- Rabbi Isaac Roussel
Yom Kippur: Tale of Three Cities
Charles Dickens wrote the Tale of Two Cities, but I would like to talk this morning about the Tale of Three Cities. His was a story of a man seeking to reunite with his daughter, mine is a story of a people reuniting with their God.
The first city that I would like to discuss is Sedom. We are all familiar with the story. God along with some angels visited Avraham and as He is about to take His leave he decides to tell Avraham what He is going to do. Avraham then bargains with Hashem trying to save the city from destruction, haggling Him down to if ten righteous people are found He will relent. Unfortunately, they are not found and God brings judgment upon it.
Have you ever wondered why God did not send Avraham, the angels, or even Avraham’s nephew, Lot, who lived there, to warn the people to repent? We see in the story that the two angels go down to the cities, but they make no attempt to call anyone to repentance in order to avert the destruction. In fact, it seems that their sole purpose there is to test them to see if they are indeed as wicked as they seem. Lot greets them at the city gates and invites him to stay in his home. But they say that they want to stay the night in the city square. It’s almost like they are inviting assault as a test. He persuades them, however, to come to his home, but then later the house is surrounded by people demanding that Lot bring the men out to them so that they may rape them.
There have been many reasons given by commentators over the centuries for this lack of offering a chance to repent. A modern day rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who is in charge of the Western Wall, gives a reason that is rather compelling. He says that they were beyond redemption. He cites Genesis 19:5, where it is not just some of the men from Sedom demanding the visitors, but it says that it was all of the men, both young and old, from every part of the city. In other words, this city was thoroughly corrupt. Offering repentance to them would have had no effect.
The Talmud teaches that on Rosh Hashanah God opens three books; the Tzaddikim, the totally righteous are immediately inscribed in the Book of Life; the Resha’im, evil ones, are immediately inscribed in the Book of Death; those who are in between, neither completely righteous or wicked, called the Beinoni, are left in suspension until Yom Kippur.
Resha’im, the totally wicked, are those who have totally given into their sinful nature and are beyond redemption. These are the people of Sedom.
The second city is from our reading of Jonah this afternoon. In this text, God sends Jonah to call the people of Nineveh to repent. Jonah is reluctant to do this but God ultimately brings him to task and he does as he is told. The Ninevites hear Hashem’s decree of judgment and destruction and repent in spades. The king decrees that not only the people but even their animals must put on sackcloth and fast from both food and water. He demands that they turn from their evil ways and to cry out earnestly to God. When God sees their actions, He forgives and does not destroy them.
Nineveh is the city of Benoni, the intermediate ones. They are not totally wicked and not totally righteous and therefore God reaches out to them in love and concern. Jonah is angry that God forgave them, so God sought to teach him a lesson. He causes a plant to grow up quickly that provides Jonah shade and then causes it to quickly wither. Jonah is upset about losing his shade. Hashem says to Jonah, “You were upset about this little plant... Should I not be even concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than 120,000 people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!” This is a kal v’chomer argument, from lighter to weightier. He is saying to Jonah, if you are concerned for this little plant, how much more so should you be concerned for a huge city filled with souls.
I would venture to say that no one here today is a rasha, a completely wicked person. The fact that you are here attests to this fact. I would also hazard a guess that none of us is a tzaddik, a totally righteous person. We stand today before Hashem on this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, as Ninevites, as benonim. We seek to serve Hashem, to keep His commandments, to be faithful to Him, and yet we often, sometimes daily or minute by minute, fail. We come before Him on this most momentous day, confessing these shortcomings repeatedly.
We have the confidence that God is offering forgiveness, that He is calling us to repentance, just as He did to the city of Nineveh. He is eager to avert destruction. He does not want to inscribe anyone in the Book of Death. Shimon Kefa writes in his second letter that Hashem is patient with us, not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9). Yochanan tells us that God sent Messiah Yeshua, His only son, so that whoever places their trust in him may not perish but have eternal life.
But action is required on our part. We must do Teshuvah, repentance, turn around, which is what teshuvah literally means, just as the Ninevites did. Today we are called to join the people of Nineveh and put on sackcloth,fast and cry out to God.
If we do, then we will merit to see the third city. It is the city of the tzaddikim. It is the New Jerusalem that will descend from heaven. It will be a place where God has completely destroyed sin and death. A place where even our evil inclination is removed so that we can fully worship and commune with Him and His Messiah. It is the city that is also the Mishkan, the Temple of Adonai, flowing with the River of Life.
Today we stand in the balance. We stand in the city of Nineveh, crying out to Hashem for His forgiveness and love. And we have the confidence that through Messiah Yeshua we will have it, if we are faithful.
May we hearken to the decree of our King, Messiah Yeshua, who calls us to repent, just as the king of Nineveh called to his people.
May we sincerely confess our sins and raise our eyes to the Sinless One, who gave his all for us and now intercedes for us in the Heavenly Courts.
And then we will truly merit to be citizens of the City of Tzaddikim, the Heavenly Jerusalem, where we will no longer be the in-betweens, but sealed forever in the Lamb’s Book of Life!
Gut Yontif. And Tzom Kal, may you all have an easy fast.