Yom Kippur AM 214 – 5775

This past July it was reported that ISIS had destroyed the Tomb of Jonah in Iraq. My surprise was not around the fact that ISIS would destroy a holy place… after all, one cannot expect a group that beheads people to respect sacred space. No, I was surprised because I didn’t even know there WAS a Tomb of Jonah. And I was only learning about it after it was gone.

Thanks to an online search and some study, I received a bit of an education. I learned that within present-day Mosul is the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, where the Prophet Jonah preached.

This prompted me to go back and reread the Book of Jonah.

For those of you who do not recall the story:

God tells the prophet Jonah to go to the city of Ninevah and warn the people there that they need to change their evil ways or face God’s divine wrath. Jonah does not want the job, so he runs away and boards a ship. God sends a storm and the seas do not calm until Jonah is thrown overboard. God then sends a huge fish that swallows Jonah. After spending a few days inside the fish, Jonah escapes, makes his way to Ninevah and warns the residents as God had initially requested. The people repent. God accepts their repentance. Jonah is angered by God’s forgiveness. He runs yet again, and settles beneath the shade of a gourd. God causes the tree to shrivel and die. Jonah is bereft and God asks him why he would mourn a tree to which he had no personal connection but be angered when God accepts the repentance of thousands.

Jonah’s tale is widely understood to be one of repentance and forgiveness. These dual themes, I had always assumed, were the reason why the book is read, or in our case will be retold, during the Yom Kippur afternoon service. But as I reread the story, I could not help but see Jonah in a negative light. He does not want to be involved in the affairs of Ninevah. He does not want the responsibility that comes with being a prophet of God, and he tries to abdicate his responsibility by running away.

And I came to the conclusion that a central lesson of the Book of Jonah is… Don’t Be Jonah.

Jonah runs away. His story reminds us that we cannot.

Jonah disengages. His story reminds us that we should not.

Jonah abdicates responsibility. His story reminds us that we must not.

I was in Washington two weeks ago for a gathering of the AIPAC National Council. While there, I was interviewed for a brief film that will be shown during an upcoming AIPAC event.

The first question I was asked was, “What does patriotism mean to you?” 

My answer: “Patriotism means making your voice heard as part of the political and social process.”

The next question was, “When do you feel most patriotic?”

My answer: “I feel most patriotic when I walk into a voting booth each November and when I visit Capitol Hill and lobby on behalf of an issue.”

The third question was, “When do you feel most proud to be an American Jew?”

My answer: “I feel most proud to be an American Jew each time I look at the painting on the wall of my study at Temple. It depicts the ship on which my grandfather came from Europe. That ship gave my family the opportunities I now enjoy. And each time I look at the painting, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to be an American, and how, with that good fortune, comes great responsibility.”

The picture reminds me that we American Jews are in a position to further the values we hold dear through our active involvement. In recent months I have witnessed first-hand the impact of such citizen involvement in the political process. It is no accident that the one piece of legislation passed by Congress during the summer was in support of emergency aid for further development of Iron Dome. And it is why the Senate unanimously passed the Strategic Partnership Act between the US and Israel two weeks ago.

Those favorable outcomes only happened because of citizen involvement in the political process. In this case, the support was, in part, the result of lobbying and educational efforts with regard to the importance of the US-Israel relationship. It is why I and others in our congregation, not to mention thousands of American Zionists, have spent countless hours in congressional offices meeting with our leaders and their staffers.

As my colleague Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove said to his congregation on Rosh Hashanah-

To live in this day and age, with the unprecedented freedoms that American Jews enjoy, and not be engaged [  ] – on campus, on Capitol Hill, in youth education, or wherever your passions, politics, and pocket move you – is an abdication of Jewish identity no less egregious than any other sin of commission or omission we will list the days to come.

I recently had the opportunity to hear a panel discussion with Mosab Hassan Yousef. Mosab is the son of a Hamas founder and leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef. From 1997 to 2007, Mosab worked undercover for Israel’s internal security service. The information he supplied prevented dozens of suicide attacks and assassinations of Israelis, exposed numerous Hamas cells and assisted Israel in hunting down many militants, including his own father.

During our discussion, one of the people I was with asked, “Do you recognize the State of Israel?”

Mosab replied, “Do I recognize the State of Israel? I served Israel. I put my life at risk for Israel. Do I recognize Israel? I love Israel.” He then went on, “ To the person who asked the question, I ask: Where are your deeds? Where are your actions?”

Where. Are. Your. Actions? It is one of the key questions I believe we should be asking ourselves in this new year.

Many causes are worthy and in need of our action this year. Two such examples are gun control and immigration.

