Jonah Then and Now – Yom Kippur 5769 / 2010

Yom Kippur D’var Torah 5769

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

“Jonah Then and Now”

Once a year, on Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the Book of Jonah. Jonah is most famous for having spent 3 days in the belly of a giant fish and for being a tremendously unwilling prophet of God. God gives him a message to deliver to the people of the great city of Ninevah. Located on the east bank of the Tigris River, close to the modern day city of Mosul in Northern Iraq, Ninevah was an ancient metropolis within the Assyrian Empire.

God tells Jonah to tell the Ninevites that they must make teshuvah and repent of all their wickedness within 40 days or else the Almighty will destroy the city. Jonah doesn’t want the assignment and he tries to run away from God. He boards a ship at the port of Yaffo. A terrible storm seizes the ship and threatens to break it to pieces. The sailors cast lots to identify who has brought this evil upon them, and the lot falls upon Jonah. Jonah tells them that he is fleeing the Almighty, and he suggests that they throw him in the sea so that they can save themselves. The sailors don’t want to, but they reluctantly toss Jonah overboard.

That’s when God appoints a great fish to swallow Jonah and keep him in its belly. The fish vomits Jonah up onto dry land, and God repeats the assignment to the prophet. This time Jonah does as he’s asked. He enters the city and walks the streets preaching the warning of God. To his shock and dismay, the people are stirred by the message, right on up to the king himself. Word spreads that the city is doomed unless the people transform their ways and do serious repentance. The king puts on sackcloth and ashes, and the people suddenly go through an intensive period of soul searching and rededication to living more righteous lives. God is moved by the peoples’ teshuvah, and decides to spare the great city.

Everyone is relieved that the disaster has been averted, except Jonah. Jonah is angry. He tells God that he knew that, out of compassion, God would probably spare the city, and he is disappointed that there were no fireworks. God then takes Jonah aside and puts him through a trial in order to help him gain a less self-centered perspective on things, but Jonah’s ego seems too big and self-absorbed to take the lesson to heart. The book ends with God questioning Jonah sharply. In so many words, God says, “Would you really want me not to care about these people? Have you no passion for the redemption of humanity?”

I’ve always felt that Jonah is a brilliant book of the bible. Written with memorable images, like the sailors casting lots and the great fish that swallows Jonah, it works well as a teaching story for young children. The moral of the story is bright and clear – God is everywhere, and no matter how badly people have been behaving, they still have the power to make teshuvah and turn things around. And yet, Jonah is also a very sophisticated and complicated story, designed to give adults a lot to think about. It works on a kid level, it works on a grown-up level. It’s the Disney movie of the Hebrew bible.

Let’s look at Jonah on the grown-up level. First of all, we have the unusual figure of Jonah himself. The Hebrew bible has other reluctant prophets – Moses chief among them – but none quite so self-centered and cynical as Jonah. The story challenges us to ask why Jonah is even honored as one of our prophets, since he only does the absolute minimum that God asks of him, and unenthusiastically at that. He lacks compassion for others and doesn’t want to be bothered to help. Once he finally realizes there’s no escaping his assignment, he witnesses something that few of the other Hebrew prophets ever got to see. Success! The people who heard his words heeded them and changed their ways! Most of our other great prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – warned of doom to come, and then went on to witness the failure of the Jews to change their ways and avert catastrophe. But Jonah sees the Ninevites listen and change! Sadly, Jonah is not changed or inspired by what he sees. It leaves you wondering, how does someone get to be that cynical?

Just think about how remarkable – how radical really – this story is. This is a Jewish story, and yet the only Jew in the story is so self-absorbed that he has no humane impulse towards the Ninevites and no desire to play a role in the saving of tens of thousands of lives. The non-Jews in the story are the heroes. They do what the bible’s Jews rarely seem to be able to do when confronted with prophecies of doom – they repent and dedicate themselves to living more decent lives. And these aren’t just any random non-Jews. The people of Ninevah belonged to the empire of Assyria. The Assyrians were bitter enemies of our ancestors. The Assyrians are the ones who destroyed half of biblical Israel and deported 10 of the 12 tribes. Those 10 tribes were lost to us forever. So when the rabbis of long ago decided that we should read the Book of Jonah on our holiest day of the year, they chose to confront us with the image of one of our arch-enemies achieving something that we ourselves seem to struggle to achieve: collective teshuvah. Real social transformation and the improvement of society.

