On Yom Kippur afternoon we read the book of Jonah. It might seem obvious that the rabbis chose this book for the Day of Atonement because it talks of the possibility of forgiveness and repentance, even for our enemies. But perhaps the message is something else, something more alarming?
When Jonah is swallowed by the big fish, the text says that the waters covered him. “The waters closed over me. The deep (tehom) engulfed me. Weeds twined around my head” (Jonah 2:6). We are immediately reminded of an earlier use of the word, tehom, in the book of Genesis. “When God began to create the heaven and the earth, the earth was without form and void, darkness was on the face of the deep (tehom)” (Genesis 1:1). In other words, what proceeds creation is tehom, chaos. For Jonah to finally realize his prophetic call to forgive, he must first experience chaos. Only then can he become a new creation and preach to the Ninevites the need for repentance.
The author and educator, Parker Palmer suggests that “even what has been created needs to be returned to chaos from time to time so that it can be recognized.” Might the reading of the book of Jonah on the holiest day of the year serve as a warning to us?
As we look around the globe, we witness the chaos of environmental disaster, raging floods, uncontrollable fires, devastating hurricanes that kill thousands. No sooner we turn from these global catastrophes, we witness also imminent threats to democracy around the world. Autocracy is on the rise and the balance of governmental power precariously teeters on collapse. We may not be in the belly of a big fish, but the “tehom,” the deep, engulfs us, even as the waters covered Jonah.
Is the threat of chaos severe enough to awaken us to the need for change, even as the days and nights of quarantine in the big fish finally changed Jonah? The Midrash imagines that Jonah could see through the eyes of the fish as through windows. He was taken on a journey through the Sea of Reeds and the foundations of the earth, until he stood at the sacred place of the Temple, and there he prayed. Only then did Jonah realize his purpose.
Finally, Jonah asks the Ninevites to repent, and they listen. God forgives and the destruction of Nineveh is averted. You might imagine that Jonah would be happy, or at least, satisfied with the success of his mission. Yet, he regrets that his enemies have not been punished. He wanted a different result. But God is pleased.
On this Yom Kippur will we acknowledge the chaos that requires our attention in our personal lives, within our countries, and around the globe? Will we find a way to repentance and repair? Will we accept an imperfect result? The service of Neilah reminds us, the gates of change are closing. It is time to enter the gates.