Sign In Forgot Password

A Yom Kippur Carol

02/06/2015 08:44:00 AM


A Yom Kippur Carol
Yom Kippur 5770, 2009 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

It’s a day for confessions, so I want to confess that for a rabbi and a religious Jew, I enjoy Christmas entirely too much. Of course, I don’t celebrate the holiday, but I enjoy the lights and decorations and the spirit of that time of year. I sing Christmas songs, even though they all come out sounding like Hasidic melodies. And most of all, I cherish Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Dickens understood tshuvah. He believed in the power of truth to open a heart, to turn a soul, to bring a man home again. On one fateful Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed from miser into mensch. 

There is a story in our tradition that rivals Dickens. You’ll find it in your Mahzor on page 683. Jonah is an obscure book tucked into the middle of the Hebrew Bible. But the rabbis required that it be read on Yom Kippur. Let’s call it, A Yom Kippur Carol, a story in three acts. 

Act One.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me. 
3Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’s service. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD. 4But the LORD cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a great tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up. 5In their fright, the sailors cried out, each to his own god; and they flung the ship’s cargo overboard to make it lighter for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the vessel where he lay down and fell asleep. 6The captain went over to him and cried out, “How can you be sleeping so soundly! Up, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish.”

Once upon a time, there lived a man named Jonah. Jonah lived a comfortable and secure life in a world neatly divided by clear binary terms: Us/Them. Our People/Those People. People like us/People who are Strange. Good people/Evil people. Insiders/Outsiders; Citizens/Aliens. Children of light/children of darkness. In his world, so carefully drawn, so neatly bounded, and so simple, Jonah lived with a comfortable sense of identity. He knows exactly who he is, because he knows precisely who he isn’t. He feels at home in his place, a place well-fenced and 
well-defended from outsiders. No tolerance is demanded of him. No understanding. No growing. He has an exact sense of his duties, and an unambiguous sense of his boundaries. He knows to whom he owes concern. And he knows to the millimeter where his concern ends. “Those people, they’re not my problem. Those people, they’re not mine.” 

Then one day, God shows up in his life. And God shatters his world. In God, there is a unity beneath all the divisions, a wholeness underneath the disjunctions that separate us. In God, there is an interdependence of all with all. You and me, us and them, our people and their people, we separate on the surface, but in reality, we are all one. The boundaries of self do not end at the tip of one’s nose. The boundaries of self include the other, the stranger, the alien. They are your problem, they do belong to you, because they are you. Martin Luther King, sitting in the Birmingham jail, wrote to his fellow pastors, pastors who cautioned him to stop his activism, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. All life is interrelated.” 

Go to Ninveh, says God, and save that city from its wickedness. The one act that destroys all Jonah’s neat binary disjunctions: Go save Ninveh. Historically, Ninveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. They besieged Jerusalem, humiliated its king and carried off its treasures. Ninveh was the Enemy. For an Israelite, Ninveh was the world center of Evil, the heart of darkness. Save Ninveh? Why on earth would Jonah want to save Ninveh? If God was finally ready to repay Ninveh for its brutality, why would Jonah want to do anything but go and cheer? 

Go and save Ninveh, God demands. Go and confront the humanity of your enemy. You are made of the same stuff. Your enemy is misled. His values are twisted, but he can change. And you can help him change. Go and learn that what separates you from your enemy can be healed, can be repaired. Set aside your fantasies of vengeance. Set aside the sweet energy of your rage. Set it aside and see your enemy as your own reflection. Aizahu gibor? Who is a champion? Asked the rabbis of the Talmud, ha-oseh m’sono haveyro. The one who turns an enemy into a friend. You don’t conquer him, punish him, destroy him. You turn him. You teach him. Otherwise, warfare will never end and the world will be turned into desolation. Go to Ninveh and discover that my world will not be divided. 

The Bible is populated by those who seek God, who serve God, who wrestle with God, who argue with God, who resist God. But Jonah is the only one who runs away from God. Of course he runs away. To see the world through God’s eyes threatens his very identity. If we’re not Us, and they’re not Them, then who am I? If the world doesn’t line up into neat binary disjunctions, where is my place? Of course he runs away. Because in his binary thinking, here is not there. He runs. In the colloquial idiom, he splits. 

