The story of the prophet Jonah that we customarily read on Yom Kippur captures the essence of the holiday, that we need to put ourselves aside and act for the benefit of others.
The Story of Jonah the Prophet – In A Nutshell
The story of the prophet Jonah begins with a mission he receives from God: to warn the people of Nineveh that they need to repent their evil ways, to change their relations from unfounded hatred to love of others.
However, Jonah is displeased with this mission. He escapes it by boarding a ship and sailing overseas. His escape sets off a storm. When the ship’s sailors realize that Jonah is the cause of the storm, they throw him overboard. In the sea, Jonah gets swallowed by a big fish. He spends three days and three nights in the fish’s belly. Afterwards he is ejected to land, and heads to Nineveh.The story of the prophet Jonah begins with a mission he receives from God: to warn the people of Nineveh that they need to repent their evil ways, to change their relations from unfounded hatred to love of others.
How the Story of Jonah Relates to the Jewish People
Just like Jonah, we—the Jewish people—have an unavoidable role. It is the same role today as it was in time of ancient Babylon, when Abraham united us as a nation on the basis of “love your friend as yourself”: to establish our unity such that it would serve as an example for humanity, i.e. to be a “light for the nations.”
“Israel is the first and foremost to receive all the abundance, and from them it is dispensed to all the worlds. For this reason they are called Israel, meaning ‘Li-Rosh’ (‘I am the head’), namely that they are in the discernment of Rosh (head), to receive the blessing first, and after them the rest of the world.”
– Be’er Mayim Chaim, Parashat Teruma, Chapter 25.
Historically, we have experienced how this interplay between us and the rest of the world operates: when we were united, both we and the world thrived. However, when our relations deteriorate into unfounded hatred, we experience blows as many forms of anti-Semitism, and the world experiences decline as many forms of crisis.
As the clock ticks on, and we continually escape the realization of our role, we gradually reach a state where re-establishing our positive connection seems impossible. Moreover, we become repulsed by the very mention that our role is to be “a light for the nations.”
Jews turn against each other. Jewish self hatred or Jewish anti-Semitism becomes rampant as divides between factions of secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox, pro-Israel and anti-Israel Jews become markedly distinct. We ourselves let the gray cloud of unfounded hatred descend upon us, and set the scene for a great big storm.
The sailors in the story change each time. They’ve taken forms of the Nazis during the Holocaust, the Russians and Eastern Europeans during the Pogroms, the Catholic Spanish during the Spanish Inquisition, to name a few.
The Relevance of the Jonah Story for Jews and Humanity Today
In the last few years, there has been a sharp rise in anti-Semitic crimes and threats, together with a sharp rise with many other problems in the world, terrorism, natural disasters, depression, suicide, social division and drug abuse, to name a few. The more humanity experiences crises and problems, the more their fingers point at the Jews as the source of their problems.
The Jonah story describes the roots of anti-Semitism.
Jonah’s escape from the mission he was granted describes the Jewish people’s escape from their role to unite above their divisions and exemplify that unity for humanity.
The sailors’ realization of Jonah as the cause of the storm, and the throwing of Jonah overboard today describes the rise of the Jews being blamed for all kinds of problems people are experiencing.
The time will come when we’ll have to be thrown overboard, and enter into the big fish, i.e. undergo a serious examination of what does it mean to be Jewish? Why do so many people hate us? Also, how can we improve our situation both for ourselves and the world?
The question is only how much suffering will we need to experience until we reach that self examination: Is the current amount of anti-Semitism enough to spur us to undergo this self-scrutiny? Or, will we continue escaping our mission, and will that suffering need to take on proportions at scales of world wars and holocausts, which we’ve seen before, where only a small amount of us would be left again to undergo that examination and agree to our role?
Only when we agree to accept our role—to “love your friend as yourself” and to be “a light for the nations”—will we and the world experience a new tendency toward peace, harmony and happiness, i.e. will the fish bring us to the safe shore, to Nineveh.
“Since we were ruined by unfounded hatred, and the world was ruined with us, we will be rebuilt by unfounded love, and the world will be rebuilt with us.”
– Rav Avraham Itzhak HaCohen Kook, Orot Kodesh (Sacred Lights), Vol. 3
The Meaning of Yom Kippur in Relation to the Jonah Story
Yom Kippur is a significant point in our development where we engage in deep introspection: How have we been thinking and acting until today in relation to our role—to “love your friend as yourself” and to be “a light for the nations”?
Are we doing what we need to do in order to unite above our differences? We might be very successful in all kinds of fields, like science, technology, medicine, high tech and startups, arts and culture, and we might be providing a lot of material benefit to the world through these fields, but are we trying to overcome the divisions between us?
How can we better realize our role as a Jewish people, and become the example that humanity needs from us?
Yom Kippur is an opportunity for us to realize our role, to pioneer the unity of humanity. This is the way to calm down the increasing global turbulence and explosions setting off more and more around the world, and a canopy of peace, harmony and happiness will cover us (i.e. the Sukkah).
“The people of Israel must be the first nation to assume the international altruism, and be a role model of the good and beauty contained in this form of governance.”
– Rav Yehuda Ashlag (Baal HaSulam), “The Writings of the Last Generation”
With optimism, despite our differences, I do see that we have the potential to unite: we’ve always been attracted to equality, we’re a people who have never held slaves, we’re drawn to knowledge and wisdom more than to dividing ideologies, and even the religious among us conduct our prayers not alone, but in tens (the Minyan). Also, the word for our prayer and study houses, synagogues, “Beit Knesset” means “house of assembly” or “connection.” Unity is embedded into the foundation of our people, and I hope that we will use the time for self-examination on Yom Kippur to scrutinize how we can extract our unity from its potential and put it into practice.
May all the Jewish people be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.