Why is the Book of Jonah the last biblical reading on Yom Kippur? True, it recounts how the nation of Nineveh repented, as we are called upon to do on the Day of Atonement. However, the liturgy could have instead featured King David, who admitted his shortcomings and constantly sought to improve himself.
The message specific to the Book of Jonah is that one cannot forever flee from his or her mission. When God summoned Jonah to prophesy to the sinful city of Nineveh, Jonah boarded a ship sailing in the opposite direction, only to be cast into the sea, swallowed by a “great fish,” and deposited within walking distance of Nineveh.
Jonah’s short prophecy, “In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown” was hardly eloquent, but it convinced the king and all his subjects to abandon their evil ways. It seems that Jonah succeeded in his mission almost in spite of himself.
It is not likely that God will summon us to preach to a foreign city. However, I believe that our very existence is a summons to be a force for good in our families and communities.
Rabbi Aharon Karliner, an early 20th century sage, taught that each one of us has something unique to contribute to the world. Otherwise, we would not have been created.
There are plenty of opportunities to contribute. You don’t need to be heroic to introduce yourself to a person visiting your synagogue for the first time. Intellectual prowess is not required to help an overburdened caregiver.
You may choose to commit yourself to a particular mitzvah or good character trait. The Talmud sees fit to mention that no one ever greeted Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai first, not even a gentile in the marketplace.
I trace my commitment to Judaism and the path to my marriage back to a May 1968 United Synagogue convention. I was on the verge of resigning myself to an unfulfilling weekend. One of the other attendees graciously took the time to explain the songs and rituals, which were new to me. I felt valued, and began to lead a more traditional Jewish life.
Transitioning from the Past to the Future
We spend most of Yom Kippur examining our deeds during the past year, and acknowledging our transgressions. However, as the sun sinks in the west, the story of Jonah and his mission compels us to think about the New Year ahead of us.
It is time to use the gifts that we have been given to strengthen others and empower them, to make our homes a source of warmth and comfort, and to lend a helping hand in our synagogue, community center or favorite charitable cause. We may not always accomplish what we set out to do, but if we don’t try, we will never succeed. Refraining from using one’s gifts and talents is just a self-imposed disability.
As we read the book of Jonah, may God see fit to guide us to find and use our unique capabilities so that the world will be a better place when we greet 5775 a year from now.
A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah — the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons –boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org