January 28, 2020

High Holy Day Table for Five: Yom Kippur

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

And the Lord appointed a huge fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. –From the Yom Kippur haftorah,
Jonah 2:1

Nina Litvak

Jonah is a prophet, a holy man of great spiritual elevation. When he tries to run from God, this elevated man is brought low, thrust into the innards of a fish in the depths of the sea. Jonah is completely trapped by oppressive physicality: cold blubbery flesh, dank and smelly air, scary sounds. But he elevates himself, even in this low place, by praying and expressing gratitude to God. Within physical degradation, Jonah finds spiritual elevation. 

The Vilna Gaon teaches that we are all Jonah. We are all pure spiritual souls inhabiting brute physical vessels. Jonah was helpless to escape his surroundings physically, but his sincere prayer enabled him to fly high spiritually. The challenge of human existence is to maintain our connection with the Holy One even while trapped in an animalistic, physical body. Jonah cries out to God from the depths, and his prayer helps him transcend oppressive physical surroundings and experience the Divine. 

We read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, a day when we strive for spiritual elevation by ignoring our most basic physical needs: eating and drinking. For many of us, the fast is very difficult. We struggle to pray with passion and intentionality while feeling weak and sick. But just as God was with Jonah in the physical discomfort of the fish, God is with us in the physical discomfort of the fast. The way to elevate ourselves is to connect with and thank God. And that’s what Yom Kippur is all about.

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Scholar-in-residence, Aish/JMI

What on earth was Jonah thinking? He couldn’t have been under the delusion that he could hide from God. Prophets with direct access to the Creator of the Universe were very plugged in. So how are we to understand Jonah’s very non-prophet-like behavior? Did he become disillusioned? Jonah’s actions aren’t only curious, they are theologically troubling. Something’s fishy! 

There’s no question that Jonah was neither a heretic nor a rebel. If anything, Jonah was a passionate advocate of the Jewish people who didn’t want to play a role in a mission that would negatively impact them. If Jonah was guilty of anything, he was guilty of putting the Jewish people’s welfare above his unconditional faith in God and above his own very life! What chutzpah! What self-sacrifice! What love! On some level, I imagine that God delighted in Jonah’s treasonous behavior much like a parent takes deep pride/nachas when a child defends a sibling. 

Perhaps the reading of Jonah on Yom Kippur is to remind us that God doesn’t want us to merely fast, pray and pound our chests. He doesn’t want dramatic resolutions. Personal declarations are easy on Yom Kippur and personal observance can sometimes be self-centered. What God really wants is what every parent wants. He wants us to care deeply about his children. He wants us to feel their pain, celebrate their success and even defend them when they are not perfect. There is no greater gift we can give God. Shanah tovah.

Rivkah Slonim
Education director, Rohr Chabad Center at Binghamton University, New York

Yonah is more than a tale about a prophet who lived long ago. The Zohar teaches — and Chassidut amplifies — that it is actually the story of our lives. Yonah is another name for the soul, which upon arrival on Earth, sometimes loses its way, even going as far as “ boarding a ship” to run away from its Master.

But the “Captain” will find us; no matter how we try to run, we cannot hide. The Captain will come “down into the bowels” of whatever vessel we board and rouse us from our slumber. And, inevitably, our Yonah will be stirred and will respond “Ivri Anochi, I am a Jew, and the God of heaven and Earth I do serve.”

But sometimes, that’s not enough. That feeling might be fleeting and ephemeral, and again we might find ourselves casting about, thrashing at sea. This time, our Yonah might be swallowed up by a great fish, a force larger than itself that pulls it inexorably, seemingly, away from its life force. But in that constraint, from within the belly of danger — physical or spiritual or both — precisely because of that constriction, Yonah will cry out to God from a place of deep, essential love. Transformed, and newly reunited with his Maker, Yonah will be brought ashore, to safety. 

Please God, that we not be tested with difficulties, but rather, that we calibrate our Yonahs with the Almighty’s will, provoked only by our desire to be one.

Rabbi Aaron Lerner
Executive director, Hillel at UCLA

You cannot outrun The Divine. Jonah tries to get away from God, but he’s thwarted by a storm and then a bizarrely huge fish. Whether we take the narrative as historical fact or fiction, the lesson is the same: Yom Kippur will arrive whether or not we like it. And for that matter, so will the rest of life. 

Some of us choose to spend our lives fighting against the natural flow. We demand from life, our partners, our kids and ourselves unnatural outcomes. Instead of tuning in to the signals we are receiving from the Universe / The Divine / Nature and the myriad other places we could be hearing God’s voice, we try to design our own life. Oftentimes to our own detriment. 

There’s nothing wrong with striving. In fact, this is the season for Jewish self-improvement. But whose goals are you striving toward? Yours? Or God’s? 

Our egos are insatiable, and often wrong. They propel us in the opposite direction we’re supposed to be traveling. Do you feel like you’re always swimming upstream? Are you often told that your expectations are unreasonable? Do the people around you need to change to receive your love, or for you to feel close to them? Are your kids going to “stretch-schools” where they feel anxious and stressed instead of places which are the “right fit”? 

If so, it’s worth slowing down to listen before we try to keep pushing forward. Otherwise, the fish might just swallow us whole.

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Motivational speaker

Jonah was given a Divinely Ordained mission to urge the people of Nineveh to repent. From Jonah’s perspective, the mission made no sense. The Jewish people were spiraling into a spiritual abyss and yet he was being asked to save the archenemies of Israel. 

In an attempt to escape from his mission, Jonah fled Israel by ship and, knowing he was the cause of the storm that eventually endangered its crew, he implored the sailors on the ship to toss him overboard so they could save themselves. 

As we read in the haftarah on Yom Kippur, “the Lord appointed a huge fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights” (Jonah 2:1) 

In the dark innards of the fish, Jonah finally recognized what he had never truly been willing to see, i.e., God’s intimate knowledge and care over each life and each moment. It was then that Jonah did teshuvah. 

On the holiest day of the year, we all need to take stock of the lesson Jonah internalized: the fact that God guides each of our lives based on pure mercy and love for our own benefit. Just like Jonah couldn’t understand why his life was being guided in a specific direction, similarly, very often in our lives things happen that are inexplicable and often painful. Once we acknowledge the altruistic Source guiding our lives, we can return to God with joy and love.