The Mishnah says-

Whoever destroys a life, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. — Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9

Ours is a tradition that values each and every life. That simple but important commitment means we American Jews have a moral obligation to raise our voices and demand a change in gun safety laws. Time and again our leaders have shown that they are not willing to take the steps necessary to make our nation safer. Gun safety advocates like me are not looking to eliminate all guns, but we do want to see the implementation of serious steps that help prevent future gun tragedies. Those changes will only happen if we speak up and make it clear that we expect – that we demand – that thoughtful measures be taken…  and implemented.

The good news is that getting involved is as simple as showing up at the Millburn-Short Hills Gun Safety Forum on October 14th at 7pm. Our own Debbi Shedlin and Debbie Taffit are among the organizers of this important gathering.

Another example:

Leviticus 19:34 states

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

Because we are a community of immigrants, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our immigration laws are both effective in protecting our nation and moral and fair in their enforcement. Through my involvement with Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, a joint effort of the social justice arms of the Reform Movement, I learned that not only does our current immigration policy not protect our nation, but that it is also the antithesis of moral. And while I will be addressing this issue in more depth in the coming weeks, I do want to share one story with you that illustrates this point… and the impact our efforts can make.

It is the story of case #072417781. Or as his family likes to call him – Guerrero A. Catalino. Catalino is not a number. He is a father and a grandfather. He has lived and worked in Union City, NJ since 1991. He has no criminal convictions, and his deteriorating health requires medical attention from his family, all of whom live in the United States.

Mr. Catalino was scheduled for “voluntarily deportation” by Thursday, August 28th.

There was no justification for this deportation, and our small group began making calls and sending letters on his behalf. Two days before Mr Catalino was scheduled to be deported he received a Stay of Removal. The calls and the letters had impact.

There is much work to do and, as the Talmud says-

Lo Alecha HaM’lacha Ligmor – we are not required to finish the task

VeLo Atah Ben Chorin LeHibatel Mimena- but that does not mean we do not have a role to play. (Pirke Avot 2:16)

We do… And we must.

In Jonah I see someone who has no sense of priorities, no ability to forgive, and no appreciation for his responsibility to others. Jonah is all about Jonah. It is why he runs away from God’s decree. It is why he cannot celebrate when the people of Nineveh ultimately repent. It is why he cares more about a gourd that gives him comfort than he does about the well-being of thousands.

Jonah does not change, grow or evolve over time, and that is what I expect from our biblical role models. It certainly is what we see with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, as well as with Moses and Isaiah. Jonah, on the other hand, is about as static a figure as we will find, despite the fact that he has some of the most engaging experiences of any biblical character.

I was discussing my realization about Jonah with my friend and colleague Rabbi Greg Litcofsky, and he asked me what I thought it was about Jonah that made him unwilling or unable to evolve as a human being. Ultimately we agreed that he is a character who simply doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about the Ninevites. He doesn’t care about accomplishing the task that God put before him. He doesn’t care about the sailors on the ship. And, even after he has achieved God’s role for him and saved the city of Nineveh, as soon as the gourd is about to disappear, as soon as life is about to get complicated again, he wants to run away – yet again. Jonah doesn’t care… And he doesn’t change.

One has to wonder if the safest place for Jonah, the most comfortable place for him, is in the belly of that fish. Because while there, Jonah has no responsibilities. He has no obligations. He has no need to interact with others. While there, Jonah has none of the messiness that is part of life.

So perhaps the lesson of Jonah is that life can’t always be the way Jonah wants it to be. Perhaps the lesson of Jonah is that life is necessarily messy, and that learning how to respond to that messiness, and how to clean it up when necessary, is the task before each of us.

At this season we wish each other a Shana Tova, A Good Year. There are, however, people who wish each other Shana D’vash, a Year of Honey.

Why a Year of Honey? As my colleague Rabbi Jeff Salkin notes, “Life is sweet and wonderful… just like honey. But life is also sticky and messy… just like honey. And you can’t have the former without the latter.”

Jonah doesn’t understand life’s complexities. And because he doesn’t understand, he is not able to fully engage with the world, or to fulfill his obligations to himself, his community, or God.

Life is sweet and wonderful, but it is also sticky and messy. It was true in antiquity, and it is true today. This day of Yom Kippur is about recommitting ourselves to doing our part to clean up some of the mess, and to find ways to engage in the world, so that each year is a little bit sweeter than the one before.

Jonah didn’t understand that getting involved and helping to shape the future is the Jewish way, the moral way, and the only way. For the sake of our families and future generations, I certainly hope we do better than Jonah.