Yom Kippur, 5763, Simon Firestone

Yom Kippur, 5763
September 14, 2002
Simon Firestone

Introduction to Jonah

Once I was at a Bible study class, and the rabbi said to turn to a certain page. One person opened the book and happened to turn to exactly the right spot. The rabbi exclaimed in annoyance, 'Why does that only happen to those who are just becoming observant!"

The book of Jonah has a similar kind of unfairness. There are lots of people in this story who miraculously change for the better. But does G-d honor them with a few words? No, instead G-d picks the most recalcitrant and unappealing character for a conversation partner.

The prophet Jonah is told by G-d to deliver a message to Nineveh, a gentile city. Instead of obeying, Jonah flees on a boat in the opposite direction. The boat is overtaken by a divinely-sent storm, and the sailors throw Jonah overboard to save themselves. Jonah is swallowed by a whale, stays for three days, then prays and is vomited up onto dry land. Again instructed to go to Nineveh, he prophesies, 'In forty days Nineveh will be overturned.' The city repents of its sinfulness, and is not destroyed. Jonah, who sits on a hill overlooking the city, is not pleased, has a strange conversation with G-d, and the story ends.

Two groups, the sailors and the city of Nineveh, have only indirect experiences with G-d in this story. According to our tradition, the sailors were a kind of United Nations of idolatry, with representatives of every religion on board. According to the commentator Rashi, the magical storm followed this ship alone, leaving all others on the sea, including those within view, unmolested. When the sailors threw Jonah overboard, the storm stopped instantly. The sailors were so impressed that, according to Rashi, these representatives of world-wide idolatry all abandoned their false gods and converted to Judaism.

The city of Nineveh experiences a similar incredible change. Jonah's simple prophecy, is that, 'In forty days Niniveh will be overturned.' This single line changes an entire city. People and animals both put on sackcloth and fast. Even more impressive, they actually change internally - the story says in chapter 4, verse 10 that G-d 'saw that they had repented of their evil ways.' The external signs, similar to what we do today were accompanied by an inner transformation. These stories represent one kind of experience of teshuvah. Would that we all could have access to this - perhaps we would not need to fast as a people ever again!

So two groups of people in Jonah repent in this miraculous way, and who does G-d choose to speak to? The title character, who to any kind of reading of the plain text acts like a self-involved kvetch. He runs away from a divine charge. Pursued by a storm, he takes a nap in the bottom of the ship, while the sailors around and above him are terrified. He sulks again in the belly of the whale for three days before praying to G-d. He is angry when the people of Nineveh repent as a result of his prophecy, perhaps because he feels like he wasted his time, or his honor is somehow diminished.

G-d tries to teach him a lesson with a metaphor at the end of the book. Jonah is hot on the hill, and G-d provides a nice shady plant. The next day, G-d sends a worm to destroy the plant, angering Jonah. Jonah literally says he is ready to die because he's so upset about the plant. In the last line, G-d reproaches Jonah for caring about a shady plant more than an entire city.

Why does G-d speak to this crabby unrepentant person, when the sailors and Nineveh's residents are the ones who did such teshuvah? As we sit here feeling hungry and dirty it's comforting to know that unexalted feelings don't shut off the ability to communicate with G-d, and being reminded of this might help enrich the hours of prayers ahead of us. However, I think something deeper is available here. G-d doesn't just honor Jonah by speaking with him; he tries to teach him something, and even prepares a customized live parable with a worm and plant. Why?

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav tells us a story that provides one possible answer. Once there was a king who sent his son abroad to learn the seven kinds of wisdom in the world. When the son returned, full of the knowledge he'd gained from his travels, his father wanted to test how much he had learned. The king commanded him to take a huge stone up to the top of a mountain. The son used all of his strength to roll the rock up the steep incline, and after a huge amount of effort he got it all the way to the top. When the son went to tell the king of his great achievement, the king asked, "Is this all you learned? What were you thinking when you decided to roll this heavy and enormous rock all the way up the mountain? Why didn't you consider breaking this heavy rock into little pieces, and then it would have been easy to take the whole rock up there!"

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav used this story to teach us about teshuvah. G-d commands us to elevate our hearts, which can be as hard and unresponsive as a great big stone, and the only suitable way for us to break our rock-hard hearts into pieces, and to break those pieces down into tiny shards. We can't work on ourselves effectively when all of the imperfections are invisible, when we are our cool and collected personas, the kind you want to be at a job interview or first date. The opportunities for change come when we are more honest, when we are present with our flaws and jagged edges. Perhaps this is why G-d spends more time talking to one recalcitrant, self-centered person than an entire city that turned away from evil. The story implies to me that there is ultimately more potential to learn about ourselves not in moments of ecstasy and perfect rapture, but when we are at our worst.

Perhaps this is why we submit ourselves to all of these stresses on Yom Kippur - the abstinence from food, drinking, bathing, and other pleasures is simply bound to make most of us cranky for at least part of the day. It's easy to think of these moments as something unfortunate that gets in the way of the day's real work of repentance. I think Rebbe Nachman and the book of Jonah suggest that we are more able to speak with G-d about changing ourselves when stresses help reveal where we can improve ourselves. If we are impatient, or angry with those around us, or feel other difficult things, being hungry and a little stinky can make these things come to the forefront - and thereby become more visible to us. I bless us that we never think ourselves unworthy of talking with G-d, and may we see the great hidden potential at those moments when we feel far away from perfection.