Kol Nidre, 5782
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz
Twenty-five hundred years ago a brief, but radical folktale was written down in ancient Israel. A mere four chapters and 1082 words long, the tale would be canonized a few centuries later as one the shortest but most remarkable books of the Hebrew Bible. The story would be especially beloved by children down through the centuries. Yet the sages saw something profound in the tale for people of all ages, and assigned it as the Haftarah reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur. In every synagogue in the world, including our own, we will read The Book of Jonah tomorrow afternoon.
Although I will give a brief introduction to Jonah tomorrow as I always do, I’ve never devoted an actual sermon to the Book, as I am doing now. I have a good reason for doing so⏤two actually.
The first is because the message of this little book has never felt more provocative, and timely, then now. The balance of this sermon will explain why.
The second is that Jonah is the subject of my newest book. It’s a creative retelling of the biblical tale for little kids, with dynamite illustrations. As with my first picture book, Adam’s Animals, I take the credit for the text but none for the illustrations. So a shout-out to James Ray Sanchez, and to my editors for finding such a talented artist. Families at our children’s service tomorrow will be receiving a copy as a gift. All others desiring a copy⏤let me know and you will receive one with a maximum discount. It’s a great children’s book, but enough self-promotion for the moment!
As I will mention tomorrow: Don’t be deceived by this deceptively simple folktale. The Book of Jonah reads like a fable. People do not normally get swallowed up by a whale and live to tell the story. But, by the way, as I was thinking about this sermon over the summer, it actually happened off the coast of Massachusetts. You might have missed it, but on June 11 veteran lobsterman Michael Packard was swallowed whole by a humpback whale who was feeding nearby. He estimates he was in the mouth of the whale 30-40 seconds, when it surfaced and spit him out, which was witnessed by his crewmate Josiah Mayo. “I was completely inside; it was completely black,” Packard said. “I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead.’ All I could think of was my boys—they’re 12 and 15 years old.” Packard suffered soft tissue damage but no broken bones. The last reported account of a whale swallowing a human was 150 years ago.
People do not normally get swallowed up by whales… and bad people do not normally repent overnight and are forgiven. So what motivated the sages to read this somewhat fantastical fable on the Day of Atonement?
What they saw, I suggest, wrapped in a folktale, is a profound statement on the possibility of both individual transformation and communal transformation. Jonah changed, and the people of Nineveh changed. We, too, have it in our power to choose and to change.
Jonah is the reluctant prophet. He hears God call, “Go to Nineveh,” and takes a boat in the opposite direction. He is the classic denier, evader, shirker. He does not want to face himself, never mind the enemy. When the storm arises, he just wants to head below deck and sleep it out. But eventually, Jonah sees the light, answers the call, faces himself, and faces his responsibility. Not all at once, but slowly and painfully he learns his lessons. Why does Jonah hit me so hard this year?
Understand that Nineveh is indeed the enemy. It was the capital of the Assyrian empire, they who viciously attacked Israel and banished the Ten Lost Tribes of the north. No wonder Jonah does not want to go there, to the heart of darkness. But the first message of the Book of Jonah is that even the enemy may change. Even our adversaries may repent. It may not be likely, but it is possible.
Jonah wanted to give up on the people of Nineveh, but God didn’t. The universe of our forgiveness is often narrow and shallow. But the universe of God’s forgiveness is deep and wide. That’s the second message of the Book of Jonah.
We and Jonah⏤we’re the same. Forgiveness does not come easily to us. Jonah wanted to see Nineveh punished. They had done wrong, a lot of wrong, and they deserved to be punished. They had to learn their lesson. Jonah had no problem prophesying their doom. He did have a problem accepting their penitence.
We’re reluctant to let go of grudges, to shed resentments, to step down from “holier than thou” high horses. We often posit, without admitting it, that our forgiveness is conditional. You want me to forgive you… you owe me an apology. You want me to forgive you… you need to make a reparation. You want me to forgive you… promise you will never do that bad thing again.
Make no mistake about it, there is nothing wrong about asking for an apology, for a promise, for an act of amends. In fact, our tradition teaches the three Rs of true repentance: remorse, restitution, resolve. That is the obligation of the wrongdoer.
But if we are always going to wait for the sinner to repent; if we are always going to withhold repentance until the wrong has been righted… the world is not going to change as we would like. If we are always going to stand on ceremony, we are going to miss precious moments with family and community. If we are always going to wait until someone says: “You know, I was wrong and you were right,” “You know, I have made amends,” “You know, I promise never to do it again,” the world is going to pass us by.
If you are like me, you may still be waiting for some apologies from family members. You might still be waiting for some amends from friends who hurt you, colleagues at work who embarrassed you, or acquaintances who insulted you (or who voted for the wrong candidate!)
A long time ago, when I was a rabbinical student, I remember a marriage counselor telling the class that there comes a time in every marriage when you have to say to yourself: do I want to be right or be married? In a similar fashion we need to ask ourselves: do I want to insist that I am right or stay connected to my child, or sibling or colleague or countryman?
How about if we try a radically different tack? Instead of waiting for an apology, find something to apologize for ourselves? Instead of waiting for amends, take the initiative to offer our own. Instead of waiting for a promise, make a resolution we can keep.
I’m not saying this is easy. Jonah wanted to see the guilty punished. He wanted to see them sweat then repent. He had trouble with God’s compassion. We’re the same way. For especially heinous crimes there does need to be process of redemption that takes time. But for the majority of slights, affronts, insensitivities and generally boorish behavior…
Can we seize the initiative and err on the side of forgiveness?
Can we let it be and let it go?
Can we agree that a leap of compassion is greater than remaining stuck in endless stalemates and standoffs?
The Book of Jonah is also about our propensity to procrastinate. We’re on that boat with Jonah in the opposite direction. We’re fleeing the calling to be our highest selves. The bigger the challenge the more we evade it.
We descend down, down, down and bury ourselves in the deepest hold of the ship. We sleep, or feign sleep, when it should be all-hands-on-deck. We hide behind the claim of being non-confrontational. To the other person it sure feels like we are being non-communicative. When the sailors cast lots to learn who has caused such a storm, and the lot falls on Jonah, they ask him: Where have you come from? (1:8)
Its an echo of the very first question of God to Adam when he was also running away: Where are you? (Gen.3:9)
It’s the question we need to ask ourselves, when we take stock of where we are on the Atonement Day.
What are we ignoring and evading? What are we running away from; hiding from?
Even when Jonah faced up to his calling; even when he accepted his mission and went to Nineveh, he still had to learn that lesson of compassion. The Book of Jonah ends in a strange way. Jonah goes off to a hilltop overlooking Nineveh to basically sulk. He sits under a tree for some shade from the burning sun. God makes the leaves wither.
Jonah is already emotionally distraught and had gone so far as to pray to God, “Take my life, for I would rather die than live.” To which God has replied, “Are you that deeply grieved?” In other words: are you that upset that I have forgiven the Ninevites, after they repented? You are saying that I was wrong to do the right?
Now Jonah is both emotionally and physically strung out. He becomes faint, and again he begs for death, saying, “I would rather die than live.” And again God asks Jonah: Are you so deeply grieved…about the plant over your head? “Yes,” Jonah repeats, “so deeply that I want to die”.
And then comes the final words of the book and the final lesson to Jonah. God says, “You care so much about a tree… and I should not care about a whole city? Nineveh, this great city of more than a hundred and twenty thousand souls?
The question is left dangling in the air as the book ends.
And we are left dangling in the air as one year ends and the next one begins.
To forgive, or not to forgive, that is the question.