Jonah – Repentance and Yom Kippur
There is a reason why the Book of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur. The manner in which Jonah atoned should also be our way.
It is not every day that we are given the opportunity to be true to ourselves, so close to our self.
To stand up one day and tell ourselves, in full voice, what we have done and what we have not done.
What we thought about and what we did not think about. How we behaved and what we skipped over – such a personal soul-searching, so pointed and uncompromising, with no partitions – so simple to say it all in the most explicit way: For the sins we have committed against You by ridiculing parents and teachers. Yes, joking about the teacher and your counselor, for this too we confess “for the sin committed against you in contemplation in the heart” – the most intimate things within our heart, for this too we must settle. The prayer said while beating the heart again and again – we again assume good and real decisions without a shred of falsehood; all true and which we feel no need to change or be changed.
Every person, whoever he is, carries out this soul-searching – no one is exempt. On the day of judgment, no person is exempt from the questions, “Why did you do that?” As after 120, on this day, too, everyone, everyone passes before Him like the sons of Meron and answers these questions. Do we really feel the day of judgment? Do we really feel that we are being asked these questions? Do we feel that before us sits a judge with a prosecutor and defender and that we are now headed for life or death? Is this the sense we have on this day?!
I do not disagree about the feeling that there is a very special atmosphere on this day – everyone feels that it is no ordinary day, but judgment day? A trial? The hangman’s rope? Life and death? It seems to me that most of us have no such feelings.
Why? Why do we not live with this feeling on this day?
The answer is simple, in my opinion.
It is not possible to reach this day and change everything; to overturn all of our emotions in a single moment.
The work of Yom Kippur does not begin at 17:20 on the evening of the first day. It begins long before and not just in time, but also in a person’s will. Possible, especially in a person’s will.
Yom Kippur for atoning sins clears a person from punishment and grants forgiveness! But has the person changed? Has a person who undergoes Yom Kippur really become a different person? Not at all! If he is not punished, he is liable to commit the sin again very quickly. He has not separated from his previous world and he has not carried out real work to change. In his book, On Repentance, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik distinguishes between repentance and atonement for purification, between Yom Kippur, which atones in any case, and purification, which a person must undergo personally.
There is a reason why we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur. The story of flight, prayer, and redemption makes clear to us the processes that even the sages and prophets of Israel undergo. The difficult internal struggles, the tensions, and the ability to return are what the sages teach us why, in the midst of the day of decision, we read precisely this book.
Who is Jonah? Where did he come from? How is it possible that a man who has reached such an esteemed place among the prophets - My eye has seen no G-D except you – should flee from G-D?
The Midrash describes the figure of Jonah ben Amitai: Jonah ben Amitai is the son of Tzarfat the widow: he is a just man, who was cast into the depths swallowed by a fish, but did not die, and entered heaven with dignity.
The wonderful story about Elijah the Prophet, who resurrected the son of a widow - that son is Jonah ben Amitai. Jonah was born from the power of resurrection from the stature for which we would pray and wait for in the future – from this power Jonah lived his life, and might explain how he cast into the depths and lived. In any case, death does not rule him, “and he entered heaven with dignity”. What a wonderful life – it is a life of the next world. All this merely reinforces the question about the meaning of the escape! And about the will to die and the story of the gourd. Why did he do what he did? Why did he grab his prophecy and try to evade G-D? Examination of the personality of Jonah ben Amitai and the Book of Jonah will answer these questions for us and the relationship between repentance, Yom Kippur, and the Book of Jonah.
The Book of Jonah has four chapters
The first chapter covers G-D’s command to Jonah and his flight.
The second chapter covers Jonah’s prayer.
The third chapter covers G-D’s second command to Jonah, which this time he obeys.
The fourth chapter covers Jonah’s words to G-D and the story of the gourd.
What changed from the first chapter to the third? Why does Jonah decide to obey G-D’s command in the third chapter, if it is only fear of death? What happened in the belly of the fish? Or did some process while in the sea teach him something special when he was in the belly of the fish. There is disagreement in the Midrash about Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish, if it was suffering or a great theater and spirituality, as described in Chapters of Rabbi Elazar: Rabbi Hisda said, “Why does not the High Priest enter the inner precincts in garments of gold to perform the service there? Because the accuser may not act as defender.”
