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“Why Do We Read the Story of Jonah on Yom Kippur?” A Yom Kippur Teaching

The Hebrew Bible is an anthology of writings. It not only includes the Five Books of Moses, which are contained in our Torah scroll, but also the many books of the Nevi’im, the Prophets, and the collection known as Ketuvim, or Writings. The Writings contain the Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, Job, Esther, Ruth, and numerous other titles. Taken together, all the books of the Bible are known as the TaNaKh, an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim.

One might have the impression that the Bible is a single narrative and a consistent theological discourse. One would be mistaken! The Tanakh is in fact a marvelously diverse anthology of sacred history, poetry, law, moral instruction, farce, fable, and inquiry into the meaning of life and the nature of the cosmos. The Tanakh explores all of the big questions that we humans face: why are we here? Is there cosmic justice? How are we to fulfill our potential? What is our responsibility to one another? This exploration is not systematic, in the way a modern book of philosophy might undertake. The Tanakh, rather, is in dialogue with itself, one story or discourse actively taking issue with the implications or declarations of another. The Tanakh in fact sets the tone for one of the most grand and enduring quality of Jewish culture: holy argument. That is, Judaism elevates dialogue, passionate debate, to a spiritual path. Where do we find God? Yes, in sunsets, in the miracles of nature, in the ecstasy of prayer… but also in the exchange of ideas. One finds God not at the end of the discussion, but in the very act of searching.

While we traditionally read and study the Five Books of Moses on a weekly basis throughout the year, the later books of the Tanakh do not get weekly attention. Our sages therefore strategically associate many of these books with certain holidays, so that we encounter them at least once during the year. These lesser-read books often offer a counterpoint to the primary narrative of the holiday. The book that the sages assigned to Yom Kippur is the story of Jonah. I would like to explore with you this evening the radical and timeless message of this tale.

One of the names of Yom Kippur is Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. We traditionally imagine God sitting on the Judgment seat, the damning ledger of our deeds open before him, as we plead for mercy and forgiveness. In this venerable image, the purpose of our fervent prayers and confession, our fasting and self-denial, is to influence God to move from the Judgment Seat to the Mercy Seat, and, undeserving though we are, grant us another year in the Book of Life. But what if it is not God who needs to move from harsh judgment to compassion, but we ourselves? What if it is we ourselves who are stuck on the Judgment seat, and it is God who is pleading with us to have mercy on each other and on creation? This is the surprising message of the Book of Jonah.

I gleaned these insights from Judy Klitsner in her brilliant book “Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other” – thank you, Bob Messing, for introducing me to it – and I am pleased to expand on them here with you tonight.

Klitsner shows how the story of Jonah is an intra-biblical response to the story of Noah – a subversive sequel, as she calls it. Numerous linguistic and literary parallels link the two tales, but the thrust of the Book of Jonah’s message is diametrically opposed to the moral of the Flood story. The rabbis pick up on those distinctions, and on Yom Kippur choose to amplify the message of Jonah, to our great benefit, as I will explain.

In the popular imagination, pretty much the only thing we know about Jonah is that he is the guy who gets swallowed by a whale. When I was a kid, I remember I got him mixed up with Pinocchio, who also gets swallowed by a whale, if you recall. In the actual story of Jonah, the whale episode (and it is in fact a giant fish that swallows Jonah, not a whale) is only a prelude to the real climax of the tale.

The book, which reads as a kind of fable, contains only four short chapters. Jonah ben Amittai is a prophet of God in the land of Israel. The story opens as God calls to him and tells him to travel east to the city of Nineveh, the capitol of Babylonia and the greatest city in the world, and tell them to repent of their evil ways. Instead, Jonah flees in the opposite direction. He runs to Jaffa and boards a ship headed west to Tarshish, far across the Great Sea, the Mediterranean. He falls asleep in the hold of the ship, and a great storm arises. The sailors pray to their gods to no avail. Finally Jonah awakes and, understanding that his flight from God has caused this turbulence, insists that the sailors toss him overboard. The sailors, having exhausted every other option to save their ship, beg for forgiveness and reluctantly toss Jonah overboard. The sea immediately calms, and Jonah is swallowed by the fish.

Chapter 2: Jonah is in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights. He finally prays to God and affirms that he will heed his calling and perform his mission. The fish spews Jonah back onto dry land. Chapter 3: God once again calls to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh, and this time Jonah obeys the call. He reaches Nineveh and proclaims that in 40 days Nineveh will fall if the people do not repent of their evil ways. The people of Nineveh, led by their king, believe the message, actively repent, pray for forgiveness, and change their ways. God renounces the punishment, and Nineveh is saved.

Chapter 4: You might think that Jonah is pleased with this outcome, his mission a complete success, millions of lives saved. But no, Jonah is angry with God. He cannot believe that God is going to forgive these people, who deserved to be punished. God says to Jonah, “Why are you so angry?” Jonah quotes the Thirteen Attributes that we chant during these Holy Days, and retorts, “I knew that you are compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment, and that you would forgive these people. That makes me so angry! That is why I fled your call in the first place. Where is justice? I would rather die.” And God says, “Is anger better for you, Jonah? Why should I not have compassion for Nineveh, that great city, and all of its inhabitants, human and beast, who do not know their right from their left, and are simply doing the best that they can?”

