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High Holidays 5777 Drashot


CLICK HERE to read Rabbi Joey's Erev Rosh Hashanah Drash, "Writing the Book of Life."

A Reading from the 90th Psalm, Read by Eleyna Fugman

Lord, through all generations
You have been our strength and our home.
Before the mountains were born
Or the oceans were brought to life,
For all eternity, you are.
A thousand years in your sight
Are like yesterday when it passes.
You return our bodies to the dust
And snuff out our lives like a candleflame.
You hurry us away; we vanish
As suddenly as the grass:
In the morning it shoots up and flourishes,
In the evening it wilts and dies.
For our life dissolves like a vision
And fades into the air like a cloud.
We live here for seventy years,
Or eighty, if we are strong —
Years filled with pain and suffering;
They pass, and we fly away.

Teach us how short our time is;
Let us know it in the depths of our souls.
Show us that all things are transient,
As insubstantial as dreams,
And that after heaven and earth
Have vanished, there is only you.
Fill us in the morning with your wisdom;
Shine through us all our lives.
Let our hearts soon grow transparent
In the radiance of your love.
Show us how precious each day is;
Teach us to be fully here.
And let the work of our hands
Prosper, for a little while.

–Translation adapted from Stephen Mitchell, A Book of Psalms

Rosh Hashanah Drash by Yshai Boussi

Last July, I got a call from Rabbi Joey. I was very surprised, I knew he was probably interested in how I was doing but I figured he had to be calling to ask something of me. I assumed he was going to ask me to help out with one of the services or be on a committee or something. He didn’t, he asked me to give a Drash. For a second I was stunned, then when I regained awareness of my senses I felt a sense anxiety and disappointment. The anxiety came from a place of thinking and assuming that Joey reserved these roles for folks in the community that he’s identified as Jewish intellectuals, Torah studiers, leaders in the Jewish community. I thought to myself “wow he thinks I’m one of “those people”. Now I’m going to have to break the news to him. So I told him, “I’ve got to come clean with you, even though I show up to a lot of things, deep down I often feel like I’m not the kind of Jew I should be. I feel ambivalent about a lot of the Jewish practices I participate in on a regular basis.” You can imagine his response, “great, you should talk about that”. He also said, it’s my last high holiday as the rabbi at Havurah and I’d really like you to do it..but feel free to say no to me.”

It’s an interesting time for me to be asked to do this. I’m 41 and for the past year or so, I’ve found myself thinking more about what I’m doing with my time and how I’m doing it. I don’t want to waste time or go through the motions the way I feel I have at times in the past. This shift, of bringing more mindfulness and thoughtful intention to my life has definitely added a lot of richness. I really feel like in the last year I’ve experienced a lot of positive growth when it comes to things like my physical and emotional well being, my relationships with family and friends and my professional life as well.

But there is one notable place where I’ve felt stuck and have struggled. It’s finding personal relevance and connection to my identity and practice as a Jew. I have a lot of experience doing this stuff. Celebrating holidays, singing songs and reciting familiar prayers and blessings. But doing things because I always have or because everyone else is doing it is becoming less and less tolerable for me.

When it comes to many foundational components to Judaism, certain prayers, reading the Torah, I sometimes feel like a fraud. Honestly I often don’t get it and it doesn’t feel meaningful or relatable to me.

My family has Shabbat together every week. It’s a tradition my in law’s have practiced for the last 35 years, and it’s great. But lately I’ve been wondering what would happen if we dropped the prayers and blessings and just got together every week as a family for dinner. Would I feel like there’s something missing? That question makes me uneasy. I cherish the time spent with family and friends on Shabbat, but I don’t feel connected to the prayers and blessing a lot of the time. “As Abraham blessed Isaac and Isaac Jacob and Jacob the twelve tribes of Israel, we now bless our beloved children.”...  I say that, among other things every Friday, but it doesn’t mean anything to me, so why keep saying it like I’m sure I will again this Friday?

I teach at Shabbat school, but I sometimes feel like a hypocrite like I’m going through the motions, exactly what I don’t want my kids to experience.

