Jonah, The Book of Irony
Yom Kippur Morning 5772
For my nearly my entire life, I like many of you, have listened to or dozed off to the reading of the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon. As I was reviewing Jonah this year some new things jumped out at me.
Jonah could also be called the Book of Irony or maybe My Story as a Shlemazel. For those of you who don’t know what a Shlemazel is: The Shlemiel spills the soup onto the Shlemazel. You really have to feel for the guy.
First, God appoints him a prophetic task and we all know just how little fun it can be to be a prophet.
Second, Jonah’s prophetic task requires him to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, ancient Israel’s fiercest enemy and tell them they need to change their ways or God will punish them. A contemporary example would be if Benjamin Netanyahu getting a call from God to go to Tehran and tell them God will destroy them unless they support Israel! Jonah would have to be thinking that his projected life span had just been shortened.
Third, he hops a freighter heading the other way, gets thrown overboard, gets swallowed by a fish in the Mediterranean which swims past Gibraltar, around Africa into the Persian Gulf, up the Tigris River and gets spit up on its banks just outside the gates of Nineveh.
Fourth, he is successful. In fact he is the only one of our prophets who got people to change their ways, repent and come to God. Unfortunately, from his point of view, these people were his enemy and in his own eyes at best he failed, at worst he was a traitor.
And fifth, God provides Jonah shade with what most texts call a gourd but a better translation is a “castor oil plant”. When God sends a worm to kill the plant, Jonah is upset that he no longer has a castor oil plant. From what my parents told me about their childhoods, they would have been quite happy if a castor oil plant had died.
Seriously though, it is the ultimate irony that in the prophetic age, our ancestors never answered God’s call to repentance but our fiercest enemy did. Jonah’s reaction? Anger and frustration. Listen to his words:
And this displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed to the God, and said, I pray you, O God, is this not what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I hastened to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and that you repent of the evil. Therefore now, O God, take, I pray you, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
Would our reaction have been any different than Jonah’s? The Assyrians had hurt his people and destroyed his land. They conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and sent them off into exile where they lost their identity and disappeared from history. Jonah held onto his justified anger. It was not that he did not accept the Assyrian’s change of heart. He admits the Assyrian’s repentance is real. To use his own words he was: “sorely grieved.”
I believe this is why the rabbis chose Jonah for this afternoon’s Haftarah. God could forgive the Assyrians. Jonah could not. Jonah’s reaction to the Assyrian’s repentance is where we too often fail at this time of year. We are created in the image of God, commanded to be holy as God is holy. God forgives and therefore we should forgive. As we examine our own lives and see where we fell short this past year, sincerely repenting our behaviors comes relatively easily. Forgiveness, letting go of the pain others caused us, accepting their repentance as sincere, much, much harder.
Forgiveness is letting go of the pain. Moving ourselves through our own feelings so that we can move forward and not just survive but thrive.
This afternoon during the break we will show an incredible a video that has an incredible moments of true forgiveness, not forgetting, but dealing with the pain. A survivor of Auschwitz meets a Jewish gunner on an American flight crew whose mission was to bomb the factories adjacent to Auschwitz not the railways that led to death, the instruments or death or Auschwitz itself. Both the survivor and the gunner finally come to terms with their guilt, their shame and they forgive not just each other, but in their reunion you can see their individual pain leave their souls. The survivor’s anger that the Americans had left him to die a horrific death instead of taking his life quickly and perhaps saving many lives. The gunner for not knowing what was taking place just below him.
So my challenge to you this Yom Kippur is this: do not be Jonah sulking and finding comfort in your righteous pain. For the rest of today, for the rest of this year, focus not just on your own need to repent but rather on forgiving, letting go of the pain others have caused, are causing and will cause you. Instead of being Jonah who mourns the loss of a plant that shielded him from the heat of the sun, use the warmth of the sun to let go of your pain and forgive.