Parshas Vayeilech (5769)
Isn't it strange that on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we read publicly the book of Jonah, a nice little story about a man who gets swallowed up by a whale? Is this a sort of comic relief on a very intense and solemn day, or what? How does the story of Jonah and the whale fit in with the theme of the Day of Atonement?
The Vilna Gaon, the great Torah sage and kabbalist of the 18th century, writes that, in addition to its literal meaning, the book of Jonah can be understood on a deeper level as an analogy to the sojourn of the neshamah (human soul) in this world. Jonah the prophet represents man's neshamah, and the ship upon which he sails, represents the physical body which envelops the soul and gives it the ability to function and do good deeds here on earth.
G-d sent Jonah to rectify the moral condition of Nineveh, but instead of fulfilling G-d's will, Jonah tried to escape his obligation by boarding a ship bound for a different destination. Similarly, the neshamah of each and every one of us is sent to this world on a mission to rectify ourselves and the world through Torah study, mitzvah observance and perfecting our character traits, but instead of fulfilling its mission, it allows itself to be deceived by the body's physical pleasures.
[The entire allegory is too lengthy to quote in these few lines, but is highly recommended reading for anyone who wants a deeper insight into the message of the book of Jonah, and a greater understanding of who we really are and what our purpose is here on earth. The book of Jonah with the allegorical commentary of the Vilna Gaon is published by Artscroll/Mesorah Publications, and is available at your local Jewish bookstore or online at www.artscroll.com]
You'll recall in the story how the ship upon which Jonah is sailing is being tossed violently in the massive storm, and all the passengers are praying to their respective deities. But Jonah knows why this is happening - it is because he has run away from G-d and from his intended mission to get the people of Nineveh to repent. The sailors find him hiding in the bottom of the ship, and they ask him suspiciously, "Who are you and what is your work?" To which Jonah responds, "I am a Jew and I fear the G-d of Israel."
Very often we go through our lives in this world blending in with the culture around us, hiding from ourselves and from G-d. People will sometimes ask us who we are and what we do, and we'll respond, "I am a doctor," or "I sell insurance policies for a living," or whatever. But that's not the whole truth.
You see, G-d didn’t put us Jews on this earth, making us go through an amazing 3,320 year journey unparalleled in the history of mankind, just to produce another 14 million lawyers, doctors, accountants and businessman. There are (a few) non-Jewish doctors out there too, you know. We have a special calling as Jews that transcends any job we might have. It is to live our lives - in whichever profession, business or lifestyle we choose - in a way that sanctifies G-d’s Name and elevates ourselves and the world around us. As we say in the Aleinu prayer throughout the year and on the High Holidays as well: “…L’takein olam b’malchus Shaddai – [our mission as Jews is] to perfect the world through G-d’s kingship”.
So that when we are asked who we are and what we do, Jonah teaches us that our real answer should be, "I am first and foremost a Jew and my most important job here on earth is to fear the G-d of Israel – meaning that through the way I lead my life as a Jew, and through the Torah that I learn and the mitzvahs that I do, I bring G-dliness down with me and thus fix the world." That's who we truly are and that's our true mission.
Sometimes it takes a really violent storm in our lives, G-d forbid, for us to realize our true purpose here on earth, and to come out of hiding from the bottom of the ship. Hopefully, we will figure it out without any major storms.
This is the powerful "whale-of-a-message" of the book of Jonah which we read every year on Yom Kippur. We are here in this world on a spiritual journey, and we can't hide from it.
It is now less than a week until Yom Kippur. So let's take advantage of the time we have right now to gain some clarity as to who we really are and what our most important job here on earth is …. this way, by the time the “Big Day” comes around, we will be able to say to G-d, “I understand what I am supposed to be doing down here – so please bless me with another good year of health, prosperity and happiness so that I can continue to do my work for you as a Jew”.