Another big struggle for me has been the stories in the bible. The ones I do understand, feel so far removed from my daily experience. God talks to Moses on Mt. Sinai and gives him the Ten Commandments? Really? And that’s the foundation to all of this? That’s always felt so far removed from my own reality.

Then there’s all the holidays. Too often I find myself coming to this “event” to “watch the show” or to check off the “task”. With little of it resonating or having meaning for me.

But this is where things get hard, because I know that there’s something meaningful that’s here for me. The fact is, I haven’t missed a high holiday service in about 20 years. And it has always and continues to be my choice. I don’t feel guilt or obligation. I also choose to fast on Yom Kippur and not eat pork. I met my wife Mariah on Jdate. I have a large family in Israel that I feel a strong connection to. It’s always been important to raise my kids Jewish.

So on one level my Jewish identity is really important to me. On another, I find myself questioning why I’m doing this because it doesn’t make logical or rational sense to me.

The fact that I can say this out loud feels both vulnerable and liberating. When the doubts and disconnection I shared with Joey were met with empathy and even encouragement, I felt surprisingly touched. This community is so far from how I grew up. I grew up in a context where questions were met with answers and advice. It seemed that any doubts or struggles I felt meant I was doing something wrong or just not trying hard enough.

It’s what I love and hate about Havurah. I appreciate the way experiences and questions are always welcome. I’m sometimes uncomfortable with the way certain experiences and questions are welcomed.

So I’ve been grappling with one question for the last couple months: How can I make my experience as a Jew and my participation in the Jewish community more meaningful and relevant to me personally? While I don’t have a simple or easy answer (wouldn't that be nice), I’ll tell you what I’ve come up with so far...

I think for me, this journey is going to require more personal responsibility and effort to make meaning out of the rich symbolism that this religion offers. And I think I may have something to learn from my own kids in this regard.

My daughter Leyah is nearly 8. She’s very sharp and intuitive. This last year she lost several teeth. After losing her first tooth of the year. We were talking casually about the tooth fairy, then in a curious tone she said, “the tooth fairy is real right.” She was dead serious. That’s when I chose to respond as if she was experiencing a temporary bout of psychosis.  “Well, Leyah, it’s a fun thing we do and game we play but obviously you know there isn’t actually a tooth fairy right.” “Yes there is!” she shot back with her “oh know you didn’t” tone. Fortunately I was able to pick up on my mistake and shift course. “No you’re right there is.” Leyah got the last word and banished any shred of doubt, when she reiterated, “the tooth fairy is real you know.”

Kids have the ability to teach us a lot if we’re open to it. Leyah was like my Bal Shem Tov in that moment. Although I didn’t get the lesson until recently. I know she knows what’s going on with the tooth fairy. She’s not delusional or naive. But for her, that doesn’t matter. She chooses to believe in the tooth fairy because it brings her joy and connection (she writes a note and the fairy writes back), and money and a treat. Imagine the loss in taking that away and replacing it with literal facts and logic which I nearly did?

So much of Judaism seems to be about making meaning out of symbolism.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in his book Who Needs God, “A symbol says something profound and important, but only to the person who has learned to see the message in it. A wedding ring is more than a piece of jewelry, it’s a symbol of intimacy and loyalty, The flag I salute is more than a colored piece of cloth, it’s a symbol of hundreds of millions of people, strangers to each other but connected by our shared vision of what our country stands for. Those symbols elicit strong feelings in people only when they have been taught to read the messages hidden in the objects. Without that comprehension, the flag is only cloth, the scroll is only parchment. When religion has trained our eyes to recognize the reality of things not seen, those important messages disclose themselves to us.”

As I’ve mentioned,  I’ve always blown off the God talks to Moses on Mt. Sinai thing because I took it literally. So how could that not leave me feeling disappointed and disconnected.

