Sunday, October 6, 2019

Teshuvah and the Suffering Jew (Derashah, Yom Kippur 5780)

From the Cutting Room Floor:

I wrote the following draft derashah for Yom Kippur, but the Rebbetzin, whose derashah sensibilities are as close to unerring as a human being gets, pointed out numerous flaws, so I'm going in a different direction. I still feel the message holds some value, though, so I'm posting it here. Feedback always welcome.

The Book of Yonah conveys distinct messages to different audiences.
·         To some, it’s an entertaining fish story!
·         To others, it’s a philosophical polemic on mercy and forgiveness.
·         To another audience, it’s a political attack on the barbaric Assyrian Empire.
·         And to still others, it’s a mystical parable about the journey of the soul, represented by Yonah himself.
But I’d like to read it on another level – as a story of unexpected, if partial, redemption, offering a powerful lesson for our relationship with Hashem, on Yom Kippur and all year round.

Chapter 1: Fight and Flight
In Chapter 1, almost from the opening sentence, our protagonist, Yonah, an experienced prophet,[1] dramatically demonstrates that he is at odds with the Gd he serves. Gd orders him to travel east to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and convey a simple message: In forty days, Nineveh will be overturned. Yonah refuses to go – but whatever drives his refusal is so disturbing, so painful that he cannot express it at this point. Yonah silently descends to the water and hires a boat heading west, the opposite direction.

At first, it seems that Yonah will retire, or change professions; as midrashim and mefarshim explain, Yonah expects to evade his prophetic responsibilities by leaving Israel, the land of prophecy.[2] Perhaps he’ll become an itinerant sailor, maybe a merchant.

But then the boat leaves port and a ferocious wind erupts out of nowhere, and Yonah’s reaction is not to help the sailors weather the storm, and not to position himself to escape, but instead to calmly descend to the bottom of the boat - in fact, to go to sleep. Yonah seems unsurprised by Gd’s gambit; it’s almost as if he was expecting this Divine response, and indeed he goes along with it, prepared to die. The sailors temporarily thwart the strategy when they wake him and demand that he pray to his Gd – but the former prophet refuses to daven, and instead insists, successfully, that the sailors throw him overboard, to his presumed death.[3]

Chapters 2-3: A mysterious turnaround
Then, in Chapter 2, Yonah changes his mind about Gd, or so it appears. In a case of “Man bites dog”, a fish reels in Yonah, saving his life. And instead of looking for more creative ways to die, Yonah returns to Gd. Not even reluctantly – he composes a beautiful, if waterlogged, poem about his newfound appreciation for his Creator!

This is followed by Chapter 3, in which Hashem sends Yonah to Nineveh, and he carries out the mission, and the people of Nineveh repent. We’re looking good!

Chapter 4: Yonah is still angry
But in Chapter 4 we learn that Yonah hasn’t really made his peace with Gd. True, he carries out the mission, but he is still suffering, and now he finally opens up with his feelings. Yonah chastises Gd for His mercy on Nineveh; it’s an existential complaint against the ways of the Gd he serves, the sort of complaint that we have difficulty appreciating ourselves, but would make perfect sense for someone who lives in the rarefied spiritual air of prophecy and spirituality. The mission Gd gave Yonah is offensive to him, even painful for him; he cannot stomach the idea of forgiveness for Nineveh!

Yes, Yonah is done running away, finished trying to end his life, but he is clearly not reconciled with his Creator, and even at the end of the book he still seems to be suffering.

The problem
So here is our problem: What happened in Chapter 2, to cause Yonah to return to Gd? Especially, if he is still angry in Chapter 4!

More than Yonah
I’m asking these questions about Yonah, but really - a prophet who’s been gone for more than 2600 years, and the nuances of a small book of Tanach, are not my point this Yom Kippur. I’m asking these questions because they are relevant for many of us.

Yonah ran away from Gd, and even life, when he was suffering. Many of us are suffering. Physical Health. Emotional Health. Relationships. Finances. The News. Existential fear. That suffering must make Yom Kippur very difficult; how can we practice teshuvah, a return to Hashem, when we don’t feel like returning? If we can understand what brought Yonah back, even though he clearly didn’t feel like returning, perhaps we will understand how we can come back as well.

The Key: The Second Perek
I think the answer is actually clear in Chapter 2 – the chapter of Yonah that people largely ignore, because it’s poetry rather than a story about an angry prophet, a man-eating fish and a kikayon plant, whatever that is.[4] A few sentences give us three insights into what Yonah was thinking, and why he came back despite his suffering.

Yonah sings:
3I called to Gd in my trouble, and He answered me. From the belly of the depths I cried out, and You heard my voice.
4And You cast me into the depths, the heart of the seas, and the river surrounded me; all of Your breakers and waves passed over me.
5And I said, ‘I have been exiled from before Your eyes.’ Still! I would look toward Your holy sanctuary.

Our first insight comes from the way Yonah characterizes his near-death experience. He says, “You cast me into the depths” “Your breakers and waves passed over me” “I said I have been exiled.” In fact, the Hebrew word Yonah used for “exiled” was נגרשתי – the same term used when Gd ejects Adam and Chavah from Gan Eden ויגרש את האדם, the same word that Kayin uses to describe how Gd will make him wander, הן גרשת אותי היום.

In other words: Yonah thought that Gd was his tormentor. Of course, on a practical level, Yonah knows he was the one who decided to head west, and he was the one who ordered the sailors to throw him into those breakers and waves! But to Yonah, Gd’s decision to send Yonah on this painful mission was the equivalent of ordering Yonah away, driving him off, forcing him to flee and nearly die. It’s Gd’s fault.