How did the people of Ninevah do it? Why did they listen to Jonah? And how did they transform themselves so spontaneously? The bible tells us that Ninevah had become a very wicked city, so, I have to wonder – could it be that there were people in Ninevah working for positive social transformation for years, people who were frustrated and who lost round after round in their struggle to make Ninevah a more humane and decent society, yet who didn’t give up the fight for justice? Could it be that the reason the social transformation took place so quickly once Jonah arrived and began preaching was because Jonah was just the tipping point? Maybe all Ninevah needed was something to happen to help the forces working for justice and compassion to finally overcome the obstacles they had been facing for years.

I like the Book of Jonah because I think it’s hopeful. It tells us that society can transform – even societies that are perched on the brink of disaster, even nations that have been on the wrong track for years. In fact it even tells us that that transformation can happen suddenly. I think this is a message we need to hear right now. Because we are living in a modern-day Ninevah.

We live in the great empire of our age, just as the citizens of Ninevah did so long ago. And our country has gone far off course, has gone horribly wrong for some time now. We stand collectively on the brink of some potentially terrible consequences. As the economic crisis illustrates, we’ve already begun to reap some of that bitter harvest. Let’s face it. We’ve been collectively ignoring the prophecies of warning we’ve received from many people who’ve tried to help us change course.

We’ve ignored, for example, the fact that the world is running out of oil, and yet we’ve done virtually nothing to prepare for a shift to alternative energy sources, not just to fuel our cars and jets, but to make the millions of products we rely upon every day that are petroleum based. And we’ve dithered while Global Warming begins to present us with the harsh and unforgiving judgments of physics.

We’ve failed to keep our kids safe from a barrage of hard core materials on the internet. We’ve let anti-tax fanaticism turn many of our public schools into abject failures. We’ve let the free market be our golden calf, forgetting that markets are here to serve people, not the other way around.

And we’ve allowed leaders who lied to us about the threat of WMDs in Iraq to maintain a war of aggression that has killed hundreds of thousands and created millions of Iraqi refugees. We failed in this country to mount an anti-war movement creative enough and potent enough to end this war. I count myself in that failure. This is the first time I’ve ever brought up Iraq at Temple Beth Israel. Why did I hold back? Finally, we’ve sat on our hands while many of our Constitutional rights were stripped away – habeas corpus, warrant-less wiretapping, the ban against cruel or unusual punishment. Where was our patriotism when this assault on America’s Torah – the Constitution – was taking place?

We’re in a lot of trouble, and we’ve been forewarned. And yet, just as I think was going on during the years of Ninevah’s downhill slide, many of us have simultaneously been hard at work to bring about social transformation. Just within the Temple Beth Israel community alone, people have been working so hard. There are people in this community who have promoted social awareness about domestic violence, and people who’ve helped fight the genocide in Darfur. There are people here who have written op-eds defending the separation of church and state, who have fought for universal health care, and who have stood up against white supremacist and anti-Semitic hate speech in our town. I know people at TBI who have fought to get a conservative school district to include gays, lesbians, and transgender people in the district’s non-discrimination policy, and succeeded. There are people here who worked for months to help a young man who was formerly part of a neo-Nazi gang complete his process of repudiating that world view by educating himself about the Jewish people and seeking to make amends. There are people here who have sent money to Rabbis for Human Rights so they can continue their work building bridges between Israelis and Palestinians, and there are people here who have worked with CALC, the Community Alliance of Lane County, to oppose the war in Iraq and fight a dozen other good fights. I’ll stop citing examples but I’ve really just scratched the surface of the hard work that people in our little corner of the Eugene-Springfield area do – hard work intended to help bring about social transformation.

As I interpret it, the story of Jonah is telling us that all that hard work counts. I choose to see Jonah’s arrival in Ninevah as a tipping-point event. I think there were thousands of people in Ninevah who knew their society was badly off track, people who put in a mountain of social change work before Jonah’s grumpy arrival tipped the scales towards collective teshuvah. So maybe we will be fortunate, like the people of Ninevah were. Maybe we are approaching a tipping point of social transformation. I can’t tell.

What I can tell is that we are a nation in trouble and we are a badly divided nation. I know that Ninevah was also in deep trouble, but I don’t know if Ninevah faced one of the challenges that we face in trying to redeem this country. I’m talking about the American culture war. The culture war has separated us ideologically in a profound way.

Like our biblical foremother, Rebecca, whose pregnancy with twins was so physically painful that she cried out in anguish, our nation cries out in pain as these two camps battle it out within. In a very real way, two Americas are within us, two competing visions of what this country should be. Most of us have learned to identify with one camp or the other, though there are some who see themselves as independent. But culturally, most of us in this country have come to pattern our lives in a way that binds us to the world view and the culture of either Red or Blue America.

