Near the beginning of the TaNaKh we read the story of Noah, to which I alluded last night. In the latter half of the TaNaKh we find the book of Jonah which we read on Yom Kippur afternoon. While they have similar props and situations, the stories could hardly be more different.
- rides out the storm
- while the misbehavin' are destroyed.
- gets rejected from the boat in a storm
- in order to transform the misbehavin' so that they are not destroyed.
The Noah story is about a man who does what he's told with barely a question of “what's a cubit?” While the Jonah story is about a man who avoids doing what he's told and complains about having done it in the end. The Noah flood story ends when a bird, a dove, in Hebrew a Jonah; is sent out into the world and it does not come back. The Jonah story begins with our protagonist (this “dove”) trying to go out into the world, but getting spit back onto his appointed path by a monster of a sea.
While Noah is called a righteous man and blameless in his generation, Jonah is just a guy, and some call the book about him and his exploits a joke.
What's with this guy Jonah? Why is his book here at the end of Yom Kippur? What can we (or, are we to) learn from him?
Jonah stands between the period of these Days of Awe (Rosh haShannah and Yom Kippur) and The Season of Our Joy (Sukkot). In fact the experience of Jonah himself at the end of “his” book contains a foreshadowing of Sukkot. Jonah finally makes his prophecy (all of five words: “od arbaim yom ve-ninveh nehepehet” In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown.) and goes off to the east to watch the results from a distance. He gets upset with God for accepting the repentance of the Ninevites (the misbehavin' people of Nineveh). God creates a plant to give shade above the sukkah in which Jonah has found refuge. The plant grows overnight and is gone the next day. You remember the line... I used it with Noam not long ago when something he cared about (but had little responsibility for) disappeared: “Are you so deeply grieved about the... [whatever]?”
- avoids his responsibility,
- grudgingly goes about fulfilling his task giving it the minimum required (five words remember),
- removes himself from the scene of the potential transformation,
- complains when the people do the right thing and repent, causing God to spare them,
- gets treated to a special shading plant & only to complain about it when it quickly dies.
All this seems to be a set-up for God's great line at the very end:
“You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should Not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?!”
Or, in other words: “You ungrateful little birdbrain!”
Ah, yes, everything is so utterly transitory. Should we not be extra grateful that we have this brief moment to appreciate it? Some of you may recall that many years ago I told you a story about a boy with two pebbles one in each pocket. One pebble reminded him that “For me the world was created.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin IV, 5). The other, referred to a line from the Book of Job (42:6b) “I am dust and ashes.” We are an odd mixture of these two and it is hard to maintain the appropriate balance.
The vast majority of blessings we Jews recite in our public prayer are said in the plural. Very few of these... I call them “poems of our people's experience”... are actual “prayers” the way we think of prayer as we see it among Christians (at least in the movies & which I where I learned how Christians pray). Nonetheless, in the morning and in the evening there are two wonderful paragraphs that are phrased (primarily) in the singular. They both begin with “My God”, and each of them suggests a certain humility and awe at the creation. In the evening we recite one of them at the end of the weekday and Shabbat Amidah.
My God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from deceitful speech. Help me to keep silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all. Open my heart to your Torah that I may hasten to fulfill your directives. Regarding all those who think ill of me, undo their advice and spoil their thoughts. Do this for Your own name, do it for those who stand beside You, do it for those who are special to You, do it for the sake of Your own Torah. Do it for those who are beloved unto You, save the one who stands beside You and answer me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You: the solid base of my existence: my redeemer.
And in the morning, when we get up:
My God, the soul that you have given me is pure. You created it, You formed it You blew it into me and You guard it within me. Every moment that this soul is within me, I am grateful to You Adonai, my God and the God of my ancestors, master of all things, ruler of all souls. You are blessed, Adonai, for within Your reach is the soul of every living being and the spirit of all flesh.
Ah, that we could feel that way on a regular basis! Help me to keep silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all. And, You, God have created me, formed me. All that I am is the splash of the tiny whitecap on the ocean of your being. My task is to feel Your ocean within me as my foam sprays up into the air.
How can I not be grateful for the fish that swim within me, the birds that skim my surface, the many grains of the different minerals that make up my chemistry.
Now and then I feel a tremendous tremor deep below that sends me rolling far beyond my home. At other times, the heat of the air swirls me up, lifting me, throwing me, dashing me against whatever may be nearby. Thrashing & still & I am You.
Yes, I am, both thrashing, and still... You. I am the wave tossing the boat, and by my example I can witness to a shipload of frightened sailors that the sea that tosses them about is not to be feared. With five simple “boatloads of sound” cast upon a sea of ignorant people, I can change the course of the lives of the one hundred twenty thousand Ninevites (and, thereby, potentially, change the course of history). How can it be that I am not in awe of Your strength that resides in me?
Who is it that causes the tides of my times that I feel rise and fall within me?
What exquisite variety of tastes filter through my lips that I do not thrill to partake of You?
Where can I go that the pungency of Your juices do not stir all that I breathe?
Whenever I still myself do I not hear both the silence and the roar of Your waves?
Why do I not see You from the white of my foam through to Your darkest depths?
Are not so many of us this simple dove Jonah...:
So often we feel ensnared like a bird (Lamentations 3:52)... yet, in truth even as simple a bird as we skirt the edges of Your creation, bringing both announcements of peace and encouragements for transformation.
This new year, may we each recognize the Jonah in each one of us, release all that threatens to ensnare us and give wing to a world of peace, blessing and joy.