November 20, 2018

Step into the shoes of Yonah this Yom Kippur

Ari Schwarzberg

One of the first Jewish ideas I can recall from my youth is that resting somewhere inside us, we each have a yetzer hara and a yetzer tov, an evil and good inclination. These figurative angels and demons account for our inner voices that compel us to be both our best and our worst each day of our lives. As we mature and grow older, we hope that we’ll be more angelic than demonic, but it’s  hard to imagine being able to simply hit the delete button on our dark side. Our “good” and “bad” sides constantly battle for proprietorship of our soul and much of our religious work is to redeem ourselves from the immoral thoughts and actions embedded in our genetic code.

This is all well and good. We know that we’re not meant to be perfect and that there’s work to be done.

But what do we do when our demons burden us? How do we respond when doubts or skepticism shake up our faith or when religious leadership and community fall short of our expectations? What about when the world we inhabit is tormented by one natural disaster after the next, leaving innocent people dead and homeless and cities ravaged and torn up? These are difficult questions for everyone, but for the believers out there, these can be testy times.

Surely, living a religious life requires the capacity to hold multiple feelings and ideas simultaneously: we believe and we question, we love and we hate, we’re both contemporary and ancient;. Judaism, in particular, has never been a simple person’s game. I’m sure I don’t just speak for myself, however, in saying that this year’s Yamim Noraim proved a bit more complicated than usual. A time where I usually find my spiritual burners to be revving, this year my theological demons wouldn’t stay under lock and key.

Despite the challenges, I was still deeply moved by the soaring tefillot of Rosh Hashana.  I felt the religious intensity in the air, and I loved being a part of my community. But, as Yom Kippur begins, my inner voices are asking questions about a world that seems more unjust than just and more merciless than merciful – these are crippling ruminations that I’d prefer go into hibernation this time of year. The last thing we want on Yom Kippur is swirling thoughts in our head that might pollute the holy work of the day.

Or is it?

What if we were to bring our most real and honest selves into shul this Yom Kippur and engage God not only with belief and faith, but also with the rawness of our vexations and difficulties that comprise an inextricable part of any religious consciousness?

If you’re not yet convinced, look no further than the curious selection of Sefer Yonah as the haftora for Minha on Yom Kippur afternoon. Often bestowed upon an honorable member of the community, rabbis and scholars have long wondered how a story about a rebellious prophet figures into the Yom Kippur liturgy. In short, the prophet Jonah begins his book by rejecting God’s request, and ends the story as a reluctant messenger of God, who despite fulfilling God’s demand does so God’s demand does so unwillingly, even angrily.

As dusk settles on Yom Kippur day, the image of Yonah provides a strange way to usher in the climactic moments of Ne’eila. Why are we bringing reluctance, rebellion, and anger into a day designated as kulo l’Hashem, a day steeped in holiness and enveloped by godliness?

But perhaps that’s it. Yonah’s role on Yom Kippur instructs us that a relationship with God isn’t always one of simple faith and submission. Sometimes, there are moments of clarity and purpose that bring us close to our Maker, and other times we are lost and troubled, feeling like God’s presence is anything but near.

For most of Yom Kippur we spend the day knocking on heaven’s door, a 25-hour existence that does its best to transcend the human realm. But then there’s about a ten-minute window late in the afternoon when we’re invited into the world of a troubled prophet who finds an unjust world intolerable. Yonah doesn’t mince words: in the final chapter he twice exclaims to God that “it is better for me to die than to live.” Even at the close of the story, after God does His best to show Yonah His ways, we are left wondering about Yonah’s reaction. The story closes on a cliffhanger with the reader unsure whether Yonah remains recalcitrant or is finally convinced of God’s preeminence.

The linchpin, however, is that despite all this Yonah is and remains a prophet. While many other prophets prove their prophetic worth by unquestionably heeding God’s demands, Yonah’s prophetic qualities are best understood in the inverse. Yonah’s constitution as a navi b’yisrael (a prophet of Israel) directly emerges from his boldness. Though he could have checked out or remained silent, Yonah demands a world that is better, his moral clarity ultimately furnishing an activism that could just as easily have faded into apathy. Rather than remaining asleep in the hold of a ship, Yonah brings his frustrations into a conversation with God. In fact, the climactic moment of the story occurs when Yonah channels His accusations into an actual tefillah:

וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אֶליְהוָה וַיֹּאמַר, אָנָּה יְהוָה הֲלוֹאזֶה דְבָרִי עַדהֱיוֹתִי עַלאַדְמָתִיעַלכֵּן קִדַּמְתִּי, לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה:  כִּי יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה אֵלחַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַבחֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַלהָרָעָה.

He prayed to the LORD, saying, “O LORD! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.

This is the prayer par excellence of our tradition, the 13 attributes of God, a refrain we’ve been saying for weeks now and that we’ll say throughout Yom Kippur. Yet, Yonah inverts this tefillah, accusing God of being overly merciful at the expense of truth and justice (notice how אמת is glaringly absent in Yonah’s prayer). The point being that although Yonah vehemently disagrees with God, his consternation becomes a vehicle for tefillah, an instrument for a more honest and vulnerable communion with God.

Of course, God is right and Yonah is wrong. Our ability and need to question God is not a comment on His perfection. Still, this short story is retold on Yom Kippur as a reminder that a real relationship with God is not always harmonious.The prophet Jonah models the capaciousness, the ability to both believe and question, that any meaningful relationship demands. We both relate to Yonah’s firm declaration in Chapter One that “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land (1:9),” while also sympathizing with Yonah’s disposition as described by the narrator: “This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was grieved.” Religious life is neither linear nor one-dimensional.

So, I invite you all to give it a shot. If you’re feeling troubled or frustrated with the world, if things haven’t been going the way you’d imagine them, step into the shoes of Yonah, and bring your complete self into your service of God this Yom Kippur. For such is the way of prophets.

Wishing you a G’mar Chatimah Tova.