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Parshas -- Yom Kippur (5777)

A Fish Tale for Yom "Kipper"

This Tuesday evening 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, though, that right smack in the middle of this most solemn day, we read publicly the entire Book of Jonah, one of the later Prophecies that has become part of the Scriptures. And let me tell you ... it is a whale of a 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 gets 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 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.

Something is very fishy about this story! What is the idea of our reading this strange biblical tale with a highly original plot on the most serious day of the year? Surely, our great Sages didn't enact the custom of reading the Book of Jonah on the Day of Atonement just for the halibut! There must be a catch!


The truth is, my dear readers, that the Book of Jonah has a very relevant message for us ... because we are Jonah and Jonah is us.

What Jonah tried to do is what all of us, in one way or another, try to do as well. You see, Jonah was a prophet who was placed on this world to fulfill a mission … to do what was meant for him to do by G-d, as a human being, and as a Jew.

But, for whatever reason - and there are always lots of reasons - Jonah didn't want to do this life-calling, this "mission". So he ran away from G-d, from his mission, and ultimately, from himself. He went to the sea, on a cruise far away from his roots, just trying to blend in with his surroundings, to become just another "Jonah Smith" in the vast, nondescript melting pot of humanity. Jonah parked himself in a nice chaise lounge chair with a great view, and figured he would just take it easy until whenever. And, who knows, thought Jonah, maybe my calling as a Jew with a mission here on earth will just be forgotten. Maybe I can just glide through this cruise, and life itself, unnoticed and unbothered.

But it didn't work. The great escape was foiled. The sea started turning violent. Jonah's whole trip was getting shaken up real bad. So what did Jonah do? Here I'll let the Book of Jonah speak for itself: "The sailors became frightened. Each one began crying out to his god ... Jonah, meanwhile, descended to the ship's hold. He lay down and fell asleep" (Jonah 1:5). Jonah didn't take heed of this call to remember what he came to this world for, but instead went down to the bottom of the ship, hoping this was all just a bad dream that would go away quickly. But it didn't. "The men said to each other, ‘Come, let's cast lots and find out who is responsible for this terrible thing that is happening to us’." They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. "Tell us," they said to him, “on whose account is this terrible thing happening to us? What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What country and which nationality are you from?" (ibid. verses 7-8).

Just when Jonah thought he would finally escape from his life's mission, all these questions started coming at him from those people whom he had tried to blend in with: Who are you really, Jonah? You seem to be just like us, yet there is something very different about you. What do you do? Where do you come from? What are your real roots and what are you trying to hide from? At this point, Jonah came to the hard realization that there was no escaping his destiny. Even on this cruise way out in the middle of nowhere, among people whom he had seemingly blended in with very nicely, there was no way G-d was going to let him forget who he was.

So Jonah answered the other passengers: "I am an Ivri. And if you want to know what I do, I will tell you. I serve G-d, the Lord of the heavens, Who made the sea and the dry land." (ibid. verse 9). The word ivri, or Hebrew, means "other side". So that Jonah was telling the other passengers on the ship that as much as he looked like one of them, acted like one of them, spoke like one of them - he was not one of them but from “the other side”, from a different place, with a unique mission - the mission and life-calling of a Jew.

And, said Jonah, if you want to know what it is that I "do", what my occupation is, I will tell you what I do. I serve G-d, and fulfill whatever it is that He wants from me. I may be a doctor or a lawyer, but that's just how I pay the bills. What I am "doing" here on earth, even here on this ship in the middle of nowhere, is serving the G-d Who made me and put me here to do His bidding.


This past Shabbos - the one that always falls out between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - has traditionally been called Shabbos Shuvah after the Haftarah portion that is read in the synagogue on Saturday morning starting with the words "Shuvah Yisrael ..." (Hosea 14:2-10). The words of the prophet are interesting. Hosea exhorts the Jewish people to return - "Shuvah Yisrael" - all the way to G-d - "Ad Hashem Elokechah". All the way to G-d? And not halfway? Isn't that kind of obvious?

