Here’s a link to a Yom Kippur sermon I gave back in college about teshuvah/returning. And here (below) is one about the reading from the book of Jonah:
A few years ago, on a Yom Kippur much like this one – less late, more humid, equally hungry, my Rabbi stood up, looked across the sanctuary and said, “This is where Isaiah asks us, what the hell are you doing here?”
It’s not a flip question, although it’s irreverent; it’s not an easy question, although it’s direct. It may be the hardest of a barrage of difficult questions which weigh down on us on this weighty day. As we ask what we’ve done in the past year and what we’ll make of the next, we must start with this day – why, every year, do we spend these twenty-some hours judging, flagellating, and starving ourselves? Yom Kippur gives us the time to be all four children of the seder – sometimes intellectuals probing the meanings of our shared experience, sometimes as simple people seeking a foundation onto which to grasp, sometimes searching only for a question from which to begin. And too often, as strangers, spectators at the scene of someone else’s ceremony, someone else’s struggle.
Today we read about a stranger, a man we first meet as ben-amiti – “the son of my truth,” someone who can marshal truth behind him but cannot grapple with it in front of him, who gets it but fundamentally doesn’t get it. “Kum, laich,” God compels Jonah – get up and go. Jonah is one for two – “vayikam yonah livroach” – he got up, to flee. Faced with a moral crisis, Jonah rises so as to retreat milifnai Adonai – from in front of God, from facing God. And in the same breath, vayaraid – he goes down, in the first of a series of descents which will punctuate the narrative. The next of these descents will be into the hold of the boat, the belly of the boat as often translated, or perhaps the womb of the boat as best understood. It will be there that the Captain will find Jonah, sleeping fetus-like in a boat on the verge of destruction at sea – the lightning outside his window like a picket line marching through the garden of Eden. “Mah l’chah,” the Captain asks him. “What’s with you? What do you have? What is yours? What are you ready to own?” “Kum, kra,” – “Rise up, and cry out.” And again, Jonah rises, but in silence.
”Vayipol hagoral al Yonah” – and the lot they cast comes down on Jonah, weighs down on him, presses from above, and instead of rising he dodges in descent. Unable to reckon with his complicity in the harm visited on his fellow travelers, Jonah seeks solace in sacrifice and security in self-imposed exile. He casts himself from the boat into the sea, where he sinks into another moist belly – this time, of a great fish. And inside the fish, Jonah – whether out of contrition or convenience – prays to God in gratitude, and pleas with God to let him out so as to make good on a promise to offer greater praise. Be careful what you wish for. Jonah finds himself vomited out of the fish and back on land.
But why leave the fish? Presumably, if Jonah could last three days in there, he could have lasted three more days. Or weeks. Or months. No reason to think that belly was particularly uncomfortable. Rather, perhaps what’s most impressive, and most damning, about Jonah, is the way he manages to experience a life-threatening disaster, make a dramatic sacrifice, go through a drastic change of scenery, and still recreate precisely the conditions, challenges, and range of experiences which he left behind. Who’s to say the belly of a boat beats the belly of a bass? Both are slippery and solitary. Neither demands human interaction, or moral responsibility. Jonah moves from one womb to another. This, unfortunately, is something that we as a community know all too well how to accomplish. Daniel Boorstin in Hidden History once wrote that when we become tourists, “we go more and more where we expect to go. We get money-back guarantees that we will see what we expect to see. We go more and more, not to see at all, but to take pictures. Like the rest of our experience, travel becomes a tautology. The more strenuously and self-consciously we work at enlarging our experience, the more pervasive the tautology becomes. When we seek experience elsewhere on earth, we look into a mirror instead of out of a window, and we only see ourselves.” We live in a community here which too easily fosters tourists and quite compellingly needs travelers.
Last year, speaking in this space, Kofi Annan asked, “What will move us? What will shake us?” While we’re told Jonah prayed to be let out of the whale, the text gives little indication as to whether he would ever have brought himself to leave on his own accord. Was Jonah, who fled downward to escape God’s call to action, moved to return to the world, to leave the womb, by the churnings of his conscience – or by the churning of the stomach of the fish?
When we think about sin – a word many of us have difficulty using but few of us have ease ignoring, we tend to talk a great deal about descents into Hell, and less about descent into convenient hideaways from moral challenge. When we talk about inscriptions – whether inscribed up above or written by our own hand – we think a great deal about a book of Life and a book of Death, and less about our choices to live full, challenging, painful lives – or not to. HaYom Harat Olam, we chant on Rosh HaShanah – today the world was created. Why ten days, then, before Yom Kippur? What the hell are we doing here? Maybe today we leave the fish. Maybe this day is about being birthed or vomited into the world that’s been waiting for us. Adam shotaif b’ma’asey bereishit, the Rabbis taught – man is a partner in the ongoing work of the creation of the world. But one of the obstacles to partnership is that one partner is often more psyched about partnership than the other.
