NiSh’ma – Lessons from the book of Yonah

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September 3, 2012
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“Should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city?”

—Jonah 4:10-11

The city of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, is near contemporary Baghdad in Iraq.  In 722 BCE, the Assyrians, a people famed for their cruelty, conquered Samaria in Northern Israel. Generations later, after the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE, the author of the book of Jonah asks us to re-imagine the people of Nineveh as having the potential to be penitents. In the culminating response to Jonah’s reluctance, God poses a rhetorical question (Should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city?) that resonates throughout the millennia: Can we find it in ourselves, in the name of compassion, to reach out to people who have injured us?

We hear God’s question on Yom Kippur afternoon, at the most difficult stage of the fast. Thirsty, hungry, our caffeine-deprived heads pounding, we commiserate with Jonah, who sits in the sun, deprived of shade. Sitting uncomfortably in the synagogue, on a day we focus on our own failings, we are now enjoined to stretch our empathy to its limits, to the people of an enemy nation.  But, having focused on our own failings, perhaps we can extend our preference for mercy over justice.

No message could speak more directly to us today. In our families, schools, workplaces, and synagogues, in America and in Israel: Are we ready to recognize our shared humanity with people who live on the other side of grim historical divides?

—Leonard Gordon

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Rabbi Gordon presents us with a powerful challenge: “Can we find it in ourselves, in the name of compassion, to reach out to people who have injured us?” As a former prison chaplain, I’ve often contemplated this question. How, as a society, do we approach teshuvah when we’ve mistakenly sentenced a person to prison?

This is not an abstract question. Approximately one out of every 100 adults in the United States is behind bars, or slightly more than 2 million people. Shockingly, our justice system is not infallible; there is a margin of error of between 3 and 5 percent. This means that there are between 60,000 and 100,000 innocent people languishing in prison.

Sadly, once a person has been found guilty, it is extremely difficult to get new and exonerating evidence before a judge. And if an innocent person regains his or her freedom, there is rarely any compensation or redress for the lost years and suffering.  Do we not have some obligation of repentance when this happens?

— Howard Cohen

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Rabbi Gordon asks us:  Can we find it in ourselves, in the name of compassion, to reach out to people who have injured us?

On Yom Kippur, through the process of teshuvah, we strive to achieve reconciliation with God. We also try — at times grudgingly — to open our hearts to individuals who have injured us.

But what of those whom we have injured — those whom we have “sinned against”?  In the ten days prior to Yom Kippur, we must seek them out and right the wrongs that we have committed.

How do we accomplish this today?  Do we show up, unannounced, at the office, classroom, or home of those whom we have offended and beg forgiveness? This would be impractical, onerous, and awkward for both parties, so we assume this responsibility with some reluctance or not at all.

Here is a 21st-century solution: Send a text message or an email. While impersonal, any message that conveys teshuvah is within the spirit of the season. Perhaps the talmudic scholars must weigh in, but let us not dismiss this approach out of hand.

— Howard Kelfer

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The Talmud (Megilla 31a) gives no explanation for its choice to include the reading of the book of Jonah as the haftarah for minchah of Yom Kippur.  The reading concerns a community ravaged by corruption and sin, a man who flees God rather than call for communal atonement of a foreign people, and a man’s rage at God’s forgiving the people of Nineveh.

The story is conceived as a fable with the message of atonement and forgiveness, of God’s mercy, and of our responsibility to the larger community, despite our fears and perceived weaknesses.

A familiar teaching in the yoga world is that when we begin our practice, we should set an intention for what we might do “on the mat” and dedicate that work to someone, some place, or some situation “off the mat.”  Our practice is meant to affect more than ourselves.

By the afternoon of Yom Kippur, we are edging closer to the conclusion of our “practice” of introspection, atonement, and forgiveness.  There is no better time to contemplate how our practice of teshuvah might yet impact the world around us, and dedicate it to doing so.

— Yael Ridberg

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Leonard Gordon, rabbi at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Mass., chairs the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Kehilla Strengthening and Transformation Committee.

Rabbi Howard Cohen is the founder of Burning Bush Adventures (burningbushadventures.com), which combines Jewish practice with wilderness canoe and dog sled experiences. A firefighter, Cohen lives on Barefoot Farm in southwestern Vermont with his wife and children. He was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1994.

Dr. Howard Kelfer is a child neurologist with a practice in critical care neurology at Cook Children’s Northeast Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. He has served as director of neurology, president of the medical staff, and chairman of the physician network at the hospital.

Rabbi Yael Ridberg is the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego, Calif., and the immediate past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

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