But when I think in the context of symbolism and metaphor there’s another perspective to this. What if Moses represents me and my inherent specialness and unique value to the world.  Mt. Sinai is the natural world. God talking is that experience I often have when I’m in nature, on a hike or laying my eyes on something beautiful and I’m like wow. What if God is the wow? The times when I feel fully present, alive, connected and at peace, whether by myself or with others. What if that experience was the presence of God. And what if my responsibility as a Jew is to strive towards having more of those moments?...

As part of our honeymoon, Mariah and I went to Israel to visit my large extended Yemenite family and the place I was born. We also went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, with her cousin, Yakov who is very religious. When he and I went to pray, I found myself looking around, with a stream of thoughts that went something like, “this is cool..this wall has been here a long time and has seen a lot of things.what am I gonna write on my piece of paper?.. it’s kind of ridiculous that Mariah and I can’t be here together, but whatever”. My internal judgements and analysis were interrupted when I looked over. I saw Yakov Praying like he was preparing for the prayer olympics. He was so present and connected in that moment. To be honest I was a bit envious.

For Yakov he clearly wasn’t staring at an old piece of sandstone of which there was an abundance all over Israel. That wall, the leather straps on his arms and the book in his hands were powerful symbols that helped him go someplace deep and spiritual.

I think I’m continuing to learn that when I slow down, get present and take responsibility for my own experience, meaning seems to emerge much more readily. Under these circumstances, the opportunities for spiritual and personal growth in the context of Jewish religion and culture are abundant. For example..

I can choose to connect to my personal history: My grandparents and great grandparents in Yemen having Shabbat in their cave before the move to their tent. Many of the same blessings, the same prayers. On the other side are my great great grand parents in Russia, in Syria...

I can value the opportunity on Shabbat to practice gratitude. To be reminded of my privilege, safety, abundance of food and beautiful healthy children, family and friends. And I can choose to make that day of rest a period that’s unique and special to me instead of just another day.

Then there’s the music and singing. Far from being a show to be enjoyed, perhaps the music and songs are binding intended to bring and keep us together. As I think we can all attest, music has the unique power to remind us that we’re not alone. Perhaps I can work on listening with more intention and create more space to have those experiences.

When I’m reminded of Tikkun O’lam, I’m reminded of the responsibility I have to make the world a better place, I’m motivated to take action in small ways and large, to be a bit kinder and more helpful, especially to those with less opportunities and privilege than I.

I can take more time to stop and try to grasp how many generations of a group of people have read these same words, sung these same songs and said these same prayers in an effort to practice gratitude and connect with others and something bigger than them. Perhaps that’s what Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leyah symbolize.

I can be thankful that we have something called a mourner's Kaddish. To me this is a mandate that everyone in the community matters and we will never forget. No one will be alone in their grief. Our souls and spirits live on and are around long after we’re gone. When I’m present with this prayer, I feel sad and vulnerable but come away feeling renewed freedom and appreciation for the life and health I still have. What a gift.

“I can choose to remember this Holocaust story told by Yaffa Eliach. “When Hanukkah came to Bergen Belsen. It was time to kindle the Hanukkah lights. A jug of oil was not to be found, no candle was in sight. Instead, a wooden clog, the shoe of one of the inmates, became a hanukkiah; strings pulled from a concentration camp uniform, a wick; and the black camp shoe polish, pure oil. Not far from the heaps of the bodies, the living skeletons assembled to participate in the kindling of Hanukkah lights.”

I’m reminded to never forget. But I do forget. But then a story like this helps me remember. And when I remember I feel proud and honored to be part of a legacy who’s most defined characteristic is resilience and courage.


In this moment. What are you here for?... I think I’m here to reflect, to connect with my past and my present. To mentally pause and share in a timeless tradition. And maybe my job is to appreciate and accept those uncomfortable questions that come up in the form of ambivalence and uncertainty, remembering the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who said: “We ask not because we doubt but because we believe.”...

So what if my family stopped doing “shabbat” but planned to continue getting together on Friday nights for dinner? The more I’ve thought about it, the more I believe that I don’t think we would get together with any regularity. We’re all just too busy, tired and stressed. I think the ritual and tradition help bring us and keep us together.

