Jewish Journal

Rabbi Joshua M. Aaronson’s Yom Kippur sermon: Jonah and Me

One of the inspirational parts of our tradition for me is that as I move through life and as times change, different Biblical personalities resonate with me.  For many years, I felt a great kinship with Jacob.  As a young man, his character flaws threatened to overwhelm him.  Yet, with the passage of time, he transcended his own weaknesses.  I found his transformation inspirational.  His example held out for me the possibility that even I could get out of my own way long enough to transcend my many flaws.  This year Jonah resonates with me.  I feel as Jonah.

וַֽיְהִי֙ דְּבַר־יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־יוֹנָ֥ה בֶן־אֲמִתַּ֖י לֵאמֹֽר׃

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai:

ק֠וּם לֵ֧ךְ אֶל־נִֽינְוֵ֛ה הָעִ֥יר הַגְּדוֹלָ֖ה וּקְרָ֣א עָלֶ֑יהָ כִּֽי־עָלְתָ֥ה רָעָתָ֖ם לְפָנָֽי׃

Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.

וַיָּ֤קָם יוֹנָה֙ לִבְרֹ֣חַ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֨רֶד יָפ֜וֹ וַיִּמְצָ֥א אָנִיָּ֣ה ׀ בָּאָ֣ה תַרְשִׁ֗ישׁ וַיִּתֵּ֨ן שְׂכָרָ֜הּ וַיֵּ֤רֶד בָּהּ֙ לָב֤וֹא עִמָּהֶם֙ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’s service. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD.

וַֽיהוָ֗ה הֵטִ֤יל רֽוּחַ־גְּדוֹלָה֙ אֶל־הַיָּ֔ם וַיְהִ֥י סַֽעַר־גָּד֖וֹל בַּיָּ֑ם וְהָ֣אֳנִיָּ֔ה חִשְּׁבָ֖ה לְהִשָּׁבֵֽר׃

But the LORD cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a great tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up.

God calls Jonah to undertake a great mission, a mission that a first blush, should honor Jonah.  God chooses Jonah to go to a city in which the people are known to be sinners and proclaim judgement upon it.  God asks Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh that unless they repent and turn toward God, God will punish them.  This should be easy stuff for Jonah, a man of wealth and substance.  Who wouldn’t want to do their civic duty, as it were?  Yet, Jonah flees from this opportunity and heads to the port of Jaffa and sets sail to Tarshish—the opposite direction as Nineveh.  When I have the chance, I stand at the port of Jaffa, I look at the boats and I imagine I see what Jonah saw; I ask myself, ‘what was Jonah thinking?’

Jonah was a man in the midst of an existential crisis.  For Jonah, the world was not a happy place.  Jonah looked around and saw a world of sinners, a world without hope.  That God could forgive their sins was of little consequence to Jonah.   What good, Jonah asked himself, was humanity if they were doomed to a life of sinning and repenting and sinning again—even if God is a merciful God, a God who forgives?  Jonah was pessimistic about the world.  Jonah also feels powerless.  Sure, God can forgive, but what can a mere mortal do?

I feel a bit like Jonah. The world feels heavy.  It’s hard to be optimistic.  Perhaps I am projecting my own uneasiness about the world onto the rest of you, but I think—in fact, I hear this from you—that I am not alone in feeling this way.  And, I’ve observed that this isn’t a statement about politics; everyone seems to feel the stress of the world more keenly at this moment.  In the past two months alone, we’ve witnessed storms and earthquakes that killed hundreds of people and laid waste to countries from Mexcio to the Eastern Carribbean.

I know that every generation faces unprecedented challenges.  Surely, these times are no more turbulent than the Middle Ages, than the Civil War, World War II or the 60s.  Is our own era qualitatively different or is it merely different because we live in it?  I cannot answer that question.  I can say, however, that in my lifetime, as long or as short as you think it’s been, this moment feels different than others.

To begin with, the mighty wind blowing upon the sea is exponentially stronger because it is amplified by deluge of information that inundates our senses literally every minute.  The devastation of hurricanes and earthquakes would be traumatic no matter the era, but in this day and age, we witness these events in real time.

The natural human tendency is to be feel the bad more acutely than the good.  So, like Jonah, the weight of information that inundates us tends to skew, at least in our own minds, negatively.  Faith in humanity is hard to muster watching bickering politicians, insane dictators, spoiled athletes and self-absorbed celebrities 24 hours a day.  Is faith in humanity justified?  Or, is humanity doomed to consistently sink to the lowest common denominator?

For Jonah, his cynicism about humanity causes him to flee.  I can understand that.  I feel that way too, sometimes.  And yet…we know there must be something more at work.  We know that the story of Jonah cannot possibly be about cynicism and powerlessness…for Yom Kippur itself is about redemption and optimism.

As all of you know, after Jonah is thrown from the boat, he is swallowed by a whale.  He spends three days and nights in the whale’s belly.  What happens to Jonah there is this:  Jonah resets his moral compass.  He focused on that which is true and enduring—in Jonah’s case a call from God, and in doing so, Jonah could regroup and do the right thing.  Jonah learns that without a moral compass, we are adrift in a sea of chaos without any clear hope of finding our way.  We feel helpless. We are treading water and getting tired.  At times, we feel we cannot stay afloat for even one more minute.

