I spent the year with a broken man. He was supposed to do great things, but he ran as far away from greatness as he could. He tried to escape the call to leadership by hiding. Mundane tasks became difficult for him. Everything in his world seemed large and overwhelming while he became smaller, more humble, less secure, less able to cope. He lacked any instinct for self-preservation and even suggested to others that they rid the world of him forever. His absence would only calm the storm they were facing in their own lives.
Just as he hit rock bottom, as he almost died, he got a second chance. With enthusiasm, he embraced new beginnings and decided to re-commit to the life he was supposed to have as a public servant. He was immensely successful, but the old demons kept creeping back. His anger at God surfaced. His belief in himself waned. He held on desperately to a small semblance of happiness, and when that was taken from him, he again lacked all desire to live. I have no idea what happened to this man.
I spent the year with a broken man. His name is Jonah.
Jonah the prophet is, in many ways, every man and every woman who struggles with inadequacy, who confronts the darkness within and without, who lacks the energy to fight it and succumbs to the pain, willing to give it all up to find the serenity of non-existence. Jonah is every person who has wrestled with insecurity, celebrates second chances and then realizes that the path out is never linear. There is descent, ascent and then descent again. Jonah is the only biblical book to end with a question because his life became a question: Is life worth it? Can we find meaning? Can we find peace?
I spent the year with a broken man. Jonah lept from the pages as my teacher. He reminded me that the Hebrew month of Elul leading up to our Days of Awe inspires an uncomfortable self-confrontation if it is to be a season of transformation. We read Jonah’s book as Yom Kippur is coming to a close because we, too, must live with his questions. We are tired and hungry, existentially spent and wondering who we will be the day after the fast. It is a vulnerable, transitional time when whatever we will have accomplished with prayer and introspection will be tested in real time. We will end the day, as the book ends, with a question. Reinvention always begins with a question.
Musician Dave Rudbarg beautifully describes this process:
“The journey of reinvention is one of raw emotions / Emerging from dormancy / Surprising as a paper cut / Overwhelming as a hailstorm /
One part vulnerability / One part rage / One part surrender / Uncomfortable / Unfamiliar / Unsure / Fearful / Alone / Damaged / Broken / And finding a new Self / Slowly / Different / Healing / Humble / Present / Open/ Longing / Free.”
We find freedom only after going through that long tunnel of darkness as damaged goods. The discomfort in the tunnel is so powerful that we want to turn around. Like Jonah, we run away. It takes a long time to realize that we cannot forever be fugitives from ourselves. Wherever we go, whatever we’re running from follows us until we have the courage to face it and stare it down.
One of the sages of the Talmud interprets the biblical verse, “The offerings of God are a broken spirit” (Psalms 51:19), to mean that “one whose spirit is humble … is as though he sacrificed all the offerings … and, moreover, his prayer is not rejected.” We offered sacrifices to put our emotions — guilt, thanksgiving, shame, joy — on an altar in a tangible way. We wanted those emotions to gain validation and acceptance so we gave them as a gift. In so doing, we had to arrive at a place where we recognized those emotions in ourselves.
But when we are broken, the Talmud suggests, we actually become the sacrifice we offer up. A sacrifice is external to ourselves, a symbolic representation of something inside. A thing broken would appear to make a poor gift, an embarrassment, but in the universe of the spirit, it is one of the only authentic gifts. We will not know true happiness without its underbelly of defeat.
The popular Christian revivalist, Vance Havner, once observed the utility of brokenness: “God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength.” It’s too easy to focus on the brokenness of the world as the root of rupture and fragmentation. The Book of Jonah asks us to change our gaze to what lurks within, to leverage our own brokenness for another slim chance at redemption.
Erica Brown, whose column appears the first week of the month, runs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University. Her new book is “Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet” (Koren/OU).