The founder of our family Shabbats that I’ve been referring to also happens to be the most inspiring, open hearted and generous person I’ve ever known. She’s my mother in law, Anne Lebwohl. She passed away a few years ago. She was a past president of Havurah and very involved here and in many other communities. Anne could always be counted on to help, listen or advise whenever and wherever she was asked.  I know she left a profound imprint on many of you here as well. I’d like to share some words that she wrote, because they’ve had an impact on me. She said,  “Believe me, there is pain in spiritual growth and a spiritual journey has its twists and turns.” In a drash she wrote a couple months before she died she said,  “I hope as a community we continue to support each other in our journeys and struggles. More importantly I hope we continue to allow ourselves to explore and grow and struggle with questions such as where are we going and to whom do we belong as individuals and as a spiritual community.”

Preparing for this Drash has been hard. It’s brought up insecurities, doubts and vulnerabilities that I’d been afraid to face. But it’s also been enlightening and thought provoking. I don’t intend to become religious and I don’t know that I’ll ever be “good” at this. But I know I’m going to continue to show up and struggle to find meaning in the symbolism because when I do, I feel more connected to myself, others and generations of a courageous, ethical and resilient people that I’m proud to be a part of.

Open Gates/Threshold, Tashlich - Nehilah Sonnet, by Aaron Pearlman

We stand here at the closing of the gate

Rusty iron creaks as the end seems near

Peer through the narrow crack which seals your fate

At golden doors of memories held dear


Cracks in the jam splinter we’re lost asea

Boats in a storm our lives ripped at the seam

Beyond the year’s threshold now we can see

“Where will I drift?” “Will I reach my true dream?”


Tossed away are the crumbs of our misdeeds

Floating away; Is teshuva complete?

Rivers to oceans to clouds waters leads

Each day forgiveness, like rain, is replete


Time slows, our year comes clearly into view

Transcend to new dimensions of your soul

Peer down as a path emerges anew

This groove to a great new year is the goal


On the precipice realization dawns

The future, not past, like a bridge is drawn


Kol Nidre Kavanah by Andrew Ehrlich

I usually stand at the other side of the Bimah playing the prelude to Ilene’s Kol Nidre chant or playing during the Amidah with Shera. Btw, I have an announcement about the exits.  When Shera and I begin to play during the Amidah it is not a sign for you to exit from your prayers. We do not want to move you with our music… to sit down!   Think of these simple songs as accompaniment to your thoughts.

I teach violin. Recently I was teaching a student who was playing her music very correctly—too correctly—good rhythm, good intonation, but when you play that way it can come out sounding like a 6 year old playing “Twinkle”.  Now, there is a secret “Kabbalistic”-like set of music rules some musicians know which helps you divine a piece the way the composer intended.  I could tell you what the rules are, but it would take a long time to learn and anyway, that’s not the point…even if you followed all those rules you would still sound like a 6 year old—a wunderkind, it’s true, and incredible, and you would be bringing a lot of naches to your parents, but you would still be playing without intention.

So how do you pray musically and with intention? (Joey, did I say “Pray”?) Perhaps the same answer will work for both questions. (How do you pray with intention, and how do you play with intention?)   The paradoxical answer is that you have to listen to what is actually coming out of you and listen to what it asks you to play or pray next.  Whether you are 6 or 66, this is the hardest thing to do.

Kol Nidre Reflection by Bill Campbell

On the Eastside Esplanade, under the Morrison Bridge, there is a sculpture – a portal. 

A window framed in whorls of mystic dreams and strange landscapes, dimensions we cannot quite see. 

It is, in fact, a time machine.  One steps through it, and on the other side, one is in the future. 

I walk through it eagerly, every time.  That step through it - Full of promise.  Full of choice.  Full of possibility.  

You can go there, and share it.  And laugh at the seeing.  And bring home the knowing:  in our lives, every door gives us that. 

Every step takes us into the future.  We simply, one day, choose to see creation in the step –

For what is creation, but opening our eyes, and realizing the yes we wish, is ours to say, and do? 