And splitting is what Jonah does best: Us from Them. And then he continues splitting the Us into ever more minute elements. The Us that’s here from the Us that’s there. And the Us that have always been Us, from the Us that was late in coming to Us. The Us that is authentically Us from the Us who are lazy, unfaithful and have forgotten who Us really is…And so on, and so on, until the splitting leaves him in a universe of one. The final, indivisible atomic unit of existence: Me. Egotistical, radical self-centered individualism is the final conclusion of Jonah’s thinking. It’s all about me. 

Jonah splits. He runs away from all that claims him. He withdraws. God says go east to Ninveh, Jonah goes west toward Tarshish. God says rise up and proclaim the word, Jonah goes down to hide, down into his narcissistic, ego-centric world, down to the port at Jaffa, down the harbor, down to a ship, down into the hold, and down, down, down, withdrawing into deep sleep. 

If that’s where he would go, God will assist him. A great storm blows. The sailors try frantically to save the ship. Jonah does nothing. The sailors sacrifice their cargo, which is their income, their livelihood. Jonah does nothing. Even when it is revealed that he is the cause of their dire predicament, they continue struggling to save him. They live by an ancient maritime ethic. 
But he does nothing. The world is blowing apart, and the self-centered man sleeps peacefully, cozy in his oblivious indifference. 

“How can you be sleeping?” shouts the panicked ship’s captain. Pay attention when the Bible asks a question. Because the Bible’s questions always capture the deepest meanings of the narrative. The Bible’s questions jump off the page: It isn’t only Jonah who is asked. God is asking us: How can you be sleeping? How can you shut your eyes and retreat into your dreams, how can you rest in calm serenity, when a tempest rages around you? Why are you oblivious? 

Finally, in desperation, the sailors cast Jonah overboard. But God isn’t finished with him. God has a lesson to teach. 

Jonah is swallowed by a big fish. (Not a whale, that was Pinnochio!) At bottom of the sea, as far as one can get from the world and its needs, from society and all that it asks of us, far from the Presence of God, Jonah sits, suspended between life and death. In the dark. In the putrid innards of the fish. Welcome to God’s classroom. You wanted to be a sovereign, independent, individual, released of all responsibility? You wanted freedom from other people, license to act without regard for the Other? You wanted to declare that you need no one, and no one needs you? Congratulations. You’ve found that reality. How do you like it? How does it smell? A little like death, wouldn’t you say? 

What kind of Bible is this? The Bible is supposed to be filled with uplifting, inspiring, stories of redemption and the rewards of righteousness. How did this depressive, angry, hollowed-out man find his way into our holy book? 

But that’s not the Bible. The Bible is not a collection of saccharine tales, of simplistic religion, of easy morality. That’s not our Bible. Our Bible is a finely crafted mirror, reflecting light into the deepest darkest corners of the human soul, and for those courageous enough to look, it brings back images of ourselves we would much prefer to ignore. 

Who is Jonah? He is man without love. He is the self-centered, self-absorbed, self-satisfied personality. He is every one of us when we narrow ourselves, and narrow our perspective, and narrow our values down to the singular, “me.” The world needs us, but we don’t want to be needed. The world cries out for us, but we cover our ears and pretend the line is busy. He is a nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. Doesn’t have a point of view. Knows not where he’s going to. Isn’t he a bit like you and me? 

Act Two. 
“Jonah remained in the fish’s belly three days and three nights. Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish…” 

What does a man like Jonah do for three days? Alone. Suspended between life and death. He prays. Each day he prays a new prayer, he sings a new song. 

Day one, he sings the song of self-pity. He is the victim. And there is no sweeter melody than the song of the victim’s misery. 
“Let me just tell you what they did to me, how they disrespected me and abused me and neglected me and mistreated me, insulted me, offended me, cheated me, wounded me, pushed me out, kept me down, took what was mine. Can you believe it? Did I tell you this story already? No matter, I want to tell it again. I need to tell it again and again and again. Because each time I tell it, it gives me life. It makes me stronger.” 

Except it doesn’t. It is poison. It destroys life. The victim repeats his story again and again, to anyone who will listen, and sometimes just to himself, because it’s a drug, misery is a narcotic, masquerading as an elixir of life. It destroys relationships. As victim, I become the center of the world. My hurt, my loss, my needs, are paramount. Nothing else, and no one else matters. I am the victim, I am entitled. I am the victim, I can victimize the other. I am the victim, you want me to care or love or help you? – you have to earn it. You have to pass my test. There, at the bottom of the sea, everything gets sucked into the vortex of victimhood, and nothing escapes alive. 

