This past week at the Goldberg Early Childhood Center, I told the children all about Jonah plus I gathered staff (through Zoom, of course) for learning about the book in much more detail. What will the children remember? We never know but one special class asks me every time they see me, “Show us your socks!” Yes, I have an enormous sock collection that requires thought each day on what to wear. This day I had to choose between my “whale socks” and a much more important message about a special prophet today, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I wore my “RBG Socks” and talked about her as an important person who, like Jonah, often had to stand up and say the hard things people needed to hear. I told them that RBG wasn’t like Jonah because Jonah ran away from warning the people. We talked about not being afraid to take responsibility and so much more.
For my conversation with our J staff, we read the entire Book of Jonah, which is very short and questioned throughout. 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.) If you read Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, think again about what Jonah’s actions tell us for today. I reached back to an article by Rabbi Ed Feinstein from 2012 for these words:
By this command [to go to Nineveh], 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?
As we celebrate throughout this holiday time, with all the joy in the coming days, we must remember and pledge to do all we can to make the world a better place. Jonah was concerned about himself and his people but we are all together in this world. Working with children and our staff, we ask, “What does making the world a better place look like? What can I do?” The answer is different for children of different ages and for each of us at different points in our lives, but there is always something we can do. The Book of Jonah ends with God asking Jonah a question — but there is no answer from Jonah. So what is your answer? What will you do in this coming year?
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.