Can we talk about rejection for a bit? Everyone’s experienced rejection. From a boyfriend, girlfriend, maybe even a spouse. From a job you really wanted, or one you already had. Maybe we’ve been rejected as a blood donor or organ donor. And for sure our insurance companies rejected us for coverage of procedures or medications.
And by a certain point in our lives, we’ve been at both the receiving and the giving end of rejection.
On Yom Kippur, the entire book of Jonah is going to be chanted. You probably know the story in a general way: Jonah decides not to take God’s message to the city of Nineveh, flees on a ship, get swallowed by some type of fish, utters one of the most moving prayers ever, gets saved, and grudgingly goes to Nineveh. The people of Nineveh do the teshuva / repentance thing. And Jonah is angry. God gives Jonah a plant to protect him from the sun, and then takes it away, to teach Jonah a lesson: Compassion has to be given to all living things.
But now I’d like to reframe the story. The entire book is a chain of rejections:
- Jonah, an experienced navi, prophet, rejects God’s call, and actually rejects his prophetic calling.
- The sailors on the boat that Jonah has fled on reject him, as they realize that only by casting him overboard can they save themselves
- After Jonah’s prayer, the fish spits Jonah onto dry land, actually rejecting Jonah as part of a Godly plan
- And Jonah, once he has completed his mission to Nineveh, is angry that he was successful, a passive aggressive rejection of his prophetic career
Rejection can lead us in a few directions. It can most certainly lead to depression and to surrendering all hope. We’ve all seen it, and probably many if not most of us have experienced it. But it can also open us to new possibilities.
Personal story: Early in my career, I was rejected for membership in a national rabbinic organization. The reason given was the somewhat liberal practice in the synagogue that I was serving at the time. I briefly thought: Oh, fine, when I move to another position, I’ll reapply. But then I realized that the rejection was truly a gift. It allowed me to more fully explore a wide range of options in how to do Jewish, and ultimately totally changed my career and my personal approach to Judaism. I became totally pluralistic in my approach, and have served in positions ever since that were not part of a specific movement in Judaism.
And now back to Jonah. His rejection of prophecy, and God’s rejection of his rejection cause Jonah to finally travel and bring the word to Nineveh. He has the opportunity to reinvent himself and to better understand God and Jonah’s own mission. The rejections of the book can be a curse. But they can also be a gift.
Now for the interesting part: The Book of Jonah ends with a question. The immediate question is: Why would Jonah care about the gourd that he had no role in creating, while expecting God to not have compassion on living beings? And the larger question is: Hey, Jonah. What have we learned here? How will you grow as a result of this series of rejections?
And like many novels and stories, it ends without the answer. When we’ve finished reading the book, we don’t know whether Jonah has learned a lesson. We’re not told whether he turned around his life, whether he became a more compassionate person.
And that’s where we are on Yom Kippur. Over the course of the holidays, we’ve uttered words and engaged in self-reflection to reject behaviors in which we’ve engaged and that we would like to change. We’ve raised all the right questions, and begun to suggest answers.
But, like Jonah, it’s still a question: Have we learned and do we really want to change. [Old joke from my days in social work grad school: How many social workers does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change].
On Yom Kippur the lingering question of the Jonah story is our question: Did we learn from that past year? Are we ready to reject our poor choices?
It is my prayer for everyone that we do learn from what worked and what didn’t in the year past. And that we find the strength to reject that which we need to leave behind, and come into the new year with all of life’s blessings.