Day two. He sings the song of rage. He’s hurt so he lashes out in anger. Who is he angry at? Those who hurt him, and those who stood by did nothing, and those whose sympathy was insufficient, and those whose lives went on as before, until the whole world is pulled into the fire of his rage. Life owes him, but didn’t pay out. So he conjures endless fantasies of vengeance and retribution, which provide a perverse sort of existential purpose. He fumes. He may not have friends, but sure knows his enemies. He burns, and that provides a rush of energy, pure adrenaline. Anger is also a drug, a narcotic. And it’s also poison. 

Anger, taught the rabbis, robs a Sage of his wisdom and a prophet of his vision. Anger hides the Presence of God. It consumes and destroys indiscriminately, the innocent together with the guilty, the loved together with the hated. Resentment, bitterness, anger, vitriol, possess no discernment. Every relationship, every connection, everything cherished is reduced to ashes. Until, deprived of fuel, it burns itself out, leaving a landscape that is dead and desolate. 
Day three. Self-pity subsides, and rage finally cools, and Jonah finds himself alone and exhausted. The storm above has passed and the storm within has calmed. And he realizes the futility of his situation. What does all that self-pity and rage get you? Another hour in the wretched innards of a fish. So now he must decide: to live or to die, to be or not to be. This, finally, is the moment of growth, of learning. This is the moment real tshuva is possible. 
Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish. 3He said:  

In my trouble I called to the LORD, 
And He answered me; 
From the belly of Sheol I cried out, 
And You heard my voice.

Jonah prays. He cries. He asks for life again. He asks for another chance. 

Act Three 
11The LORD commanded the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon dry land. The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2”Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it what I tell you.” 3Jonah went at once to Nineveh in accordance with the LORD’s command. 
Nineveh was an enormously large city- a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah started out and made his way into the city the distance of one day’s walk, and proclaimed: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be destroyed!” 
5The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth.

In Hebrew, he speaks only five words: od arbaim yom, v’ninveh neh-pachet. Five words, translated loosely, “Forty days, and Ninveh’s toast,” and the city of Ninveh, world capitol of evil, repents.  

6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7And he had the word cried through Nineveh: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! 8They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. 9Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish.”

Five words. That’s all it took. The book of Isaiah is 66 chapters long. 66 chapters of brilliant, literary prophecy. When Isaiah prophecied, no one repented. The book of Jeremiah is 52 chapters of prophecy, no one repented. In fact, of all the prophets of the Bible, Jonah is only one who succeeds in bringing repentance. Five words, and Ninveh repents. Even the animals fast and pray for forgiveness.  

10God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.

Jonah should be elated. He succeeded. Had Charles Dickens written the story, it would have ended here and we would all retreat for plum pudding and punch. A tale of personal and communal redemption. But this is no Dickens’ tale. The Bible isn’t finished exploring the darkness of Jonah’s soul.

This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was grieved (angry) 2He prayed to the LORD, saying, “O LORD! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.[v’necham al ha-ra’ah, literally: you accept…you make peace with their evil] 3Please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” 4The LORD replied, “Are you that deeply grieved?”

God accepts the tshuva of Ninveh. But not Jonah. God sees their potential to turn, to change, but Jonah only sees their evil. He can’t accept their tshuva because if their tshuva is real, he has to acknowledge their humanity. If tshuvah is real, he can’t split himself from them and point fingers with smug superiority. If tshuvah is real he can’t continue to feed himself on his rage and self-pity. If their tshuvah is real, he has to look at all the darkness within himself. And he’d rather die. 

Jonah inverts God’s world. Death becomes life. Curse becomes blessing. The attributes of God, reverently celebrated in the Torah, and recited again and again on these holidays, Adonai Adonai el rachum v’hanun, God – compassionate, kind, forgiving -- the attributes of God’s love are derisively and sarcastically dismissed. They are rejected. He’s rather die than live in a world governed by a loving God. 

God is astonished and asks him, Are you so angry? The Hebrew is more powerful: ha-hay-tev charah lach, is your anger so dear to you? hay-tev comes from tov. Literally the question is: Has anger become your goodness? Has hate displaced the good in you? 