One of the lessons of the Jonah story, perhaps, is that we are not born all at once, but rather in halts and stops. Jonah goes to Ninevah, a huge and wealthy city, and tells its leaders, a couple thousand years before Led Zepellin, that there are two roads they can go down, but there’s still time to change the road they’re on. Hochiach tochiach, the Torah instructs – critically you must reproach, and Jonah rises, so to speak, to the occasion. He carries out perhaps the basic foundation of ethical monotheism and the central demand of liberal democracy: he speaks justice to power. And then he nosedives in a downward spiral from which he won’t fully have risen as the text closes. As Ninevah commits to change its ways, Jonah once again becomes set in his. Deprived of the fire and brimstone narrative he was expecting, cowed by the complexity of a communal struggle for greater justice as compared to a divine act of retribution, Jonah is rendered bitter, and resentful. He becomes only more so when he sees the divine punishment he was gunning for meted out against a leafy plant he found materially useful.
Jonah writes himself out of his own narrative with a convenient dichotomy – he doesn’t help Ninevah because it’s huge and distant, and he doesn’t help the plant because it’s small and immediate. These rationalizations are not new, and they haven’t gone out of style. It’s easy to perceive a world of institutions which are small, self-sufficient, and eternal, and institutions which are massive, complex, and inaccessible. It’s convenient to render involvement in a cause in which you don’t see a personal stake as meddling, and involvement in a cause in which you do as selfish. We do it every day.
Jonah never reaches Tarshish, the city to which he planned to sail away to escape divine responsibility entirely. So the text leaves us to construct what such a place would look like and where it would be. What are the habits, traditions, institutions, and practices which foster the insularity and alienation which Jonah seeks in Tarshish? Where can a man be an island? How does one travel into and out of the islands we fashion for ourselves and the islands we fashion out of ourselves? Would we know Tarshish if we lived there? Would we know Ninevah if we lived there?
Most of us in this room today are members of the Yale community in New Haven, and members of the Jewish community in the United States – both disproportionately affluent, both built on traditions and values of struggle and engagement, both at a crossroads between mobilization for just partnership and the politics of insularity. This is the time of year for an accounting of what, as individuals and as communities, we have contributed and what we have failed to contribute, and who has suffered for it. This is the time of year to recognize Ninevah and Tarshish and to build the cities and communities we want to inhabit. This is when we leave the womb and determine what the hell we’re doing here.
Fasting, Isaiah warns us, is not enough. “Behold, while you are fasting you engage in business, and your workers you continue to oppress! Behold, you fast in strife and quarrelling, and with a meanly clenched fist you strike.” But we know that to open our hands and our hearts is a difficult task. “Is not the fast that I desire,” asks Isaiah, “the unlocking of the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, the freeing of all those oppressed, the breaking of the yoke of servitude?” This imperative – to pursue social justice and work for liberation – cannot be isolated from another one: to cry out, in Isaiah’s words, “like a shofar – tell my people of their transgression, the house of Jacob, their mistakes.”
Isaiah calls on us to be repairers of bridges, restorers of roads home. Today, here, we build bridges within and between ourselves, within and between our communities, within and between our values. Tonight we break our fast and start the physical construction work. Tonight, traditionally, we begin to build our sukkot, our fragile, open, exposed homes without walls which manifest the potential and the path for our redemption.
When we build a home, we claim a place, and own ourselves. We struggle to answer the question the Captain asked Jonah in the storm – “Mah l’chah?” Literally, what is yours? We struggle to answer God’s question to Moses at the Reed Sea: “Why do you cry out to me?” We struggle to answer God’s question to Adam and Eve in the garden: “Where are you?” We strive, like Eve, to seize moral knowledge and ethical responsibility, even at the cost of the idyllic pre-consciousness of the garden. We strive, like Nachshon, to take the first steps out of the stable suffering of slavery and into the troubled, tumultuous birth canal that leads through to the long march ahead. We strive, like Jonah, to leave the whale – and to learn from the mistakes he made once he reached dry land.
If, as Rabbi Ponet suggested last night, we Jews are an ever-dying people, then we must as well be a people that is continually being born. If, as Isaiah, suggests when we call out God will answer with the word of Abraham – hineni – then we must be first to utter it: Hineni, here I am. We must own our city and our nation not as tourists but as citizens, and own our community not as strangers but as partners. We begin to know what the hell we’re doing here, when we begin to know where here is and why it is our place to be there. We must dare, in Elliot’s words, “to disturb the universe,” so that we might too find, at the end of all our journeys, linear and cyclical, physical, temporal, and ethical, that we are home, and that we know the place for the first time.