Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

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Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is bridging the gap between old Jewish books and contemporary realities.

Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

Swimming with Jonah

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The Book of Jonah is surely one of the most minor of the minor prophets of TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible. His fame is inversely proportional to the length of his book. Were it not for the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale and the treatment it has received in popular theatre, music, and art he would have been consigned to the same obscurity as the prophet Zephania. Why then, have the Jewish people assigned him such a position of prominence on Yom Kippur? Were the Book of Jonah not read on Yom Kippur, who would have remembered him? Jonah’s prominence in the afternoon service of Yom Kippur is so powerful that some people and some families have a centuries-old tradition to be called to the Torah to read the Book of Jonah in the synagogue on Yom Kippur.

In 1989, when I taught in the Yeshiva in Moscow, I met a scientist at the Soviet NASA. His name was Kikayon. Everyone thought he was an Armenian. I looked at him and I said, “Do you still read Maftir Yonah on Yom Kippur?” He turned several colors. He knew he had been exposed. This prominent Soviet scientist was a member of a Jewish family that had a longstanding tradition to read Jonah in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, so much so that the book of Jonah determined the family’s surname. Kikayon is the Hebrew word for gourd, found only once in the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Jonah. It is the gourd underneath which Jonah sits as he despairs of his life.

The LORD God provided a kikayon (gourd), which grew up over Jonah, to provide shade for his head and save him from discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the gourd. (Jon 4:6 )

Dr. Kikayon’s family was so devoted to the recitation of Maftir Yonah that Kikayon became their surname. The family custom was so powerful that even in the darkest Soviet years he would quietly gather together a minyan in his suburban Moscow dacha, or vacation home, on Yom Kippur afternoon so that he could, bereft of any other Yom Kippur practices, continue the tradition of his family recitation of Jonah. But enough of this lighthearted stuff. What does Jonah have to do with Yom Kippur? Why did the rabbis, long ago in the Talmud, choose Jonah as the book to read on Yom Kippur? The answer is remarkably simple.

Passover is the day that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. What event does Yom Kippur commemorate? Yom Kippur commemorates the event described in Sh’mot-Exodus 33 and 34 when Israel sins and worships the Golden Calf. You know the rest of the tale. God seeks to punish Israel. Moses asks God to forgive Israel. God forgives Israel. According to tradition, God’s forgiveness of Israel took place on Yom Kippur. We read the Book of Jonah because it is an inverted Golden Calf story. In the story of the Golden Calf people sin, God wants to punish the people and the prophet Moses asks God to forgive the people. In the Jonah story the people of Ninveh sin. God wants them to repent. God tells Jonah to tell the people of Ninveh to turn from their sinful ways. The prophet runs away. The prophet wants God to punish the people of Ninveh for their sins.

  People God Prophet
Sin of the Golden Calf Israel worships the Golden Calf Punish them! Moses: Forgive them.
Jonah and Ninveh Ninveh is a highly sinful nation. Repent! Jonah: Punish them.

The rabbis choose this inverted Golden Calf story for Yom Kippur because they want to hold a mirror up to our face. All day long we stand in the synagogue on Yom Kippur and we ask God to forgive us our sins. We ask God to be compassionate and gracious to us. But we are like Jonah. How many of us really, really believe that our family and our friends who have sinned against us, or others, are really going to change and be different the day after Yom Kippur? We are cynical about it. We don’t really forgive. We carry over the attitudes, thoughts, and feelings of the day before Yom Kippur to the day after Yom Kippur. So the rabbis remind us and tell us that once, long ago, God promised Moses that if people returned from sin He would forgive them. God has remained faithful to that promise. It is we humans who haven’t remained faithful. We really sometimes don’t believe that people can change. We want God to do for us what we don’t always do for others. We are Jonah.

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