Yom Kippur Drash

Yom Kippur 5770 September 27 – September 28, 2009

“A Meditation on Jonah”
by Tamar Frankiel, PhD
Dean of Academic Affairs, Academy for Jewish Religion, CA

On Yom Kippur afternoon we read the story of Jonah, prophet to the ancient city of Nineveh, who catalyzed the teshuvah (repentance) of all its inhabitants. This story of collective teshuvah might be a model for us, were it not for the puzzle of Jonah himself. Jonah is not only a reluctant prophet but also an unhappy one.

Yet Jonah’s peculiar misery brings us an important lesson: Yom Kippur is not so much about judgment as it is about rediscovering life. Let’s look at the story to see this unfold.

Jonah is commanded to go to Nineveh, but flees instead to a ship setting out to sea. Saved from a watery death, he goes at last to prophesy. He believes, however, that the Ninevites are so wicked they should not be given the chance to repent. Sullen and resentful, he uses the holy formulas of repentance to accuse G-d: “I knew You are a compassionate and gracious G-d, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness, renouncing evil!” Strange words from a prophet.

Compounding the puzzle, a midrash informs us that Jonah was the child Elijah had resurrected from the dead. In a time of widespread famine, he was inexplicably chosen to survive. Now, in this ‘second life,’ he nearly died in a storm at sea, and was miraculously saved. Doesn’t Jonah want others to have the same second or third chance?

Sometimes, we cannot appreciate miracles precisely because they are miracles – because they demand that we accept a view of reality beyond logic and natural law. Sometimes we come to hate the mystery we cannot control or predict. Today, for example, we see an upsurge in popular books by atheists who bitterly condemn all religion. They proclaim science, with its certainty of evidence and experiment, as the only truth, regarding religion as a crutch for the feeble-minded. Belief in a higher spiritual purpose is ridiculous.

Jonah, a prophet who hears G-d speak, is not an atheist. But like the modern skeptic, he too is confounded by the unexplainable. Why did he survive when so many others died? Why was he chosen to be G-d’s messenger against his will? If he is supposed to proclaim justice, why isn’t G-d following through with judgment? Taking the opposite view from Abraham on the city of Sodom, Jonah hates to see evil go unpunished.

Immersed in his troubled view of the world, he sits outside the city, watching cynically as the Ninevites in sackcloth are let off the hook. He doesn’t want to hear about repentance, his or theirs. “My death is better than my life,” he proclaims.

Jonah is preoccupied with death. G-d approaches Jonah, wishing to help him break through that deadness. “Are you so very angry?” He asks. Then G-d stages the growth of a gourd to shade Jonah from the sun, perhaps to offer a ‘teachable moment.’ Jonah briefly feels joyfulness while the gourd spreads its leaves over him, but then relapses into anger.

“You were concerned for the gourd,” G-d pleads. “Should I not be concerned for Nineveh the great city, where there are more than a hundred twenty thousand human beings who do not know their right hand from their left, and many cattle?”

We do not hear Jonah’s reply. But G-d’s message is clear: He is no longer evaluating the number of deeds or even the sincerity of repentance. Life itself, and the opportunity for life to continue and grow, is an overriding value.

The book of Jonah thus offers us two parables. One is the repentance of Nineveh which gained the city’s salvation, paralleling our fasting and confession which can bring us back to G-d. But the other, more subtle and disturbing, is the alienation that keeps us from joining wholeheartedly to G-d and community in the first place.

Do we sometimes prefer to sit back uninvolved, silently judging all this ceremony as mere show? Does our anger at G-d get in our way? Do we think we know how justice and compassion should be meted out (and it certainly is not being done right)? If so, Jonah is our mirror: Anger and resentment lead only to deadness, to death.

In our own prayers as Yom Kippur comes to a close, our thoughts can turn to the gourd, the cattle, the hundred twenty thousand ordinary folk – from the simple pleasures of life to the loves and joys of all humanity. G-d pleads also with us to be concerned for life.