Yom Kippur 5775 (2014)
"The God Who Pursues Us"
Rabbi Isaac Roussel / Congregation Zera Avraham
This afternoon we will read the story of Jonah as is the normal practice on Yom Kippur. Most of you are familiar with the story. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent. Jonah attempts to flee to Tarshish to avoid doing Hashem’s bidding. A storm rises up and the sailors are forced to throw him overboard where he is swallowed by a great fish. It is there after three days and nights in the belly of the fish that he finally repents and agrees to do his mission. The fish spews him out onto dry land, he goes to Nineveh and they repent, which makes Jonah angry. The story leaves us hanging, though, with Jonah being lectured by God and we don’t hear what his response is.
Our tradition gives us four main reasons why we read this story on Yom Kippur afternoon. First, it reminds us of God’s infinite mercy. The P’sikta de Rav Kahana has Israel asking that if it repents, will God accept it. God responds “Would I accept the repentance of the people of Nineveh and not yours?”
Second, on this great day of Teshuvah (repentance) the Ninevites are exemplars for us. When they are told of their impending doom they immediately began fasting and repenting, even down to the children and animals.
Third, it is a reminder that all is in God’s hands. In the story, Hashem uses the wind, sea, fish, and the kikayon plant to bring Jonah to the place He wants him to be. Psalm 24 is recited during the Kol Nidrei service, “The earth is Adonai’s, with all that is in it, the world and those who live there; for He set its foundations on the seas and established it on the rivers.”
Fourth, the Talmud tells us that Mincha (afternoon prayers) are a special time to have our prayers answered. Just as Jonah was heard in the belly of the fish, we too can be heard as the day wanes on this day of repentance.
But there are many more valuable lessons that we can draw from this small book. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a modern Torah commentator, writes “The book of Jonah invites interpretation from the first verse to the last; but its elusive meanings are never fully netted.”
I would like to propose a 5th reason why it is good for us to hear this story on this momentous day.
Jonah teaches us that God constantly pursues us for our good. Abraham Joshua Heschel said that most religions focus on humans seeking God, but the Bible describes a God who seeks us. He says that all of human history can be summarized as “God in search of man”.
There is a midrash about the book of Jonah that likens Jonah to a servant of a cohen (a priest) who does not want to do his master’s bidding. He says to himself, “I will flee to a cemetery, a place where my master cannot enter (priests cannot go into cemeteries or they will be defiled)”. His master, however, says “I have other servants like you that you don’t know about who can retrieve you from there.”
Jonah flees to Tarshish. The exact identity of this place is up for much debate. It may simply mean that it was a place far away. Jonah flees the land of Israel and tries to get as far away from God; the idea being that the pagan world is unclean like a cemetery and God’s Shekinah cannot go there. But God uses the forces of nature to bring him to not only do His will but also to teach Jonah an important lesson of compassion.
God seeks us. From the very beginning, it is God who sought out Adam and Eve after they had sinned. And throughout Scripture, Hashem relentlessly pursues Israel despite her many failings. In Hosea He says, “I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart”. In the Song of Songs, Israel says of God, “I belong to my Lover and for me He yearns”. A poet wrote, “’Lo, I am with you always’ means when you look for God, God is in the look of your eyes, in the thought of your looking, nearer to you than yourself or things that have happened to you.”
We just read last week three parables that Yeshua gave about God seeking us; the Lost Coin, Lost Sheep, and Prodigal Son. He is describing to us God’s intense desire for us and our good. He chases after us, calls to us, longs for us. One of the most moving images of God seeking us was given by Rabbi Mark right after 911. He said that the firemen searching the rubble for survivors is like God searching the ruin of this world, earnestly seeking whom He can rescue.
Jonah ends without an ending. We don’t know how he responded to Hashem. The question for us on this momentous day is how do we respond? What is God trying to tell us? What is our Nineveh? And what Tarshish are we fleeing to? What are we avoiding? Is it a bad habit, relationship or attitude? Sin? Or need for healing? It is possible that you may not even be aware of what He has been pursuing you about. Take time on this Yom Kippur to ask Him.
We are in the belly of the fish today as we sit in the darkness of Yom Kippur. Let us hear Hashem’s voice. And let us reply to that Voice. Let us face our own Ninevehs. And as we sang last night, let us join with the Psalmist and cry out of the depths to Him!
G’mar Chatimah Tova! May you be sealed!
Gut Yontif and Gut Shabbes.