And with that question, the story ends.

Judy Klitsner points out that God’s attitude is markedly different in the earlier story of Noah. In that episode, human society has degenerated and polluted the world with Hamas, which means injustice, violence, or lawlessness. “Vayinachem – and God regretted making human beings…and said ‘I will erase humans from the earth, along with all other creatures that I created.’” (Genesis 6:6-7) But God cannot bear to destroy it all, and singles out Noah as worthy of redemption. God instructs Noah to build the ark.

In Jonah, the King of Nineveh declares, “Let all turn back from the hamas of which they are guilty…God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. Vayinachem – and God regretted the evil God had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.” (Jonah 3:7,8,10)

In both tales, the human condition is the same – we fill the world with hamas. We’re a mess. But God’s regrets change. In Noah, God simply regrets creating humanity, and decides to wipe clean God’s creation. In Jonah, God has come to know and trust humanity’s capacity for change, and regrets God’s own harsh judgment against them. Has God changed and grown?

Another literary clue supports this thesis. In Noah, God brings rains for forty days and forty nights; the people do not have a chance to repent. In Jonah, God tells Jonah to proclaim, “In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown!” The forty days of blanket condemnation in Noah become forty days of opportunity in Jonah.

Noah and Jonah also compare. Noah never speaks. He simply accepts God’s decree. He does not attempt to debate with God or challenge God’s judgment. As I have taught in the past, our tradition considers Noah inferior in this regard. When God tells Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues passionately against God’s judgment. Noah is silent, incomplete in his humanity, unable or unwilling to stand up for his fellow humans. Jonah, presented with the opportunity to save others, runs away, and then only begrudgingly fulfills his mission. Both of these prophets are found wanting. But whereas in Noah, God regrets making humanity and asks nothing more of Noah than to follow instructions and build the ark, in Jonah God regrets God’s own harshness, and then tries to educate Jonah to soften himself.

Most interesting to me is Jonah’s name. Jonah in Hebrew is yonah, and means “dove”. The same yonah that Noah sends out from the ark. After the rains have ceased and the waters have begun to recede, that dove returns to Noah with an aleh zayit – a sprig of an olive branch – in its beak. This is the sign that the earth is habitable once more, and that humanity has a second chance. The Book of Jonah – the book of the dove – elevates not the God of strict judgment portrayed at the outset of Noah, but the God of second chances, the olive branch, the symbol of new beginnings. The Book of Jonah portrays a God who believes that humans, despite our weakness, are capable of teshuvah, and deserve the opportunity to attempt sincere change. No wonder our sages chose Jonah to be read on Yom Kippur, the day of second chances.

If God, as it were, can move from harsh judgment to compassion, then can we? Jonah is each of us, sitting on the judgment seat. The Judgment throne is not evil, it is in fact essential to our humanness. A sense of justice, an appreciation for fairness and truth, is an exalted human attribute. But Judaism insists that the world can only be sustained in the tension of polarities. Justice and compassion must exist in a dynamic balance. The rabbis often state that if the world were only based on strict justice, humanity would be condemned. It is compassion that allows us to continue to try to overcome our many flaws. And here, Jonah’s full name becomes very instructive, and a key to understanding his parable. His name is Jonah ben Amittai, Jonah, son of truth. Jonah is a zealot for truth – and the truth that he perceives in human affairs is that we fail miserably to live up to our highest nature. We fail. Why should we not be punished?

Who here has not felt the zealot for truth pacing within, demanding justice, furious for payback? But God says to us, “Jonah, is anger better for you?” Is anger better than compassion? One might say that as the Tanach unfolds, even God has matured, from judgmental of us and disappointed in us, his flawed creation, to compassionate and forgiving. In the Book of Jonah, God wants us to learn that hard-earned lesson, too.

As I mentioned, Yom Kippur’s other name is Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. But a better name for this day might be Yom HaDin v’HaRachamim, the Day of Compassionate Judgment. For, while we certainly must be clear-eyed judges of ourselves on this day, honestly acknowledging how we have missed the mark, our tradition invokes a God of forgiveness, who knows our faults, and still believes in us, and in our ability to grow. The future is not determined; it is always open to new possibility, especially if, like the people of Nineveh, we are open to acknowledging our failures and open to making amends, open to the difficult work of changing ourselves.

The choice is before us: will we be zealots like Jonah, angrily demanding judgment, or will we, like God, move from the Judgment seat to the Mercy seat, and let compassion reign? Will we be like the angry prophet Jonah, or can we perhaps be like the Yonah after which he is named, the dove bearing the olive branch in our grasp, carrying a message of hope, peace, second chances and new beginnings for ourselves and the world?

I wish for us all the possibilities of forgiveness and compassion. So may it be.