Second insight: In his poem, Yonah recounts, שועתי, קראתי – “I called to Gd,” “From the belly of the depths I cried out.” “Still I would look toward Your holy sanctuary.” We didn’t see Yonah cry out or daven in Chapter 1, but in Chapter 2 Yonah discloses that even as he insisted on being thrown overboard, he cried out to Gd to save his life! Yonah didn’t want to die; he wanted to live.

Last insight: After he is saved, Yonah declares, jubilantly, ויענני, שמעת קולי! Gd answered me! You heard my voice!  You aren’t pushing me away! In fact – You saved my life! In other words – Yonah now sees what Gd has done for him, and is moved to recognize that Gd is there for him.

This is why Yonah returns in Chapter 2 – he never wanted to leave. He felt that Gd was pushing him away with the offensive mission, and when he called out to Gd and Gd threw him a line, he realized that Gd did not want him to die, Gd was not pushing him away. Looking at what Gd had given him saved Yonah’s life, and made his teshuvah possible.

Important clarification: Pain is not canceled by Divine favours
But let’s be clear: Even after returning in Chapter 2, Yonah is still angry – sure, he does his job in Chapter 3, but hear his wrath in Chapter 4. Recognizing what Gd has done for him doesn’t eliminate or balance out his pain. But seeing what he has received demonstrates to Yonah that at least, Gd isn’t pushing him away.

Yom Kippur
I think there’s a lot we can learn from this layer of the Book of Yonah – from his original feeling that Gd is forcing him away, and his realization that Gd wants him close.

In the course of Yom Kippur, we will apologize to Gd many, many times. The Tur[5] notes that we say 10 viduyim (confessios) because the Kohen Gadol proclaimed the Name of Gd ten times on Yom Kippur. But reciting 10 viduyim can be hard, when we feel that Gd is pushing us away, by permitting us to suffer in ways we believe we don’t deserve. We may well experience Yonah’s resentment and sense of exile, נגרשתי מנגד עיניך. Do You really expect me to apologize? How am I supposed to arouse in my broken heart a feeling of yearning and longing for a Gd who has abandoned me? How can You expect me to strike my chest and apologize for missing a minyan once, for failing to give tzedakah once?

But perhaps, even in our pain, we can search our lives and identify a moment in which Gd supported us, visibly or less visibly. Then, perhaps, we will appreciate that there is a relationship, that even with all of the suffering, Gd does not want to chase us off. It’s not all better – Yonah still rages! – but there is a path forward and a means to return.

סדר העבודה
On Rosh HaShanah I spoke about a new Israeli song, בין קודש לחול.[6] I’d like to conclude this derashah with a thought from another new Israeli song, סדר העבודה by Yishai Ribbo.[7] It’s a wonderful song, using the text of the machzor as it describes the kohen gadol counting aloud the motions with which he applies the blood of a korban for atonement: אחת, אחת ואחת, אחת ושתים – One, One plus one, one plus two, one plus three – and the kohen proclaims the Name of Gd, and the nation falls on their faces.

Ribbo first presents the words of the Kohen Gadol in the kodesh kodashim (Holy of Holies).
·         But Ribbo has the kohen count out apparently infinite transgressions. He sings, “If one could remember all of the defects and deficiencies, all of the rebellions and all of the guilt, certainly, he would count – One, one plus one, one plus two, one plus three, one plus four, one plus five, and immediately he would despair, for he could not bear the bitterness of the sins, the wasted opportunities, the loss.”
·         The assembled Jews kneel and fall on their faces. Falling on their faces is an expression of despair and shame at our sins, an expression of agonized distance, a feeling that we must be exiled.

But then, after our repentance, the kohen gadol again counts, but this is a different counting:
·         Now the kohen counts out infinite Divine acts of kindness. He sings, “If one could remember the acts of generosity, the favours, all of the mercy and all of the salvation, certainly, he would count – One, one plus one, one plus two, one of the thousand, thousands of thousands and the manifold myriads of miracles and wonders You have performed for us, day and night.”
·         And the assembled Jews kneel and fall on their faces. But now, falling on their faces is an expression of gratitude for our relationship, which has survived the sins and the distance, and remains available for our return.

Ribbo’s point is not quite mine, but it shares a common thread: No matter where we have been:
·         No matter the suffering we have endured, like Yonah in Chapter 1 –  
·         And what we will endure in the future as Yonah will in Chapter 4 –
·         If we can live like Yonah in Chapter 2, recognizing what Hashem has done for us, we will end the feeling of tragic distance, and the path will be clear for our return.
May we succeed in returning to Gd, and may Gd return to us.

[1] Melachim II 14:25
[2] Mechilta d’R’ Yishmael Bo 1, as well as Ibn Ezra 1:1 and Radak 1:3.
[3] See the Mechilta ibid.
[4] See Ibn Ezra vs Radak in Yonah 4. I’m a fan of Ibn Ezra’s approach.
[5] Tur Orach Chaim 620; and see the Maharil and others


  1. Thank you for this. It was very meaningful for me as I've been struggling with this feeling for some years now, trying to be frum with ongoing (and probably lifelong) mental health issues, feeling that HaShem is pushing me away the whole time, making it impossible for me to be frum, trying to force myself to see the goodness that He does for me, but struggling to manage that a lot of the time, or at least feeling that it seems fake... I wonder if that's the meaning of the famously open ending to the book. That there isn't a final answer, we just have to find provisional answers.

    Gemar chatima tova.

  2. Thank you, Daniel. This is why I thought the derashah could be helpful. And yes, that ending leaves many possibilities. I have much more to say about Yonah, hopefully for another time.