I think the message that Hosea has for the Jewish people is especially relevant in our times, when many of our people are "coming back" to a more positive feeling about Judaism and their Jewish roots. It is a sad fact that for the better part of our history in what Bubbys and Zeidys used to call the goldeneh medineh - that great big melting pot which is the United States (and the same is true for Canada as well) - we have been running away from our Jewishness, just like Jonah the Prophet thought he could do.

They say that there are hundreds of pairs of Tefillin (phylacteries) and other religious artifacts on the bottom of the East River near Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Our ancestors just wanted to "blend in" with the great sea of humanity that lived in New York City and other big cities across North America. Some even went further and moved out to rural areas and found a life for themselves in which they would no longer have to wear their Jewishness openly, and could fit right in with everyone else.

The first and second generations retained some vestiges of what traditional Jewish life was like for centuries in the "old country". Hebrew school was a must, at least during the years that you could actually make the kids attend while all the rest of their friends were having fun. And then came the lavish bar-mitzvahs (more "bar" than "mitzvah") in the ‘burbs. But, aside from that, all of the Jewish kids were just the same as everyone else, and being Jewish was not something that one advertised as much as one told his friends that his son was a doctor or lawyer.

But, just as with Jonah, this mass escape from our identity wasn't very "prophetable". It simply didn't work. Things always seemed to come up and remind us that a Jew is an ivri, from the other side, different, and that no matter how much we might want to hide it, our Jewishness and what G-d ultimately wants from us will come back to find us.

In the middle of the previous century, just when we thought that we finally "made it" as real true-blue Americans and Canadians who just happened to have ancestors who for a few thousand years chose to live a lifestyle that set them apart from everyone around them - along came the State of Israel and its many wars, which served to rekindle the spark of Jewish pride and yearning for our homeland inside many of us. And, in more recent times, the never-ending terrorism against our brethren in Israel, together with the unsettling rise of anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere, are constant reminders that there is something different and unique about us as Jews that the nations of the world simply won’t let us forget.

So, today, because G-d won't let us forget who we are, and what it is that we must do, we have started to come back ... but yet, as a people, we haven't come back "all the way to G-d". We might give lots of money to Jewish organizations that offer adult Jewish education and that foster Jewish "continuity” - and that's wonderful - yet we are not always ready and willing to wear our own Jewishness openly "in the street". Like Jackie Mason who quips that many Jews think his show is "too Jewish", we often think about certain things that Jews have traditionally done that they are also "too Jewish" for us. And while we proudly buy every kosher product in the supermarket, sometimes even at a significantly higher price, it is when "things Jewish" become a little too high-profile for our "comfort zone" to handle, that we often have second thoughts as to how much we want to advertise to the rest of the world our "uniqueness" as Jews.

The time has come for us to realize that there is no escaping our destiny. We are Ivri’s. And being a little "different" comes with the territory. That is our reality. So we can build Sukkahs in our own backyards for the upcoming Festival of Tabernacles and be proud of it - even if the non-Jewish neighbors look upon our "huts" with amazement, curiosity and wonder. It's all right … they all know that Jews are different anyway. And, by and large, they respect that difference - so we should, too.

This is what the prophet Hosea is telling us - "Shuvah Yisrael" ... come back, all you Jews whose ancestors were once proud to wear their Jewish identities openly ... all the way to G-d. It's no use coming back halfway, says Hosea, we can never be too Jewish. Escaping and hiding from our Jewishness never worked and never will work - our destiny is that we can't just "blend in", we mustn't just "blend in".

And if we do try to totally blend in and forget who we truly are, rest assured that we will be reminded of our Jewishness, one way or another. Either our own kids will remind us when they come home from the local Jewish Day School with a thought on the weekly Torah portion. Or the anti-semites out there will be all too happy to remind us.

This year, on Yom Kippur, as we read in the synagogue the story of a prophet who tried to get away but couldn't, let us remember the powerful message that Jonah nearly forgot ... that no matter what we do in life, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.



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