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The Power Of The Seas

The Power Of The Seas

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:36 p.m.
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10;
Micha 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27
Torah: Deuteronomy 31:1- 31:30
Havdalah: 7:33 p.m.
Yom Kippur candles: 6:30 p.m.
(Sep. 25)

One of the highlights of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the reading of the Book of Jonah, a small book that contains a world of philosophy. The major message of Jonah is the major message of Yom Kippur, so that the proper understanding of the former will most certainly illuminate the latter.

God comes to Jonah, sending him to call the people of Nineveh to repent. Jonah refuses, and believes he can escape the God of the heavens and earth by sailing to the sea. Why did the prophet find a mission to Nineveh so objectionable? Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the arch enemy of Israel. Indeed, in the eighth century B.C.E., Assyria defeated the Ten Tribes and sent them into exile. Jonah cannot understand why God is interested in Assyria’s repentance. After all, as long as the Jews have more merits than the Assyrians, the chances of an Israeli victory in battle are far greater. Hence Jonah seeks to escape God by boarding a ship bound for Tarshish.

A raging storm develops at sea, and a drawing of lots on-board the ship points to Jonah as responsible for the storm. Water is not only a symbol within the Book of Jonah but a major symbol throughout the holy days of Tishrei. Water is both a symbol of life and destruction. The Bible opens: “the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” [Genesis 1: 2]. No life can grow without water. At the same time the Bible tells us right before its mention of the waters that “there was darkness on the face of the tehom,” usually translated as the depth of the cavernous waters of the netherworld. It was after all, the waters of the flood that threatened to destroy the world.

The Mishna tells us that on Sukkot, God judges our merit for the life-sustaining rain. Rain is therefore a symbol of God’s gracious bounty; His purification of His children on the Day of Forgiveness. As the prophet Ezekiel says in words that we repeat again and again during the Yom Kippur prayers, “I shall sprinkle upon you the waters of purification and you shall become pure” [Ezekiel 36: 25].

Jonah, thrown into the sea, challenges God, trying to escape the Divine mission, and is therefore worthy of death. God, however, in His infinite compassion, provides a great fish — a creature of the water — to follow Jonah and bring him back to life. In Jonah’s own words, “I called in my distress to God and He answered me. … You cast me into the depth of the heart of the sea … your waves passed over me … yet You lifted my life” [Jonah 2:3-7 .

The waters almost destroy Jonah and the waters (in the form of a water-creature sent by God) save his life. God is teaching the lesson that Assyria, who has been so evil and destructive, can and must make a complete turnaround if the world is to be redeemed. God is also teaching that He, God, is willing to overlook the evil Assyria has committed if she will indeed repent. Jonah refuses to accept this. He is after all the son of Amitai, a name that derived from emet, truth. Truth demands that evil never be overlooked; evil must be punished. This is how Jonah explains why he refused God’s mission “…. This is why I hastened to flee to Tarshish; I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger abundant in kindness, forgiving of evil” [Jonah 4: 2].

Jonah has forgotten that his first name means dove: Just as the dove was saved from the flood; Jonah saved from the sea. God is teaching him that the God of compassion will bestow His life-giving purity even upon those who have sinned.

On Yom Kippur, each of us descends into the “waters of death.” We wear the white kittle, reminiscent of shrouds; we abstain from life’s pleasures of food, drink, and sex; we wear the non-leather shoes of the mourner. For whom are we mourning? We are mourning for ourselves, we who have “died” because of our sins.

God in his compassion, however, returns us to life on Yom Kippur, reborn and purified. God sprinkles upon us His life-giving waters: “For on this day, He shall provide atonement for you, to purify you; you shall be forgiven of all your sins; before God shall you stand pure” [Leviticus 16: 30].

All of us experience the death and the rebirth of Jonah. As the final Mishnah in Yoma says, “How fortunate are you O Israel! Before whom are you purified, and who purifies you? Our Father in Heaven.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat, and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.


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