By Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand
The Yamim Nora’im are a time of deep questions: Who will live and who will die?
It is a time when we recount the dramatic life experiences of our biblical ancestor, Abraham, as he faces the greatest moral dilemma of his life.
It is a time when we remember both our great rabbis (during the Martyrology) and our dearest relatives (during Yizkor).
So why is it that, as we reach the climax of the 10 Days of Repentance, the home stretch of Yom Kippur, our attention is drawn away from these peak questions and down to the slightly ridiculous story of Jonah, the reluctant anti-hero. In so many ways, this story is an odd choice for Yom Kippur. As someone who runs away from his mission, Jonah is not exactly an inspiring role model for repentance. Plus, the book’s almost comic voice (with cows dressed in sackcloth and a big fish vomiting the hero) doesn’t quite suit the solemn climax of Yom Kippur.
I’d like to suggest that the reason for the rabbis’ choice of Jonah is because the book ends with a question: Should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city, where there are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle? (Jonah 4:11).
On the one hand, this seems like a strange verse to leave us with as the final biblical source we chant before entering the home stretch of Yom Kippur. But upon deeper reflection, the rabbis’ choice of Jonah, the anti-hero, is an inspired one for the end of Yom Kippur. By the time we encounter Jonah in the Yom Kippur liturgy we have been fasting and praying for over twenty hours. We have dutifully pounded our chests, confessed, and afflicted our souls. We have recounted our ancestors’ Temple service, and we have read the words of Isaiah about the kind of fast that God truly requires of us. We have done as much teshuvah as is humanly possible. So only one question remains . . . have we actually changed?
And with that question in mind, at the climax of a full month of doing teshuvah, we read the book of Jonah, where everyone and everything changes – the sailors, the people of Nineveh, God, and even the fish. But the end of the book leaves off suddenly with a question, and we are left wondering what will happen to our “hero”. Has Jonah changed? Has he learned anything from his mission and his encounter with God? Does he now appreciate that God’s quality of mercy must complement and exist in tension with God’s quality of judgement? Or is he still the same reluctant prophet we met at the beginning of the story?
And so, the book of Jonah ends with a question, just as we end Yom Kippur with a question: Have we changed? Has anything changed? After all that, is teshuvah really possible? And if not, should God not have pity on us as well – six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?
Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is the Director of JHub and a member of New North London Synagogue.