Forgive me, but tonight I must talk about the elephant in the room, the act of vandalism and mockery and hate that happened in this town, in our community, on the Sabbath eve, two days before Rosh Hashanah. The inspiration for my words this evening come from Rabbi Sandy Sasso.
We read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon. Having prayed and fasted all day, our attention waning, we often miss the deeper meanings of the narrative. Jonah invites us not only to examine our willingness to forgive, but to recognize the ways in which we often refuse, wittingly or unwittingly, to acknowledge our own responsibility to do the work necessary for the world’s redemption.
When Jonah is called by God to go to the city of Nineveh, he runs away. On the ship carrying him in the opposite direction, a storm rages threatening to capsize it. Where is Jonah? In the bottom of the ship, asleep. Subsequently, he opts to jump overboard into the mouth and belly of a mammoth fish, rather than complete his mission. He follows in a long line of biblical characters who seek, albeit unsuccessfully, to avoid a call to accountability.
When Adam and Eve are confronted with their disobedience to God, they hide. They are too ashamed by their transgression. After Cain murders Abel, he responds to God’s query: “Where is Abel your brother?” with apathy and indifference: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” When Moses is called to tell Pharaoh to let his people go, he initially declines, and suggests that God send someone else. He lacks confidence in his own ability to lead.
As for the story of Jonah, I can’t help but make a few parallels to us here today.
This year we too are called upon to address serious threats to our future – the devastating changes to our climate, serious risks to our democracy, the frightening rise of autocracies, rampant bigotry and increasing violence, attacks on voting rights and human rights. All of these plagues for many, or for some, are perceived too global and even too abstract for our immediate attention in our daily lives. But not a crime in our neighbor’s yard, or in our own community park. It’s real, it’s scary because predicting such an incident seems beyond us and it could escalate.
Yom Kippur invites us to examine how we will respond to these challenges. We can, like Jonah, run away, too consumed by fear, by anger, by sadness, by confusion, by puzzlement, to do what is needed. Perhaps, like Adam and Eve, we are ashamed by our own indifference to own up to our failings. Sometimes we feel like Moses, too afraid to take a risk for fear that we will fail, and our safety will be jeopardized. Even with the best of intentions, we all worry that we are not up to the task, that others are more qualified to lead. At one time or another, we simply want to turn off the news, fade into the background, and go unnoticed.
Jonah is usually pegged as a reluctant prophet, meaning that he fled from God’s instruction to tell the people of Nineveh to repent lest they and their city be destroyed, because Jonah doubted that such an evil city could have the capacity to repent, and he did not want to fail in his task. But, perhaps, he fled out of self-preservation as well. He may have anticipated that the people of Nineveh would not listen to him, but rather torture and kill him – a reasonable fear given the facts that the Ninevites were the enemies of the Jews. Jonah’s name in Hebrew provides yet another take on his avoidance of his mission. Yonah means “dove,” the universal symbol of peace. Jonah, the embodiment of peace, the evader of conflict, could not embrace the discomfort, aggression, rigidity, and stubbornness of the incalcitrant population of Nineveh, that he would inevitably face when uttering aloud the truth of their behavior.
There is a part of every one of us that wishes we could do what Jonah did, return to the womb in the belly of the big fish. We yearn for a time of innocence and protection. George Orwell described the security of the big fish this way: “There are you in the dark…with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens.”
But Jonah cannot remain there. In the end, the fish spews Jonah out onto dry land, at Nineveh, the very place that Jonah had hesitated to go. And so, Jonah is reborn to fulfill his responsibility, however grudgingly. And, the people of Nineveh repent and their city and society are saved, are redeemed.
Where are the parallels here?
Will Yom Kippur with its grand liturgy be the belly of the fish, the womb from which we emerge? Will the final shofar blast release us to accept our responsibilities to ourselves and others, to our people, and the world? Will we overcome anger, shame, fear, and doubt to do what needs to be done. Salman Rushdie has suggested: “In place of Jonah’s womb, I am recommending the ancient tradition of making a big fuss, as noisy a complaint about the world as is humanly possible.”
True, we have a tradition of biblical prophets who cried out their complaints of Israelite behavior. We don’t know who or how many in the crowds listened and turned back their corrupt ways or who were swept up in the allure of foreign gods. We only know the prophets’ words, who spoke of God’s conditions for repentance, in order for God to return to the people in love and protection. We will hear this in the haftarah tomorrow morning from the mouth of Isaiah. Did Jonah, the reluctant prophet, fail because he did not make a big stink about the evil he saw around him and because he ran away? Can either Isaiah’s message or Jonah’s actions (or inactions) help us respond to the assaults on our Jewish identity, that we are feeling in our guts this past week?
It’s complicated, to be sure.
