Are we a Sailor or a Person of Nineveh?

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
September 7, 2012
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At the end of Masekhet Megillah, the entire holiday cycle of Torah and Haftarah readings is recorded.  Following the statement that we read Yonah at the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, it is written:

Rabbi Yohanon said, ‘in any place you find the strength of the Holy One, you find God’s humility – this is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets and a third in the Writings.  It is written in the Torah: Hashem your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords (Deut. 10:17), and it is written after that, Who does justice for the orphan and widow. (Deut. 10:18)  It is repeated in the Prophets: Thus says the High and Exalted who Dwells Eternally and (whose name) is Holy, and it is written after that, And is with one of restricted and lowly spirit. (Isa. 57:15)  A third third in the Writings, as it is written: Extol the Rider of Clouds by the name of Yah (Ps. 68:5), and it is written after that, Father of orphans and a judge for widows. (Ps. 68:6).   – Megillah 31a

We can perhaps learn from this that Yonah was chosen due to the notion that it lends itself to the theme of the holiday as represented through the lens of God’s judgment and compassion.  So we read this story in the context of our own personal questions of how we are relating to a month and a half of personal introspection and heshbon ha’nefesh (moral inventory).  The question I have for myself this year is, am I a sailor or a person from Nineveh?

In the first chapter of Yonah, our prophet flees from the voice of God.  He stows away on a ship, and to the sailors represents their deepest fears, their fears stored in the most inner recesses – deep in the belly of the ship.  And when confronting their fears, they choose to avoid it rather than interact with it.  They toss their fears back from whence they came, as if the waters they throw him in will never pose any sort of challenge to a group of sailors again.  They are trying to both run and hide, and offer a sin offering as a mild acknowledgment of their inability to confront their fears.

Transported by fish to the Great City of Nineveh, Yonah need say but five simple words: od arba’im yom, v’ninveh ne’hepachat, Forty more days and Nineveh is overturned (Jonah 3:4)  Without question, the people put on sackcloth and fast – in other words, observe Yom Kippur – from the most lowly to the king.  Rather than chase their fears away or run away from themselves, the people of Nineveh embrace the notion that the path to having a deeper relationship with one’s truest self begins with standing in front of one’s fears.  And that through establishing a deeper relationship with ourselves we can transform our personal judgments (i.e., the sailors) into compassion (i.e., the people of Nineveh).

Ultimately, standing in pure judgment can lead to the absence of humility.  The Rabbis of the Talmud saw a connection between the story of Yonah and a reminder of God’s humility.  Yet in the story we are posed with two ways of being on Yom Kippur.  We can judge that there is something we have to confront and choose to toss it away, but nonetheless go through the motions – just as the sailors made sacrifice for good measure.  Or we can humbly stand as ourselves before God and community and be a source of compassion in the world.

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG

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