There are so many wonderful stories that we read every year but I must say that for Yom Kippur, nothing beats the story of Jonah. At the Goldberg Early Childhood Center, I have whales galore and a wonderful song that we end up singing all year, but it is truly the story that resonates. Sometimes we weren’t ready for a thought or idea but the next time it is presented, it reaches us. That is the amazing joy of Torah study — every time we read the same words, yet we hear them differently. We forget that, in truth, we are different at different stages in our lives. The story of Jonah is like that; we read it every year at the afternoon service on Yom Kippur. What are the messages that we get from this story and how can we find something new each year? Here are a few thoughts to keep you thinking about the message of Jonah:
Jonah is a “reluctant prophet” — he didn’t want to do what G-d asked him to do. We all struggle with taking responsibility at times. Does it matter who gives you the task? Kids will say that you can’t run away from G-d but adults aren’t so sure. What was the challenge given to Jonah? Why did he run away? What is it that we run away from? Each of us has a different answer!
In a September 2012 post on eJewishphilanthropy.com, Maya Bernstein writes these questions: Has anyone recently asked something of you that felt overwhelming and made you want to run away? What does it feel like when someone expects something of you and you aren’t sure you can do it?
Rabbi Ed Feinstein also wrote on eJewishphilan
thropy.com: By this command [to go to Ninevah], God is asking Jonah to confront the humanity of the enemy and to discover that the divide that separates him from his enemy can be healed. Jonah had made a career preaching the hard choice between particularism and universalism. Now, suddenly, the prophet of either/or is confronted by the God of both/and. God is Melech ha-Olam, Sovereign of All, the God of global concern. In God, there is no such thing as care for our own apart from concern for the other, because in God there is no such thing as the other. Global responsibility is the meaning and purpose of Jewish particularism, just as particularism is the indispensable foundation of global concern…. This is the question of the book — the question of all time: How can you be sleeping? How can you rest in oblivious serenity when the tempest rages about you?
This year my reading is “The Book of Jonah — a Social Justice Commentary” by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz. The wonderful thing about commentary is that you get a different perspective. The more we learn from others (whether we agree or not), the more we will grow.
What does the story mean to you? Even when Yom Kippur is over, you can still go back and read about Jonah. (Perhaps Yom Kippur afternoon is not the best time for this story — it is a hard time to concentrate.) Find the message that touches you this new year. My hope is always to make us look at what we can learn today about ancient texts rather than assume they have nothing to tell us. (“There is nothing new under the sun” — but we’ll come back to that line in Ecclesiastes at Sukkot.)
Laura Seymour is Jewish experiential learning director and camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.