And, then…and then, we see an image of some guy—and let’s be honest, it’s a guy we normally would never know or have in our circle of friends, taking his own boat to help people stranded by the floods.  And then…and then millions of dollars in aid flow in to ravaged countries.  And then, in the midst of all this angst about the NFL, there’s a guy named J. J. Watt and it turns out not only has he done an amazing mitzvah for victims of the floods in Texas, he does this kind of thing all the time.  In these acts, I find my moral compass reset.  For in these acts, we see the highest common denominator at work:  one human reaching out in empathy to assist another human in need.  There is no concern for race or nationality.  No one stops to ask who you voted for; no one cares about your position on health care or gun control.  Humans connect with humans not on the most basic level, but on the highest level:  the shared human hope that even when everything is lost all is not lost.  Living another day is always a better option than not.  The hope of tomorrow is a powerful beacon that calls us, as we read in the Torah portion for Yom Kippur, to choose life!  And in witnessing these acts, true acts of lovingkindness, our moral compass is reset.

The challenge is in the coda to the Jonah story.  Jonah does one true and good thing:  he preaches to the people of Nineveh to repent and they do.  Yet, when his disdain and cynicism for humanity get the better of him, Jonah heads for the hills to await the what inevitably happens:  the fall of humanity to the lowest common denominator.  For after the redemptive stories of heroism and sacrifice during the floods and earthquakes, we humans tend to fall back to the lowest common denominator just like Jonah.  The stories on our social media feeds of one human connecting with another in grand gesture of the human spirit are too quickly replaced by bickering, political grandstanding and bullying that seem to me unseemly in spirit and petty in the face of mother nature’s unstoppable force.

Why is it we need a massive earthquake or a sequence of category 5 hurricanes to bring out the best in humanity?  Why do we need a tragedy to reset our moral compass?  And, why, once our compass is pointing in the right direction, do we as humans so quickly veer off course?  These questions weighed heavily upon Jonah—they weigh heavily upon me.  Sure, when you’re threatened with God’s wrath, it is easy to do the right thing.  Our moral compass always points in the right direction when humanity is threatened with extinction.  But, what about when we are just going about our day-to-day lives?  Can we imagine the world if at every moment the human spirit soared as high as it did in the aftermath of recent natural disasters?

Judaism imagines that world.  The entire point of Judaism is to elevate the human spirit to the highest possible denominator.  Judaism is the North Star for our moral compass. Yes, we frequently veer off-course, but Judaism and specifically Yom Kippur hold out the possibility for us to reset our compass and get back on the right path, even and perhaps especially amidst the raging seas of the modern world.

This day—Yom Kippur—this day is a microcosm of the great existential crisis faced by Jonah.  This morning we read profound and stirring words of optimism:  we stand this day as one community, asked to do something, exactly like Jonah, that is within our ability.  We’re asked to reset our moral compass.  The Torah itself tells us the task is possible:  ‘this commandment I command you this day is not too hard for you…choose life!’

This afternoon, we shall read the book of Jonah…the story of a man weighed down by chaos of the world, a man riddled with cynicism and doubt; a man bereft of faith in humanity.  Jonah is a man who is drowning in the flood, but ignores the boat coming to rescue him.

This is the challenge of this day.  Yes, we see the destruction of the flood and the devastation of the earthquake.  And, yes, we see the acts of lovingkindness that reveal the greatest spirit of humanity.  The world can be both these things…today we must choose which world we will create.

You can choose to be Jonah.  You can wallow in cynicism; you can believe that humanity will always revert to the lowest common denominator.  You can abandon all hope and give in to the rising tide of the flood. In doing so, not only would you abandon hope, you would abandon Judaism itself.

For as long as I serve this holy congregation, if there is only one teaching that you remember let it be this:  Judaism is the most optimistic religion in the world and Jews are the most optimistic people in the world.  What, you ask, how can that be?  Is the story of Jonah optimistic? How can we be optimistic in the face of the destruction of the Temple not once but twice?  How can we be optimistic after millennia of antisemitism, of expulsions?  Where is optimism in the face of pogroms and the Shoah?

The answer is you.  Despite all these things, all this tzuris, you are sitting here, in this sanctuary.  You are the guy with boat after the flood in Houston.  You are people pulling survivors from the rubble of earthquake in Mexico.  What Jonah failed to realize—and what I think we fail to realize—is that our story is not the story of the destruction of the Temples or the expulsion from Spain or the Shoah.  Our story and our religion is the story of what happens between those events—the boats that come to save us.  That’s who you are.  That’s who we are.

There is a famous quote, attributed originally to Debussy and in my version, it goes like this:  How do you play the notes so fast, someone once asked a famous pianist…and the answer, ‘oh, the notes are easy…it’s the space between the notes that are difficult.’

We Jews live in the space between the notes.  Everyone is beset by problems.  How we live between those problems, those calamities, those horrors…this is when we Jews are at our best.  We Jews are forever the man with the boat coming to the rescue and seeking a new beginning.  Let this be our way for the New Year.