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The Waters Swirling Around Jonah

The Waters Swirling Around Jonah

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

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 6:45 p.m. (fast begins)
Torah: Lev. 16:1-16:34; Num. 29:7-11; Lev. 18:1-18:30
Haftarah: Isaiah 57:14-58:14;
The Book of Jonah; Micha 7:18-20
Fast Ends: 7:42 p.m.

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

God tells Jonah to call the people of Ninveh to repentance. Jonah refuses to do so, and believes he can escape God by sailing away to sea. Why did the prophet find a mission to Ninveh so objectionable? Ninveh was the capital city of Assyria and Assyria was then the archenemy of Israel. Indeed, Assyria defeated the Ten Tribes and banished 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 boards a ship bound for Tarshish instead.
A raging storm develops, and a drawing of lots reveals that Jonah is responsible for it. It is fascinating to note that water is the major symbol of the Book of Jonah as well as of the Tishrei period of festivals. Water is both a symbol of life as well as of destruction. The Bible opens “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” and no life can grow without the presence of water. At the same time, the Bible tells us right before its description of the life-giving waters that “there was darkness on the face of the tehom,” usually translated as the depths, the waters of the netherworld. It was the waters of the flood that threatened to destroy the world.

The Mishna tells us that on Sukkot God judges how much rain we will receive in the coming year, enabling fruit and vegetation to provide sustenance for us. Rain is therefore a symbol of God’s gracious bounty, and 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, “And I shall sprinkle upon you the waters of purification and you shall become pure” [Ezekiel 35: 24-25]. Therefore, the festival of Shemini Atzeret, with its special prayer thanking God for the rain, has a double meaning: God’s waters bring physical sustenance as well as spiritual purity. It is the combination of the two that brings us to redemption. It goes even one step deeper. It is on Shemini Atzeret that we begin praising God as the One who “causes the winds to blow and the rains to flow” — and these words of praise are incorporated in the Amidah blessing of the God “Who causes the dead to live again.” God’s purifying waters can even revive us from death and bring us eternal life.

Jonah is cast overboard into the raging waters. He has endeavored to escape his 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 revive him. In Jonah’s own words, “I called, in my distress, to God and He answered me. From the belly of the grave I cried out. You heard my voice. You cast me into the depth of the heart of the sea… Your waves passed over me… yet You lifted my life from the pit, O Lord, my God” [Jonah 2:3-7].

The waters almost destroyed Jonah and the waters (the water-creature sent by God) saved his life. God is trying to teach the crucial 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 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 is derived from emet, truth.

Truth demands that evil never be overlooked; evil must be punished. This is precisely how Jonah explains why he refused God’s mission, “why I hastened to flee to Tarshish; I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness, and forgiving of evil” [Jonah 4: 2]. This is not the God in whom Jonah wants to believe. But Jonah has forgotten that his name means dove, and just as the dove was saved from the flood so was he, Jonah, undeservedly saved from the raging waters. God is trying to teach 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 white — reminiscent of shrouds — and remove ourselves from all physical necessities and pleasures such as food, drink, and sex. We wear non-leather shoes, as does a mourner. For whom are we mourning? We are mourning for ourselves who have died because of our sins.

However, God in his compassion returns us to life on Yom Kippur, reborn and purified. God sprinkles upon us His life-giving waters “because on this day you shall be forgiven of all your sins; before God shall you stand pure.”

All of us experience the death and the rebirth of Jonah. As the final Mishna 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 chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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