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Yom Kippur and the Story of Jonah

Dear Families and Friends,

Yom Kippur will begin tomorrow evening and here at school we have been teaching the concept of T’shuva(returning to good after repenting), through the process of asking for forgiveness and forgiving others. Between us adults, that is one of the hardest concepts to teach because it is one of the hardest things to actually do. Admitting our wrongdoings in front of another person, being that vulnerable with others, putting our egos and insecurities aside, changing habits of behavior and perception, and moving forward with a clean slate after someone really hurt us are all extremely difficult interpersonal tasks. We regularly ask our children to accept responsibility, to be “the bigger person,” or to just apologize when they made a mistake. Yom Kippur is the perfect time of year to pause and evaluate whether or not we are setting that behavioral example for all of these expectations we have from the little people we are all raising.

One of the highlights during the final Yom Kippur service of the day is the Haftarah, the chanting of the Book of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet called on by G-d to tell the people of Ninveh that they would be destroyed if they did not stop their wicked behavior. Jonah tried to avoid his duty by boarding a ship he hoped would carry him away from G-d’s watchful eyes. However, the ship hit turbulent waters, and Jonah believing that it was G-d’s doing and that he was endangering the lives of the crew, had himself tossed overboard, whereupon he was swallowed by a giant fish. After three days and nights, the fish spit Jonah out onto dry land. Jonah then went onto warn the people of Ninveh. When they heard his prophecy, they repented and changed their ways, and G-d spared them. But Jonah remained angry.

Jews have puzzled over Jonah’s behavior for thousands of years. Why did Jonah try to run away from G-d, who, our tradition teaches, is everywhere and knows everything? Why did Jonah get angry after he helped save the lives of 120,000 people? And why do we read this book on Yom Kippur?

We read this book as we attempt to stand before G-d in the hours before Yom Kippur concludes. The majesty of the Kol Nidreiprayer has long passed. The possibility of the dawn and its prayers are gone. The euphoria of the Mussaf service is behind us, and we are at our thirstiest, our hungriest. We may wish to simply lay down low and sleep — far away maybe from the synagogue; far away from our restraining selves, from our contradictions, our conflicts, and our personal dilemmas.

At this point in the Yom Kippur journey, we are all Jonah. The task is too great, too daunting. We want, simply, to have a sip of water, to sit quietly in a corner, to be undisturbed. And yet we know that Yom Kippur is coming to a close, that the gates will soon be shut, and there is some internal yearning within us, some greedy desire to achieve what we dream for ourselves, to rise to the challenges put before us.

We read Jonah during the service because we are Jonah at this point in the day. We have been functioning in the realm of belief that our prayers will lead to certain outcomes; that is, after all, the purpose of Yom Kippur. And yet, deep within us, in the desire to return home to sleep in our beds, there is the doubt, the anger, the knowledge that we can never understand how this world works, and what is the point in trying? We read Jonah to be reminded that this contradictory, difficult space is, in fact, the space of possibility and opportunity.

And so we, Jonah-like, enter the synagogue as he entered the fish, and as we stand in the dark, unseeing, we call out to our Creator. We immerse ourselves in these intense feelings and let them take over. The purpose of Yom Kippur is not to punish us, but rather to help us find the good inside ourselves; that we are responsible for one another, we impact each other; that we become the hands of G-d through the Mitzvot we perform, and that we cannot hide from ourselves or from G-d.

Rabbi Bravo states: Each and every year we understand High Holy Days themes differently, for we are different as individuals, and our world is certainly a changing place. I invite you tomorrow and Wednesday to take some personal reflection time and contemplate how are you different because of the last twelve months, and what are some changes you are willing to make this new Jewish year.

Wishing you G’mar Chatima Tova and a meaningful Yom Kippur,

Bat-hen

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