everyman’s object lesson that reflects our precise mood, right now. Not surprising. Our tradition’s keen sensitivity to the disposition of the Jewish people is finely tuned.
Our present state of mind? As it is liturgically expressed, “Human beings’ origin is from dust, our destiny is to return to dust, at risk of life we bring in our bread; we are likened to shattered pottery, withering glass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a dissipating cloud and dust blowing in the wind — a fleeting dream.”
Such is the human condition. Who of us have not, like Jonah, chosen to ignore the voice of God calling out to us, instructing us? It’s that inner voice, that good conscience. Who here among us have not at times chosen the path of least resistance, hopped on that metaphoric ship and fallen into that very tempting deep sleep? Hoping that someone might just toss us overboard?
The slumber of failure is often more alluring the risk of success. Indeed, to quote Marianne Williamson, our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
Who at some point has not wanted to run away from the scary place of self-realization? Like Jonah, how many of us have then taken that risk and followed a call, done well, only to have a sickened feeling of, now what?
Now that we think about it, the story of Jonah has an all-too-familiar trope. The Zohar teaches that, “In the story of Jonah we have a representation of the whole of a man’s career in this world. Jonah descending into the ship is symbolic of man’s soul that descends into this world to enter into his body.”
The Book of Jonah poses a question, a challenge to each of us: What are our lives at this raw, precise moment? Jonah reflects our own angst, our own experience. We are souls on a rocky journey. The book presents us with the turmoil of our very existence.
To where shall we look for a response? Open the Yom Kippur prayer book, the Machzor. How will our haftarah end this afternoon? It ends not with verses from Jonah, but with verses from the Navi right after Jonah, in the Trei Asar. The haftarah ends with passages from the very last verses of the prophet Micha: “Who is a God like you, that pardons iniquity, and passes over the transgression of the remnants of His heritage? He retains not His anger forever, for He desires kindness.”
God Almighty — our creator knows us and understands this humaneness of ours, forgives us our inadequacies, and desires of us chesed, kindness and love. The antidote for Jonah’s despair? For our intermittent despondency? A healthy dose of loving kindness. Nothing cures self-pity like taking a brave step toward the other. For that reason, perhaps, our tradition adds the additional verses from Micha to bring home the message. Jonah reflects our mood and Micha moves us out of it.
In the writings of Emanuel Levinas, “Ethics is the first philosophy — the encounter of the Other through the face installs a responsibility for the Other in the Self.” Heschel said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
Willa Cather, a writer very dear to my heart, writes, “This is happiness: to be dissolved into something completely great.”
Anne Frank mused in her diary, “How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment to start to improve the world.” Henry James reminds us that three things in human life are important: “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
The Rambam teaches in Sefer Hamitzvot: “Whatever I want for myself, I want the same for that other person.”
Bottom line? In the words of Psalms, our world is built on loving kindness. This not rocket science. I started a journal the day after Yom Kippur I called a kindness journal. I am challenging myself to mindfully perform one out-of-the-way act of kindness and to record it in the journal. Join me!
Let’s have a year dedicated to world building, a year of chesed, a year of loving kindness for others and for ourselves. Let us hope and pray that the year ahead will be a journey filled with challenges met, journeys taken, dreams fulfilled, and most all, a year of sweet kindheartedness for our community.