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Parshas -- Yom Kippur

Are You Dying to Know What Life is All About?

[Warning! The TORCHTorah you are about to read might make a tremendous impact on your life … and death.]

Tonight is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. As you all know, it is a very long day, when we fast and pray in the synagogue for many hours at a time.

The interesting thing is that towards the end of this most solemn and serious day, during the Minchah (afternoon) prayer, we read publicly the entire Book of Jonah (one of the Later Prophecies recorded in the Tana”ch, the Hebrew Bible), an ostensibly harmless tale about a fish and a prophet that seems entirely out of place on a day like Yom Kippur.

For those of you who are not up on your Biblical prophecies, here’s the story in a nutshell: Jonah the Prophet runs away from G-d on a ship sailing to Tarshish, gets thrown overboard by the other passengers after a storm threatens to destroy the ship, and is swallowed up by this big sea-creature, until it finally spits him up on to dry land three days later. He then goes to this city called Nineveh - fulfilling the mission from G-d that he had originally run away from - and tells its inhabitants to repent, which they do, and then he feels bad about it until G-d consoles him.

Now don’t get me wrong …I like the story and it has great drama. But why are we reading it on Yom Kippur of all days??

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen ZT”L, otherwise known as the Chofetz Chaim, in his classic commentary Mishnah Berurah on the Code of Jewish Law, cites two reasons why we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur: (1) It speaks about teshuvah (repentance), and (2) It teaches us that one can never run away from G-d (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 622:2 and Mishnah Berurah ibid. s. k. 7).

In a footnote to his commentary (in Sha’ar HaTziyun #6), the Chofetz Chaim elaborates on the foolishness and futility of trying to run away from G-d and from fulfilling one’s purpose in life. His words here are profound and life-impacting, and teach us an incredibly important lesson that is not only relevant on Yom Kippur but for our entire lives. [The words in brackets are my own added translation and commentary]:

“…for a person thinks many times to give up hope on himself, that he is simply unable to rectify [what he needs to rectify as per his unique, G-d given, mission here on earth]. Therefore he [figures he] will just continue to behave in the same way as before, and if G-d decrees that he should die [as a punishment for not fulfilling his mission], he’ll die, [but in death his mission will certainly not be accomplished].

“This is a mistake, however, because ultimately everything that G-d wants his soul to rectify [in this world], he will be forced to rectify, and [if he doesn’t accomplish it this time around], he will have to come back again and again to this world against his will – until he succeeds in rectifying [what he was put on earth to rectify]. If so, why should he go through all the effort - to die, suffer burial, and other painful travails — and then have to return another time? [He might as well fulfill his mission the first time and save himself all the pain and suffering of death.]

“The proof of this is from [the story of] Jonah, for whom G-d’s mission had been to go and prophesy [to the people of Nineveh that their city would be destroyed if they didn’t repent and change their ways]. He refused [to fulfill this mission], so he fled to the sea [to escape], a place where [due to the rough conditions and general lack of calm], the Divine Presence required for prophecy can’t rest on the prophet, making it impossible for him to receive any divine communication from G-d. And we see that Jonah drowned in the sea and was swallowed by a huge fish and remained inside its belly many days – and to all appearances it would seem that [Jonah was successful in his escape, and that] G-d’s mission for Jonah would not be carried out. Yet we see [from what happened to Jonah after he was spit up on to dry land] that G-d’s will was ultimately fulfilled and that Jonah went and prophesied [to the people of Nineveh] just as he was initially told to do. The same is with each of us in our own lives, as it says in Ethics of our Fathers (4:29): And let your Evil Inclination not promise you that the grave will be an escape for you, for against your will you were created …."

We see from the commentary of the Chafetz Chaim just how important and relevant it is for all of us to ‘get the message’ of the Book of Jonah that is read on Yom Kippur … before it’s too late.

You see, the vast majority of Jews who will be filling the synagogues and temples all around the world tonight on Yom Kippur Eve are just as the Chafetz Chaim describes: They are consciously (or sub-consciously) aware that there is a Living G-d running this world, and that life and everything that happens in it has ultimate meaning, and that they each have a unique mission and purpose for which they were placed on G-d’s earth, and that their souls lives on in the Afterlife.

Yet since no one can be absolutely sure that all this is true – or because it is just too hard, or for a million other reasons - most of us don’t bother to figure out what life is really all about and what exactly is our unique purpose and mission that we need to accomplish before we move on to the Next World. We figure that we’ll just go on living our lives unmindful of our ultimate purpose until we die – and we’ll worry about whatever happens then when it happens.

But that is a big mistake. For in the (likely) event that all this is actually true, and that there is a G-d and an Afterlife, and that we were put here to rectify something - which is our whole purpose for existence – then by the time we die it will be way too late. We will then have to go through the pain and suffering of death, which can’t be a lot of fun, only to be reincarnated and sent back again to accomplish what we failed to do the first time around.

Why should we be dying to know what life is all about? Better for us to figure stuff out now when we are still alive and able to accomplish, than to just be oblivious to what we know deep-down to be true, and to take our chances and worry about death and reincarnation and our ultimate purpose for existence later.

The public reading of the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur serves as a wake-up call to all of us to remind us that we can’t run away from G-d, so we might as well try to figure out the meaning of our lives now while we still can.


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