How Can You Sleep?

September 3, 2012
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Ed Feinstein

Once upon a time, there was a man named Jonah who constructed a cozy world neatly divided into clean binary terms: us/them; our people/those people; insiders/outsiders. Jonah enjoyed the security of knowing exactly who he was because he knew precisely who he wasn’t. He drew a comfortable sense of self from a carefully constructed image of the “other.” He had a precisely defined sense of his duties, and an unambiguous sense of his boundaries. He knew to whom he owed concern, and exactly where his concern ended.

Then, one day, God appeared to Jonah and shattered his world. In God, there is a unity beneath the divisions, wholeness behind disjunction: you and me, us and them, ours and theirs. Though separated on the surface, we are deeply connected within. The boundaries of self, God insists, must include the other. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. All life is interrelated.”

“Go to Nineveh,” says God, “and save that city from its wickedness.” This single command destroys Jonah’s neatly ordered world: Historically, Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. They besieged Jerusalem, humiliated its king, and carried off its treasures. For an Israelite, Nineveh was the enemy, the world center of evil, the heart of darkness. Save Nineveh? Why would Jonah want to save Nineveh?

By this command, God is asking Jonah to confront the humanity of the enemy and to discover that the divide that separates him from his enemy can be healed. Jonah had made a career preaching the hard choice between particularism and universalism. Now, suddenly, the prophet of either/or is confronted by the God of both/and. God is Melech ha-Olam, Sovereign of All, the God of global concern. In God, there is no such thing as care for our own apart from concern for the other, because in God there is no such thing as the other. Global responsibility is the meaning and purpose of Jewish particularism, just as particularism is the indispensible foundation of global concern. “Heyeh brakha! Be a blessing!” begins the Jewish project, “and let all the families of the earth be blessed in you!” (Genesis 12)

“Go to Nineveh!” God commands. But Jonah can’t go. To see the world through God’s eyes threatens his very identity. If we’re not “us,” and they’re not “them,” then who am I? Instead of rising to meet his responsibility, he escapes down to the port, to the ship, into the hold, into a deep sleep. “How can you sleep?” shouts the ship’s captain.

This is the question of the book — the question of all time: How can you be sleeping? How can you rest in oblivious serenity when the tempest rages about you?

God isn’t finished. God has a lesson to teach. Jonah is swallowed by a big fish. At the bottom of the sea, far from the world, Jonah sits alone in the dark, putrid innards of the fish. Welcome to God’s classroom. You craved a life protected from the needs and claims of others? You yearned for a refuge from the cries of a suffering world, from responsibility for any but your very own? Congratulations. You’ve found your reality! How do you like it? How does it smell? A little like death? Engagement with the world is more than a cultural value; it is the very life breath of the Jewish soul. Cut off from the world and turned entirely inward, the Jewish soul suffocates.

Unlike every other prophetic book, the book of Jonah has no particular time or place. He lives in all generations, because the temptation to separate, divide, and withdraw is always present. So, each year, in the middle of Yom Kippur, at the very moment of deepest self-absorption, when the stomach groans, the head aches, and the feet are tired, we revisit the prophet in the belly of the fish to learn again that for the Jew, reaching to the soul within us and reaching to the world beyond us are the ways we reach the God who cares for us all.

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Rabbi Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the American Jewish University, the Wexner Heritage Program, and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of three books. They are Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Person’s Guide to Building a Jewish Life (Jewish Lights) and Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibility, the Presence of God, and the Future of the Covenant (Jewish Lights) — both finalists for the National Jewish Book Award — and Capturing the Moon: Classic and Modern Jewish Tales (Behrman House).

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