This doesn’t bode well for social transformation. Elections may change which camp is in power for a certain number of years, but at some point, if our country is to realize its true potential, we need social transformation that envelopes our society as a whole. It’s happened here many times before. Abolition. Women’s suffrage. Civil Rights. The rigid political encampments of our society are temporary – that’s what history has taught us. History has also taught us that dedicated, long-term work for social justice pays off in this country, and eventually wholesale social transformation takes place.

This is a political season and it is a time to choose sides and choose candidates. In the words of King Solomon, there is a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces.[1] A time for silence and a time for speaking.[2] The next four weeks may not be the time to focus our energy on seeking out how we can move on beyond Red State – Blue State America. It feels to me more like a time for fighting the good fight as best we each understand it. But, post-election, my hope is that we’ll be able to learn one more lesson from dear Jonah.

My spouse, Melissa Crabbe, is a wonderful reader of biblical texts, and she offered me this take on Jonah. She suggested that one of the reasons Jonah was so reluctant to deliver God’s message of warning and hope to Ninevah was because the Ninevites were his Assyrian enemies, and he didn’t like the thought of his enemy transforming. One of the ways we sometimes define ourselves is via our enemies. We get attached to our enemies being a certain way. This lets our egos bask in the illusion that part of our permanent identity is solidly anchored in our never-ending fight with our enemy.

So when God told Jonah to deliver the warning to the people of Ninevah, Jonah’s ego suddenly felt threatened by the idea that his enemy might change. Who would he be then? God was asking Jonah not to work for the defeat of his enemy, but rather for his enemy’s transformation. And in fact, God understood that if Jonah could only bring himself to take on that task with a whole heart, Jonah also would find himself transformed by the experience of social change.

I think this interpretation of the Jonah story speaks directly to the culture war in American society today. As Americans, we’ve gotten attached to our culture war, and therefore, we’ve gotten attached to having our opposite numbers help us define ourselves. The Book of Jonah shows us that it’s a mistake to get too attached to our opponents being consistently who they appear to be. It reminds us that when we’re working for social change and tikkun olam, we shouldn’t hold up for ourselves the long term goal of defeating our enemies. Rather, we should work for the transformation of our society as a whole for the good, understanding that if we succeed, our opponents will transform in unexpected ways, and we will too.

Transformation means that our opponents will change, perhaps dropping long held rigidities and destructive beliefs. But real social transformation also assumes that in joining us in the effort to transform society, our opponents will also contribute to the shaping of the more enlightened reality that emerges. This will change who we are too.

In the short run, we have an obligation to choose sides during critical political moments. But wisdom counsels us to avoid assuming that we are permanently locked into our current ideological and political battle camps. Wisdom urges us to work for our ideals in a spirit of hope for a collective transformation that helps all of us grow in new ways. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t struggle for the goal of achieving a pro-Civil Rights majority in Congress that would pass the laws he wanted while his opponents stewed but remained unchanged. No, he worked for a compelling, nation-wide change in vision and values that only had meaning if it included the society as a whole. That’s the way.

Hopefully, we’re at a tipping point in this country. Hopefully we will be like the people of Ninevah and stop our own collapse and catastrophe just in the nick of time. Or maybe we’ll be too late. I don’t know.

What if we are too late? Jewish history and tradition have some wisdom to offer on that possibility. If we do face a catastrophe – whether it be an economic depression, an environmental collapse, a devastating war, a loss of constitutional government, or some combination of these – God forbid – if such things do happen in our lifetime, then Judaism tells us that we do our best to survive, and we start over. When the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem 2600 years ago, it looked like it was the end of the road for Judaism. But then there came a time of renewal and rebuilding. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem again several centuries later, Jews weren’t able to go back and rebuild the holy city, so they improvised and reconstructed Judaism so that it became a portable religion of the Diaspora, with synagogues, books, laws, ethics, and new ritual. When the Nazis wiped out millions of us, the survivors regrouped, and we re-established our national sovereignty in modern Israel. Jewish tradition and collective experience have taught us that human beings are incredibly resilient and resourceful, and that the human story can survive and carry on despite enormous disasters. True, we’re not invincible as a species. But we’re not easily dispatched with either.

There is a time for silence and a time to speak.   עֵת לַחֲשׁוֹת וְעֵת לְדַבֵּר This is a time for speaking out and for action. At this moment, we who want a humane and compassionate society need to get into the political fray. It’s difficult because our national politics is rife with rigid thinking, triumphalism, and bullying. It can make it hard to love your neighbor as yourself. May we be helped and supported by the Source of us all to remember that the work of social transformation is most potent and truthful when it seeks out ways for all of society to transform positively together. May God seal us for a year of positive social transformation, a year of renewed dignity and peace here, in Israel, in the Palestinian territories, and throughout the world. Shana Tova.

[1] Ecclesiastes 3:5

[2] Ecclesiastes 3:7

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