There is another short episode, in which God attempts once more to find some compassion in Jonah. But this attempt also fails and the book ends abruptly -- with no resolution. There is no redemption, no satisfaction, no happy conclusion. This time, there will no blessing from Tiny Tim. The book ends with God’s frustration, God’s distress. It ends with God’s question. But it isn’t God’s question to Jonah any more. It is God’s question to us. Why can’t you love? 

The question isn’t asked out of rage, or disapproval. It is asked in tears, in divine tears of sadness. When God looks into the world and sees what we do to one another. How many genocides since the Holocaust? Cambodia, Biafra, Ruwanda, Darfur…God cries and asks Ha-hay-tev charah lach, Where is your compassion? Why can’t you love? 

When God looks into America, a land of so many blessings, of so much prosperity, and sees how many are cast aside, neglected, uncared for…God cries and asks, Ha-hay-tev charah lach, Where is your compassion? Why can’t you love? 

When God looks at the Jewish people, the bearers of covenant, the keepers of Torah, and the sees what we do to one another, the rage we vent at one another, the cruelty we rain on one another, God cries and asks, Ha-hay-tev charah lach, Where is your compassion? Why can’t you love? 

When God enters our homes and listens to the way we speak one another as family. When God enters the heart and feels what we feel, God cries and asks, Ha-hay-tev charah lach, Where is your compassion? Why can’t you love? 

And it’s God’s question to God: How did I create a creature so empty, so soul-less? The book of Jonah is God’s tshuva, God’s apology, for filling the world with such creatures. 

The book ends without resolution. Even the rabbis who chose this for the Yom Kippur service, had to add some verses from another book, from Micah, to finish with some closure. 

There is a better way to end this story. We must answer God’s question. Not just verbally, but in the way we walk the world. The Bible presents another story of another man. This man follows a different path. He willingly moves from Mesopotamia to Canaan. When God calls, he answers. When told that strangers are to be destroyed, he rises to their defense, even against God. And he is to be the father of many nations, so that we can see ourselves in the eyes of the other. He is Abraham. He is Jonah’s opposite. Or rather, Jonah is the shadow of Abraham. 

In the twelfth chapter of Genesis, Abraham, was commanded to leave his home, just like Jonah. 

“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

2I will make of you a great nation, 
And I will bless you; 
I will make your name great, 
And you shall be a blessing. 
3I will bless those who bless you 
And curse him that curses you; 
And all the families of the earth 
Shall bless themselves by you.”

God doesn’t say, go love the world as I do. Because very few of us are ready to love that way. We aren’t evolved to the point that we can root out all the anger, all the split thinking, all the self-pity, the self-absorption that lives within us. Very few of us can let go of the Jonah within. But we can do this: we offer one another a blessing. We can strive to be a blessing to another. And we can say to one another: “You are my blessing.” 

When I say to you, “you are my blessing,” I affirm that I really do see you. I see what’s precious in you. I confess that I need you; that we are connected; that I’m incomplete without you. I testify that you matter. 

“You are my blessing.” I want you to say this to someone today. I want you to mean it. 

Say it to your spouse, your partner….because after being married for some time, we don’t see one another. We live together and we become invisible to one another. We become furniture in one another’s life. So today, say to your spouse, “You are my blessing.” 

Say it to your kids. We give our kids so much junk. Ipod’s and cell phones and Play Station’s, and BMW’s, and we expect that to stand in for the love they need to receive. Instead of this, tell them, “You are my blessing.” You are the center of my world, my care, my concern, my worries. You matter more to me than you can ever know. 

Say it to someone whose life has touched yours, someone who has taught you, mentored you, protected you, sacrificed for you. Say it to someone who doesn’t have a clue how much they mean to you. 

Say it today. Because tomorrow may be too late. 

I want each of them to hear that they live in your soul. And I want you to hear it. You need to hear your own word of blessing. Because each blessing displaces one bit of the rage within us. Each blessing heals one note of self-absorption in us. Each blessing pushes back our self-pity and love of misery and allows a gleam of gratitude into us. Each blessing makes God a little more satisfied in creating us. Each blessing dispels a bit of the Jonah that sits and rots within us.

Perhaps one day, if we offer enough blessing, the commandment will be fulfilled, and the families of the earth shall all bless themselves in us.

 * This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780