God said let there be light.  And the sea and the dry land.  And the day and the night, and the creatures and all manner of growing things.  And us.  And the Sabbath.  

And for how many eons – ages – timeless time –

had the almighty held all of these in her heart, already, the fullness

of what the world is/shall be,

before the moment,

very simply, she just spoke: yes? 

And why must it be that this timeless, endless story would happen just once? 

Each of us holds, and all of us hold together – unspoken, but imagined, this ability to choose with each step, our future.  And so it awaits

  • in the small, or
  • in the large,
  • to burst forth again,
  • in the joy of our own Creation?  

We need only the moment to open our eyes, the awareness

to see the future, emergent, on the other side of every door.

It is for us to dare to speak the word,

to see the yes. 

In every step to create the future anew, and fresh. 

CLICK HERE to read Rabbi Joey's Kol Nidre Drash, "The Last Drash."

Putting on the Tallis by Evan King

When putting on Tallis, I think about joining the tradition of Jews over time

Think of TIME in 2 ways

     • Over the course of time

          • Thousands of years of Jews starting morning prayers this way

     • Joining in the time of this Yom Kippur

          • If we think about the International Date Line

          • It has been this time in the morning  for 21 hours already

          • Jews around the world have been putting on their tallit in preparation for Yom Kippur morning prayers for the last 21 hours

And now, we join Jews throughout time, as we join in the traditional prayer and don our Tallit.

"On Jonah" by Joel Bettridge

Jonah is a troubling book for a host of reasons, but one becomes especially acute when we read it in the afternoon on Yom Kippur. Tradition tells us that we should identify with the people of Nineveh because of their complete, immediate, and collective repentance. And yet many of us, I suspect, feel more like Jonah—alone, reluctant to humble ourselves, and more angry at the evils of the larger world than our everyday, more common shortcomings. Moreover, when we draw this story into our own moment, we might understandably ask: what does atoning even mean when many of us do not conceive of the Divine in such anthropomorphic terms? Or, as I’ve come to think of it recently, what does it mean to run from, or toward, God when you don’t think God has feet? In this sea of troubles, then, the question that arises about this odd book is: how do we get to Nineveh? How do we move from feeling like Jonah to acting as the Ninevites did?

As you’ve no doubt guessed, the obvious answer is: you take whale.

What that means, however, only begins to appear when we recognize that the profound nature of Jonah lies in the metaphor of the big fish itself, not the more obvious didactic lessons often attributed to the book—lessons such as, “you can’t outrun God,” “do what you are told,” or, my personal favorite, “don’t fall asleep in the holds of ships caught in storms.”

One thing I have come to love about the Jewish tradition is its persistent commitment to living within metaphors, of willingly being swallowed by them. We often take this commitment so far that we shape our metaphors into physical reminders. We have for instance, the tradition of wearing a white robe like a shroud during Yom Kippur, for Teshuvah (repentance), requires us to reckon with our own mortality and engage in physical and spiritual toil that resembles death as we seek to be inscribed in the book of life.  

When it comes to Jonah’s central metaphor of being entombed in a whale we encounter a textual monster. Centuries of commentators have been swept away by it; one midrash even spends nearly half its time on a conversation between the fish and Jonah and the grand tour of the deep they take together, from the ocean’s source, to the path in the Red Sea through which Israel passed, to the foundations of the earth as well as of the Temple.

But I can never get past the poem-prayer that Jonah sings once he finds himself in the belly of the fish, for once he discovers himself there Jonah abandons himself; he enters oblivion, and offers up a song of intense beauty and philosophical complexity. The poem, which we just heard recited, is largely a collection of passages from Psalms. One translation of it reads:

In my trouble I called to the Lord,

                        And He answered me;

From the belly of Sheol I cried out,

And You heard my voice.

You cast me into the depths,

Into the heart of the sea,

The floods engulfed me;

All Your breakers and billows

Swept over me.

I thought I was driven away

Out of your sight:

Would I ever gaze again

Upon Your Holy Temple?