Aside from the powerful and potentially transformational messages from individual voices, we also know that the disciplined and often quiet work of social service, security, and justice organizations give us the opportunity to act as a group, as teams to make a difference – strength and confidence in numbers as they say, and also the ability to be recognized and garner the attention of the public. I, among many, am proud of, and applaud the non-profit organizations that are partnering together to keep us as safe as possible, like the Secure Community Network, and the organizations, that are actively combatting all the destructive “isms” that plague our society, like the ADL, the National Council of Jewish Women, Reform Judaism’s Keshet, dedicated to LGBTQ+ equality in Jewish life, and the Equal Justice Initiative of Bryan Stevenson, among a myriad of others.
However much we are the grateful recipients of the services of these organizations, we, ourselves, are required to be active members of their teams to do the work of change for the better. We might choose to join a few, but for many of us, not even one official membership is possible. Some of the very real barriers are time (I’d like a 36-hour day right now!), physical limitations, and our cognitive capacity to take in all the information about an organization to make sure it aligns with our values (I don’t know about you, but in this day and age of deceptive media, I am compelled to look up the mission and activities of every group I read about, as well as the backgrounds of their movers and shakers – it’s exhausting!).
Thus, we return again to Jonah, and his potential and opportunity to improve humanity as a single individual, not tethered to a group or a movement, and even rejecting his God. Jonah may have in the end gone to Nineveh and witnessed the redemption of the Ninevites, but his personal transformation and attitude remains unresolved as you will hear tomorrow.
We are not Jonah. Despite the challenges of public outcries against our beliefs and values, of bias and anti-Semitic incidents, of the waning of civil discourse and what the Jewish tradition calls machlochet l’sheim shamayim—respectful arguments for the sake of Heaven, and even in the face of the poverty of material and spiritual resources for so many, each of us by ourselves, can transform our very being and enable others to transform as well. I know this to be so, from our Torah and from being a witness, and I pray I can, along with you, instill in the deepest part of my being a change of heart and attitude as well.
Joseph in the well-known biblical narrative forgives his brothers after being mocked, beaten down emotionally and physically, and sold by them into slavery. It can be the same scenario today, for a person of color, an impoverished person, a person of strong and verbalized political leanings, a person who has no gender identification, a person of a minority faith, or, frankly, a person for no reason at all. Like Joseph, early on in the pit where he was thrown by his siblings, all of these humans have been stripped of their humanity. I thought I knew what that meant from a 9-day, driving pilgrimage in January, 2019 to the civil rights museums and memorials in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. At the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta was a simulation of the infamous Woolworth lunch counter incident in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. We were instructed to close our eyes and listen through earphones to the sounds of the hatred and violence directed towards the protesters after requesting service. The virtual experience for us was raw, frightening, painful, and sad. The same was true at the Legacy Museum in Birmingham, witnessing second-hand the lynching less than a century ago and the false incarceration of African Americans even up to our day. I really think it turned my life upside down. At the very least, it gave me fodder for my rabbinical thesis on Judaism and Restorative Justice. But research, reading and writing may or may not affect change in the world. It’s the doing, even as one person to one other person. As Rabbi Akiva teaches, lilmod l’lameid v’la’asot, “we study to teach and to do.”
Two weeks ago on a Thursday, I spent all day at Attica Maximum Security State prison an hour from my home in upstate New York to prepare for an upcoming volunteer gig facilitating restorative justice practices for groups of incarcerated men. The civil rights pilgrimage to the south might have temporarily stripped my soul, but this day of prison orientation stripped me literally; I mean I was not able to bring in a single item except what I wore, and that included no metal in my undergarments. Nothing, nada – not a pen, no keys, no phone of course. And, the cameras were watching me from the moment the car turned into the campus drive. Independence stripped as well – no one, absolutely no one, volunteer and incarcerated alike, may walk more than 5 feet to the restroom or anywhere else in the maze of buildings without a corrections officer by one’s side. Hearing loud noises across the campus as my companion and I were leaving, I naively remarked that it must be catcalls as Attica is an all-male prison Boy—was I wrong! If incarcerated individuals wish to communicate with each other from their one-person cells, their only option is to yell out the barred open windows to each other. An aha moment. There, in this prison reputed to hold perpetrators of the most vicious crimes, mostly lifers, it felt like each had been forced to shed all vestiges of human identity and connection.
I share this experience for two reasons. The first is affirm on this day of Yom Kippur that every person deserves to strive for holiness, to be worthy of personal freedom and a sense of selfhood, irrespective of their human frailties and unjust, or even evil actions. Some may fail to try or to succeed, and Jonah may belong to that group, along with those in our time who are morally blind-sighted. The second is affirm our inner strength and power to transform our judgments of ourselves and most assuredly of others. We need to do this, in order to forgive, and if not to forgive, to acknowledge the stories of, and show compassion for those committing actions unacceptable and harmful to us. We need to do this first so that we can move ahead and undertake the work of influencing and changing their attitudes and intentions.
From this Yom Kippur until the next, may we alone and together actively strive to restore human dignity, towards the restoration of justice and mercy for all. Kein yehi ratzon!