A View from the Pew: What does Jonah have to teach us this year?
5777 began with America in upheaval and turmoil caused by the wild winds of the political forces of Democrats and Republicans. The year comes to an end with the hurricane force winds and rain of storms named Harvey and Irina. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the time Judaism sets aside for us to in essence do an accounting of our personal and communal assets and liabilities. It’s the season for expressing gratitude. It is also a time that Judaism sets aside for honestly assessing where we have fallen short, both individually and communally.
In my personal preparation for these Yamim Noraim, these awe filled and awesome days through which our tradition directs us as we begin a new year, I find myself this year wrestling with the meaning of reading the book of Jonah as the climactic scriptural text of these holiest of days. The classic understanding of the choice of Jonah as the Haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon is that it describes the community of Nineveh responding affirmatively to the Prophet’s call and doing Teshuva. The Biblical Jews who first heard this story would have assuredly been shocked. Nineveh, after all, was capital of Assyria, the empire that had destroyed and deported the Ten Northern tribes of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E.
However, what really challenges me as I once again wrestle with this problematic story, is not Nineveh’s repentance, but rather, the prophet’s response. Jonah successfully delivers God’s message to the people of Nineveh, but never gets it himself. What does Jonah’s frustration and anger say about him? Why is he consumed with what people will think about his ability to predict the future, rather than rejoicing in the salvation of a city full of people? More importantly, what does the story teach us?
In a recently published book entitled, Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet, Erica Brown, of George Washington University, “Jonah is, in many ways, every man and woman who struggles with inadequacy, who confronts the darkness within and without…. Jonah is every person who has wrestled with insecurity, celebrates second chances and then realizes the path out is never linear. Jonah is the only Biblical Book that ends with a question, because his life became a question: is life worth it? Can we find meaning? Can we find Peace? “
This past year of political turmoil and natural disasters has led me to ask myself, am I, are We, The People of the first quarter of the 21st century, all Jonah-like in our choosing to run away from our communal responsibilities? Tarshish, which many Biblical scholars believe refers to Tartessos, was an ancient city on the Atlantic coast of what is today Spain. It is as far away from Nineveh, which is today the Iraqi city of Mosul, as one can imagine. I see the story, this year, as a metaphor for how so many of our leaders in America, in Israel and around the world, continually refuse to either take responsibility for their actions and inactions and how voters in Democratic societies who have the power to choose our leaders, too often abdicate that right and then blame others for the consequences of their passivity. For example, I ask myself this Rosh Hashanah, why did the percentage of Americans in 2016 and Israelis in 2015, who voted in elections decrease, while the frustration with the leaders chosen in those elections increase? Have we created a political climate change across Democracies world-wide, where only ego centric Jonah-like people will even choose to enter politics? Have you and I become so consumed with how others will view “me” and how situations and government decisions will affect “me”, rather than being concerned with the good of the community?
The challenge of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is choosing to changing direction rather than running away from responsibility. When I read of Nineveh’s repentance, I choose to hear the message of Micah, rather than Jonah. What God wants of you and me in 5778 is: “to act justly love mercy and walk humbly with God”
One final thought I have about Jonah, The High Holy Days and our contemporary world is that the God of the Book of Jonah, is without question, Adon Olam, a Universal God, not just the God of Israel. This God is both Just and merciful. One of the great lessons that Judaism gave to the world is that the One God is the ultimate source of Creation and Revelation. The World both in terms of human society and of planet earth, are the creation of God and subject to Divine law. In the opening chapters of Genesis, the Biblical narrative teaches us over and over that humanity is God’s partner in the on- going creation of the world. Viewed through the lens of Genesis I believe that the political turmoil and natural disasters which confront the world today are challenging us to be the antithesis of Jonah, by committing ourselves to be full partners with God in the task of Tikun Olam in 5778. After all, human apathy and self-centeredness are contributing factors to the storms we face, respectively in the world of human society and in the world of nature. The World, both in terms of planet Earth and in terms of Human Society, are in desperate need of repair. As Rabbi Tarfon taught in chapter two of Mishna Avot some 1800 years ago: “The Day is short and there is much work to be done… It is not up to you to finish the work of redemption but neither are you free from to avoid it”
With Micah and Tarfon as our guides may each of us overcome the Jonah-like reluctance to run away, rather than run toward, the responsibility to make our personal lives and our world even just a little better, in the year ahead.