Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Yom Kippur Sermon – Jonah

Jonah in Spark Notes format…

Now the word of the L-RD came to Jonah, the son of Amittai, saying, (Jonah 1:1) “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the L-RD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So, he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the L-RD. (Jonah 1:3) [Upon questioning Jonah why he was fleeing,] “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land.” (Jonah 1:9). So, they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. (Jonah 1:15) Then the men feared the L-RD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. (Jonah 1:16) And the L‑RD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17) And the L-RD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 2:10) Then the word of the L-RD came to Jonah the second time, saying, (Jonah 3:1) “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2). So, Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the L-RD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:3) And the people of Nineveh believed G-d. (Jonah 3:4). They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. (Jonah 3:5)

Were the men who were with Jonah on the boat justified to abandon him at sea? This is a deeply troubling theological, ethical and moral question the text presents in the first few verses. However, the question is answered in this haftarah portion. The answer addresses a theme that is particularly important to Yom Kippur: sin and justice. When the sailors delivered Jonah into the sea, they were effectively delivering him to G-d. G-d, being the ultimate and eternal authority, was responsible for Jonah’s judgement. The question that arises here, however, is when is it acceptable to deliver a person over to the authorities?

Biblical lawhas struggled from the beginning with this concept. As early as the Roman period, there have been indications that biblical law would have conflicted with the civil law outside of Israel. This direct historical contradiction between biblical law and civil law, specifically in terms of turning a person over to the authorities, can be found in Deut. 23: 16-17. These verses state: “Do not deliver to his master a slave who has escaped from his master. He shall dwell in your midst with you, in the place he shall choose in one of your gates, where it is good for him; you shall not oppress him” (Deut. 23:16-17). Roman or Egyptian law would consider the slave as property and therefore the slave’s protection as theft. Abiding by one law and not the other will lead to infractions in one world or the other.

Post-Talmudic authors continued to struggle with this concept in a world outside of Judaism. Under the duress of the Galut, exiled rabbinical authorities were hesitant to forfeit anyone over to state authorities. The Shulchan Aruch (ChM 388) mentions that “it is prohibited to deliver a Jew, both his person and his property into the hands of non-Jews even if he was wicked and a criminal, and even if (the criminal) was harassing him” (sec. 9). It also mentions, however, that “it is permitted to deliver one who harassesthe community and causes them to suffer into the hands of non-Jews in order to beat, imprison, or fine him, but not one who causes an individual to suffer” (sec. 12).

This is all very practical for the Middle Ages, but were Jonah’s circumstances different? Or better yet, us here today? Jonah was not breaking any laws by fleeing into the sea. He was not like the people of Nineveh. However, he was escaping his moral and ethical responsibilities. He was tasked with correcting a sinful people, and his decision to flee to the sea had significant implications for the fate of the people of Nineveh. The men on the boat were not Jewish and Torah law did not apply to them, so G-d did not intervene to prevent their judicious decision to abandon Jonah at sea. Furthermore, had the seamen protected Jonah, their fates would likely have spelled disaster.

Delivering a criminal, specifically a Jew who endangers the community, to authorities is a rabbinical law rooted in biblical tradition. But how does that affect us today? What is the practical application of this material? We are Jews. We must embrace our idenity. We cannot escape it. Jonah’s words, “I am a Hebrew,” from Jonah 1:9 should echo within all of us. His words should reverberate in our souls. Our identities as Jews is something we cannot escape. We have a responsibility toward one another. Jonah could not escape himself by fleeing into the sea Much like Jonah, many of us find ourselves here today at Yom Kippur for the same reason Jonah found himself in the belly of a fish. What does it mean to be a Jew? A Hebrew? Our identities as Jews cannot ever eclipse our devotion to justice. Our biblical traditions and the traditions passed down to us from sages like the Bach and Rama and from sources like the Shulchan Aruch echo this call. It is a call to justice, a call against sins. It is a call that sometimes puts us at odds with the laws of the land and with the people of the nation.

Sins often affect those closest around us. Black-on-black crime, blue collar crimes, and gang violence impact the communities around them. According to the FBI’s annual Crime in the United States reports, nearly 90% of homicides are intraracial.[1]A careful review of the history and rise of ethnic organized crime syndicates reveals that the originating communities—Italian, Russian, Jewish, Irish or African American—all prey upon their own communities the hardest. That being said, it should come as no surprise when news outlets report people such as Sholom Rubuskin or Bernard Madoff exploiting their own community—us, the Jews.

What are we called to do? Bernard Madoff and Sholom Rubaskin represent two extremes of how our community can react to Jews who have committed sins. On one hand, Bernard Madoff has been humiliated in the public sphere of the Jewish world. His son committed suicide, and his family abandoned him. On the other, Sholom Rubaskin is revered by many Jews as a sort of hero. Responsible for 86 counts of financial fraud, he was sentenced to 27 years in jail. In 2017, to the surprise of many, his sentence was commuted to time served. Rubaskin’s legal troubles also included citations against him for violations of food safety codes, animal welfare, and child labor. His crimes made many in the Jewish community question the Orthodox rabbuniut’s efficacyin the states (and Israel) over the heschshering process. It caused a fracture in the Orthodox world that has yet to be repaired. It also influenced many Jews to either search for a more conscious agency that properly heschshered foods or to totally lose faith in these organizations and effectively become vegetarian. Rubaskin was welcomed back into his community upon his release from prison with open arms. Parades were held for him to welcome him home. Thank you letters were written by the hundreds to the president of the United States. Rubaskin now travels between Israel and the United States, giving lectures, writing books and earning a steady stream of income from exploiting himself and his story.

While I hesitate to castigate the public for its fury, outrage and hatred toward Bernard Madoff, we must not commemorate someone like Sholom Rubanskin. He damaged the faith many Jews have in Judaism. He parades himself as a tzadok but is perpetuating a story of hillul hashem. He exploited workers, children, animals, a financial system but mostly the faith many people had in the Jewish people and Judaism.

Jonah’s story should be a reminder to us of the pitfalls of ethical choices made not only by Rubaskin and Madoff but by all of us here today. The sad truth is, many of us could fall into the trap of making poor ethical decisions. In this past year, all of us have made poor choices. . Jonah’s story should be told every Yom Kippur as a reminder that we cannot escape our identities as Jews. We cannot escape the call within ourselvesto justice, to teruah, or of justice. This call will bring us face to face with ourselves, our community and our city. And ultimately, this call is unavoidable, whether in a court of law or in the court of G-d.


About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native of Israeli-American nationality, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both a M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European anti-semitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience from teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading Shabbat and Holiday services at Greenwood House in Trenton, New Jersey, and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently, in Cincinnati, he leads services for Beth Boruk, in Richmount, IN and teaches at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.