Understanding the story of Jonah

Story’s meaning can change from year to year

Dear Families,
I am always amazed at how each holiday, rabbis and Jewish educators come up with new things to talk and write about. Yet, sometimes I want to hear something again that perhaps I have heard before. 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 get you going this Yom Kippur:
• Jonah is a “reluctant prophet.” He didn’t want to do what God 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 God, but adults aren’t so sure. What was the challenge given to Jonah? Why did he run away? Before you try to give answers, ask more questions. Our questions help us delve deeper. Think about each part of the story: For example, why a whale (or some say a big fish)? How did the sailors feel, and why? How was Jonah sleeping during a storm? Each question leads to more thinking.
• In an eJewishphilantropy.com post dated September 2012, Maya Bernstein wrote 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? These questions are suggested for children but they certainly can help adults think, as well.
• Rabbi Ed Feinstein also writes on eJewishphilantropy.com, and covers the same issue. Unlike every other prophetic book, the book of Jonah has no particular time or place. He lives in all generations, because the temptation to separate, divide and withdraw is always present. So, each year, in the middle of Yom Kippur, at the very moment of deepest self-absorption, when the stomach groans, the head aches and the feet are tired, we revisit the prophet in the belly of the fish to learn again that for the Jew, reaching to the soul within us, and reaching to the world beyond us, are the ways we reach the God, who cares for us all.
So, this year, take the time to really read Jonah. Ask yourself, what does the story mean to you? Find the message that touches you, As you prepare for Yom Kippur.
Shalom…from the Shabbat Lady,
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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