Shabbat Shuvah: Jonah the Elder Brother
On Yom Kippur afternoon we read the story of Jonah, whom God commands to call Nineveh to repentance. After a few digressions, Jonah eventually preaches to them and they repent. Not only do the people fast but even their animals. And Hashem forgives them and their destruction is averted. This is read on Yom Kippur because it demonstrates the power of repentance; significant for us on the Day of Repentance and Atonement. We come before Hashem confessing our sin but we are confident that He is not only a Righteous King but a Loving Father, eager to restore His communion with us.
But, of course, we all know that Jonah initially refused his task and fled from Hashem. God eventually brings him back to this task and after doing it, Jonah is furious that they repented and that God forgave them. The text never tells us why Jonah didn’t want Nineveh to repent and be saved. A number of explanations are provided by our Sages that we won’t go into here.
Abarbanel, a 15th-century Portuguese Jewish scholar, wrote an interesting midrash about this story. When the sailors ask him who he is, Jonah replies,
עִבְרִי אָנֹכִי וְאֶת־יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם אֲנִי יָרֵא אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה אֶת־הַיָּם וְאֶת־הַיַּבָּשָֽׁה׃
“I am a Hebrew. I worship Adonai. The God of Heaven who made the sea and dry land.”
Abarbanel plays on the word “ivri”, Hebrew, and says that the sailors were afraid because they deduced that it could be also translated as “avaryan”,
,a cognate in Hebrew that means “sinner or renegade”; they knew that Jonah as in rebellion against Hashem! Of course this is unlikely as the sailors did not speak Hebrew, but it provides a useful insight. Jonah considered himself a Hebrew, perhaps he was even proud of this, but in reality he was a renegade.
This term, not coincidentally, gets used in Kol Nidre that we will recite tomorrow night. We say:
By the authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below, with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.
The word used here for those who have transgressed is “avaryanim”,
,the plural of avaryan.
On theory about the origin of Kol Nidre was that it was composed for those Jews who were forced to convert to either Christianity or Islam. Normally it would be forbidden to pray with such people, but this allowed those who wished to rejoin the community for Yom Kippur to do so.
This morning we read Yeshua’s mashal, parable, about the younger son who squandered his inheritance and his dutiful older brother. This is often referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Many assume that prodigal means to run away, but it actually means to squander wealth. The younger brother comes to his senses, returns to his father and is not only forgiven, but welcomed with a grand party. The dutiful elder brother is indignant that his father would react this way.
There are many lessons that we can draw from this mashal, but one is that it is possible to be “close” to God, and yet not really understand what He is about. The elder brother, the dutiful one, who stayed at home, thinks that he knows his father, and yet he clearly doesn’t. In his righteous indignation he is shocked at his father’s compassion and love.
It occurred to me while reading both of these passages this week that Jonah is the elder brother! Like him he is angry and indignant that God would save Nineveh. Jonah thinks that he is an Ivri, a Hebrew, loyal and close to God, and yet he is in fact an avayran, a renegade, who does not really grasp Hashem’s character.
Interestingly, there is a Hebrew word, עֶבְרָה, that is cognate ivri and avayran, which means anger or indignation. Indignation means anger at something that is unjust or unworthy. The elder brother was mad because he felt that his younger brother was unworthy of forgiveness. Jonah was mad because he felt that Nineveh was likewise unworthy. Both are blind to the fact that Hashem sees all as worthy, regardless of what they have done, especially if they repent.
As we enter Yom Kippur, we have to ask ourselves not only how we have been like the younger son or Nineveh in our waywardness, but also how we have been like the elder brother and Jonah. Have we been consumed by righteous anger and indignation, forgetting Hashem’s love and compassion? I think that this is particularly insidious because it is more subtle than outward rebellion; it can go disguised as holiness or righteousness. Therefore, we can be blind to it, think that we are an ivri, when in reality we are an avayran.
We certainly live in a society today charged with righteous indignation. People are shocked and horrified when others disagree with their politics, lifestyle, religious views, etc… It's easy for us to pick up that vibe and fall into a similar trap.
We can not only fall into this individually but collectively as well. This is a temptation for Messianic Jews. We can look down in righteous indignation at both traditional Jews and Christians; the first for not recognizing the Messiah or accepting us as Jews, the second for their lack of understanding of Scripture from a Jewish point of view.
May we examine our attitudes and repent of being an avaryan. Let us truly come close to Hashem in this New Year and learn His compassion, grace, and forgiveness.