The waters closed in over me,

The deep engulfed me.

Weeds twined around my head.

I sank to the base of the mountains;

The bars of earth closed upon me forever.

Yet You brought my life up from the pit,

O Lord my God!

When my life was ebbing away,

I called the Lord to mind;

And my prayer came before You,

Into Your holy Temple.

They who cling to empty folly

Forsake their own welfare,

But I, with loud thanksgiving,

Will sacrifice to You;

What I have vowed I will perform.

Deliverance is the Lord’s!

As I read these lines, Jonah’s sheer obsessive, constant reformulation of his disintegration, hammers away at my understanding until I hardly know how to make sense of the words.

Following the classic use of “parallelism” in Hebrew poetry, in which a central subject is modified and strengthened over several lines, Jonah gives us multiple versions of his death. In fact no less than 13 times does he describe his situation as a kind of burial, and each repetition further transforms the whale’s belly into the mysterious ocean that envelops him. He is in the “depths,” “the heart of the sea”; “floods engulf” him, “breakers and billows” sweep over him; “weeds twin” around his head. We also hear echoes of Genesis, both the primordial waters out of which God forms the world and the great flood that destroys it just six chapters later. Jonah might be said to be drowning among the wicked at the “base of the mountains” that Noah floats over or swimming through the unformed void that God’s voice interrupts. In these many deaths Jonah also discovers a new sense of scale in which God is everywhere, which is to be humbled in the truest and most profound sense of the word.

The fact that time too is out of joint in the book of Jonah reinforces these associations: in his prayer Jonah found himself in trouble, he is dying, and he will be delivered; the earth closed upon him “forever” and he will make sacrifices to the Lord in the future. The language and the imagery of the poem thus serve to intensify Jonah’s abandonment of himself to the sea: his emersion in God’s created world and his will for it. Jonah’s decent into the depths becomes a form of elegy and a psalm of praise and rebirth: he sings his own death and his own resurrection.

That is to say, once overboard, Jonah is swallowed by creation. He no longer makes sense to himself as a person running from God, angry at the sins of those others, the Ninevites, or even as a person who goes to sleep and wakes up each day, for all these things would keep him at the center of his own world. When Jonah dies within the whale that centrality and personal agency is precisely what he gives up. Instead of resentful self-governance Jonah feels joy as he proclaims a loud “thanksgiving”; he feels himself to be one small creature among other creates moving through a massive universe full of oceans and weeds, temples, mountains and sand bars—in drowning he is united with them. He feels the sacredness of creation and his stake in it. At its most fundamental, being swallowed by creation is a kind of exuberant humility.

Its funny too how often whales are the vehicle for such transformation. From the book of Job we know that Leviathan is the great mockery of humans self-centeredness, for the sea monster, like Jonah’s fish, displaces people from the center of the universe. God says out of the tempest, “Can you draw out Leviathan by a fishhook? / Can you press down his tongue by a rope? Can you put a ring through his nose, or pierce his jaw with a barb? Will he plead with you at length? Will he speak soft words to you? Will he make an agreement with you to be taken as your lifelong slave? Will you play with him like a bird…? Lay a hand on him, / And you will never think of battle again” (40: 25, 32). And, as an English teacher (now you will have to forgive me), I can’t help but hear the end of Melville’s Moby-Dick in all this talk of whales and metaphors, the scale of the world, and the humbling of human hearts. After a whirlpool pulls the Pequod and its crew under the waves, the novel reads, “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago” (576).

With these beasts swimming around in our heads, taking occupation of them, we can say as well that being swallowed by creation also means submitting to another’s reading of us, and goodness knows that can feel and be intolerable, especially when that other is a crazy book of ancient prophesy, or a God we do not think actually lives in way we, or fish, or even trees do, never mind friends and family who know us too well, and strangers whom we do not always present our most loving selves to. But as Jonah sinks and sings, the power of the prayer as a poem makes accepting that reading possible; in the poem’s language, imagery, and the accompanying strangeness of its anchoring metaphor, we can grasp what it means for him to become readable to himself through the Whale. To put it perhaps too simply, the poem captures Jonah’s intense emotional state in all its humility and offers it to us. As we follow along, descending with him, the bizarre physical, temporal, and musical situation takes over, and although we can’t actually believe, or literally picture, what is happening, we can read or hear it, which means we can feel and imagine it too, and when we do we are with him.

