A whale of Yom Kippur lesson for us

One of the highlights of the Yom Kippur experience is the reading of Jonah, a book containing profound lessons for the holiest day of the year. God calls upon Jonah to implore the people of the city of Ninveh to repent. Jonah refuses. He believes he can escape God by sailing out to sea. The central issue of the book is why the prophet should have found that mission so objectionable.

Ninveh was the capital city of Assyria and Assyria, then the enemy of Israel. Assyria defeated the 10 tribes and banished them into exile in the 8th century BCE. Jonah cannot understand why God is interested in Assyria’s repentance. Hence Jonah seeks to escape God by boarding a ship bound for Tarshish.

A storm develops at sea, and a drawing of lots makes it clear that Jonah is responsible for the storm (1:4-7). It is fascinating to note that water is both the major symbol of the Book of Jonah as well as the major symbol of the Tishrei period of festivals.

Water is both the symbol of life as well as of destruction. The Bible opens “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2), and no life can grow without the presence of water. At the same time, the Bible tells us immediately prior to its description of the life-giving waters that “there was darkness on the face of the tehom” — usually translated as the depth of the cavernous waters of the netherworld. It was, the waters of the flood that threatened to destroy the world.

The Mishna tells us that Sukkot is when God judges our merit for the life-giving rain which enables fruit and vegetation to provide sustenance for the coming year (Rosh Hashanah 1:2). Rain is therefore a symbol of God’s gracious bounty, His purification of His children on Yom Kippur.

As the prophet Ezekiel says in words that we repeat during the Yom Kippur penitential prayers, “And I shall sprinkle upon you the waters of purification and you shall become pure” (36:25). Hence Shemini Atzeret, in which we thank God for rain, has a double meaning: God’s waters bring physical sustenance as well as spiritual purity, the combination of the two brings redemption.

It goes one step deeper. We begin giving God praise as the One Who “causes the winds to blow and the rains to flow” on Shemini Atzeret, and these words of praise are in the Amidah blessing about God, “Who causes the dead to live again.” God’s purifying waters can revive us from death and bring us eternal life.

Jonah is cast overboard into the raging waters. He has challenged God and is worthy of death. God, however, in His infinite compassion, provides a whale, a creature of the water, to follow Jonah and bring him back to life. In Jonah’s own words, “I called, in my distress, to God and He answered me. From the belly of the grave I cried out. You heard my voice. You cast me into the depth of the heart of the sea … your waves passed over me… yet You lifted my life from the pit O Lord my God.” (2:3-7).

God is trying to teach the lesson that Assyria, which has been so evil and destructive, can and must make a complete turnaround if the world is to be redeemed. And God is also teaching that He is willing to overlook the evil Assyria has committed if she will indeed repent.

Jonah refuses to accept this. He is the son of Amitai, a name derived from emet, truth. Truth demands that evil never be overlooked; evil must be punished.

This is precisely how Jonah explains why he refused God’s mission: “… for this reason I hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil” (Jonah 4:2). This is not the God in whom I want to believe, the God who described Himself as being “abundant in lovingkindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6).

But Jonah has forgotten that his first name means dove, and that just as the dove was saved from the flood so was he undeservedly saved from the raging waters. God teaches the vital lesson that anyone who truly repents from his sins can benefit from God’s life-giving purity. May we all merit to earn that gift this Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Shalom Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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