This Midrash describes Jonah in the belly of the fish as a process of understanding, of a glimpse into other worlds above the earth, which cannot be seen. Jonah sinks into the depths of the sea to see in creation to discover new things. In my opinion, there is a very strong parallel to G-D’s answer to Job. When G-D answers Job, he is not answering his questions directly. But he refers to the question of the bitter agonies of Job despite his great dread of G-D, but G-D asks Job to look at the Creation which he created and answer the simplest questions:
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? Or who hath given understanding to the heart?
Who can number the clouds in wisdom? Or who can stay the bottles of heaven?
There is no answer to Job, but there is greatness, to show the proportionality between man and G-D and G-D against who we are. Jonah descends to the depths of the sea, and like Job, he seeks answers to a simple question: Who are you and who is G-D?
Is your perspective is the center of everything. Or is there a difference between you and G-D; are you a man with all your urges, lusts, and wishes ready to cancel yourself and from your account from those greater and more exalted than you? Both Job and Jonah undergo the educational process in which the Lord of the Universe shows them that, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isiah 55: 8) - try by the creation, by the greatness, by its great wonder. Jonah in the belly of the fish in the depths of the sea discovers that the same power that created the world is omniscient to the every precise detail, and if he orders Jonah to go and prove it, this is an act that Jonah must carry out, as he was a prophet and knew this, and was linked to G-D with respect to the prophecy, but nonetheless decided to flee, but G-D showed him the Creation as he had never seen it. Only then was Jonah ready to go to greatness of the Creation and admit that he is left with no doubt that the Creator is the one to decide who will go where. Jonah did not think that the prophecy would come to pass, but he did not want to be the one to make it; he wanted to flee. He did not want to the prophet who brought the foreign nations to repentance when Israel is not repenting, as many commentators explain his flight. But in the belly of the fish, he realized that this was not possible, but that he must be the one to go, and no one else, because only if you known thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? If you order morning only then will you understand all the other answers, why you, why Nineveh, and so on.
The full greatness of G-D is present here, the inconceivable power about the simple natural things in this world and the highest things, everything calculated and precise.
The difference between Chapter One, in which Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh and the third chapter, in which he agrees to go, is expressed in the language of G-D’s commands to Jonah. In the first chapter, the command is, “Now the word of The Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amitai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me.” Here is an argument by the Creator why He is going to destroy Nineveh, “their wickedness is come up before Me.” In Chapter Three, the second command appears, “And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, 'Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and make unto it the proclamation that I bid thee’.” Here there is no explanation, but only a command – go to Nineveh and tell them what I want you to say. In the first chapter there the man is ostensibly sharing in the act of G-D; there is a request and consulting. In the third chapter, there is only a command. This is the lesson that Jonah learns. Complete surrender to the will of G-D is the charming lesson that Jonah learns. Jonah’s turnaround between the first and third chapters is expressed in his prayer in Chapter Two, in which he describes the transition from flight to return. His journey in the depths of the sea is described in detail: For Thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me… I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars closed upon me forever.”
The prayer begins with a confession and explicitly continues with the depths, and ends with Jonah’s promise to obey G-D’s command. “I will sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving; that which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is of the Lord.
Every person has a mission. Every person is an emissary… an emissary for a particular role, which only he can undertake. He has all the power to carry out this mission. He has been given the all the means to optimally carry out it out. And the moment his mission is over, his life ends.
The midrash speaks of Boaz, who on the night he came to Ruth, who would ultimately result in David, and died that night. This was because his mission was over, and since he carried it out, his role in the word was over.
At every Yom Kippur, we should ask ourselves whether we are carrying out the mission, whether we have a reason to continue to exist in order to fulfill our role by every means given us. Yom Kippur is a time of genuine soul-searching in which a person stands before his good and bad deeds and conducts a “situation analysis”, trying to improve himself for the new year. This process, as we have said, does not begin on Yom Kippur, but begins long before and most strongly from Elul onward, so that, on Yom Kippur, there will be a sense of judgment day; a day of genuine examination about where I stand and I what I do, a day for a new and better beginning for us all.