Thus Jonah’s prayer shows us what it feels like to atone: joy and sorrow; the sharp thrill of insight and the dullness of confusion; the quickness of feeling alive and the vacuum of being dead, all mixing together like the water of the ocean washing over us.

In this metaphor of being swallowed by creation we find too a mystical moment of union with God despite our skepticism about the characters involved. Rabbi Nachman suggests that God is “the concealment within concealment”—that which is hidden from us, but that which also hides the fact of its hiding. When we atone each year we have to work to admit how little we see and understand the world and then read ourselves through what we cannot fully grasp, through our absence of understanding. We have to work for a self that disappears into creation, one that is swallowed by a world that is swallowed by God’s stories; a self that only comes back to us when we joyfully put it in service to others, be they whales or Ninevites, or that “concealment within concealment” we call God.

To say then that Jonah atones is not merely to say he agrees to go to Nineveh. His journey there is almost beside the point. To recognize that truth all we need to do is recall the book’s famous conclusion we just heard a few minutes ago where Jonah, depressed and bent out of shape because the Ninevites were saved after all, leaves the city, takes shade under a gourd and complains to God both about his mercy and the overnight demise of his beloved vine. God responds to Jonah’s grumbling with a simple question; he says, “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?”

Of course Jonah does not answer; the book ends there, and we might well ask what happened to the Jonah who sang from the belly of the fish? The answer to that question is likely more complicated than I realize, but while I sympathize with Jonah—no doubt he has been through the ringer and it can be hard to see others forgiven—I still can’t help but respond “fair enough” to God’s point. In God’s rejoinder the Ninevites appear like children; their sins like confusion; and Jonah, as a result, looks petulant; thus compassion and humility rather than condemnation and anger suddenly look more reasonable and fitting.

Strikingly, the world has not changed dramatically at this stage of the book, but the way we are asked to see it has. If we still feel like Jonah at this point we can’t help but hear a quiet inner nagging that suggests we aught to surrender the bitter feelings we nurture within our Jonah-like hearts when we observe the sins of others. Agreeing to read ourselves through the eyes of another—what I’ve called being swallowed by creation—ends up requiring us to apply that standard to the world, but the harshness of the verdict we experience in the center of that storm becomes quite the opposite when we look away from ourselves. God’s final words at the end of Jonah ask us to look at the world through God’s eyes, which cannot help but displace our human thoughts about one another with infinite generosity. This does not of course mean we need not act in the world and try to heal it, or that cruelty and injustice are not our business, for they clearly are. After all, God takes the time to send a prophet to Nineveh, and the clear implication in the book of Jonah is that God would have destroyed the city had not its people repented. Jonah’s problem is that he longs for their destruction, not their redemption. The final challenge of the book is the realization that atonement is not primarily, or only, about our selves. To be swallowed by creation, and, as a result, look at the world as God does, as belonging to the Divine, begins in self-scrutiny, moves to self-displacement, and on to love of the world, and then goes from there.

And with that I begin to see more clearly that my first puzzlement while reading Jonah was not quite right. The point, it seems, is not to get to Nineveh but find a way to live within the whale, to live always within that great metaphor, always reading ourselves through it. After all that is what makes the Ninevites exemplary. They allow themselves to see themselves through Jonah’s prophesy. Jonah’s problem is that he forgets his recent interment too quickly. But if we can, echoing the Ninevites, discover in our attempt at atonement a way to singularly and collectively be persistently swallowed by creation, and remain there as we go back to our lives and duties, then that maybe is a way toward acquiring the change of heart required of us on Yom Kippur and the days that follow.   

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for Good.

CLICK HERE to read "We Were Made for These Times," read by Keren McCord


Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784