Every Yom Kippur afternoon, congregations all over the world read the Book of Jonah, as set out for us in the Babylonian Talmud, M'gillah 31a. Most people believe that this haftarah is chosen because it models complete repentance. From the king to each individual, by decree, everyone fasted and turned from their evil ways. God is so impressed with the atonement of the city of Ninevah that no evil comes upon them.
Yet, the book is named for Jonah, the only prophet to be chosen to warn a people outside of Israel of their impending destruction by God for their evil ways. Jonah decides not to accept what he believes is an impossible mission. Eventually, he realizes that it is futile to run and impossible to hide. Ultimately, he fulfills God's mission to warn the people of Nineveh of their impending doom. But, once his job is done, Jonah is still a very unhappy prophet.
I believe that we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon to remind us that sometimes we are Jonah. We run, we are swallowed up, and we are spit out. We have times when the responsibility of the world is thrust upon our shoulders and we have times when we feel very much alone. Sometimes, just like Jonah, we feel that life is too much for us. Who wouldn't want to book a cruise, get on a ship, and run away from such burdens? Perhaps, we are more like Jonah than we even want to admit.
The biblical text tells us that Jonah was in the whale (literally, dag gadol, "a big fish") for three days (Jonah 2:1). Three days in the Torah means a long time, but not too long a time, unless you have no food. For example in I Samuel 30:12, "he had eaten no food and drunk no water for three days and three nights." Abraham walked for three days before he tied Isaac to the altar (Genesis 22:4), the Israelites prepared for three days to receive the Torah (Exodus 19:11), and Queen Esther (4:16) waited and fasted for three days to get up her courage before she went to her husband the king unannounced. Three days can seem like an eternity.
What would you do if you had three days with no phone, no food, no Internet or television, no place to go, and no one to see? What might one do with three days of isolation? We are not given a clue about what Jonah did for his first three days in the "big fish hotel," but the Rabbis who studied the book speculated. Rashi, the great French commentator of eleventh-century France said, "God showed Jonah the Red Sea and how the Jews passed through it: for the eyes of the fish were as two windows and he looked and saw all that was in the sea." In the eighth century commentary in Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, we are taught, "Jonah entered the fish's mouth, as a man who enters a great synagogue, and he stood and the two eyes of the fish were like glass windows giving light to Jonah."
Sometimes we are Jonah. We enter our synagogues looking for light that will illumine our path in life and provide windows into our souls. Sometimes we receive light and vision, and other times we face our reflection in the darkness beyond the windows. Many have experienced crises of faith, especially in times of tsuris, "trouble," or when confronted by the pain of life or the harsh reality of death. Some know well the darkness that can challenge their faith. At those times, the sanctuary may feel cold and the prayer book empty.
Jonah wasn't doing "nothing" for three days and three nights. I believe he was taking time to reflect and examine his thoughts and actions. That is not nothing. With time to think, Jonah was forced to confront his fears, his loneliness, his mistakes, and his God. We are Jonah, doing exactly the same thing for our sacred Days of Awe.
In chapter 2, verse two, Jonah prays to "the Lord his God from the belly of the fish." His prayer is heartfelt and sincere. Fearing for his life, conflicted and alone, Jonah found his God and his purpose. He resolves to fulfill his prophetic mission.
You can't give yourself to others or to a religion or to a belief without knowing who you are. And you can't know yourself without giving yourself time-time to dream, to fear, to explore, to wonder, and even to hurt. It is one thing to be forced to reflect as Jonah was. It is quite another to realize that spiritual reflection is a necessity of life.
Our Yom Kippur is the day for At-One-Ment, to be with yourself emotionally and spiritually. It is a time to confront fears and failures, pain and loneliness. Jonah had to realize that he was not being sent to Ninevah alone, without God. And we are not being sent into a new year alone.
Jonah was asked, "What is your business? Where have you come from? What is your country, and of what people are you?" (Jonah 1:8). Even in his confusion and trouble he responds to the most important of the questions, the last one, with certainty, "I am a Hebrew. My God is the God of heaven and earth." We are Jonah when we respond with that kind of affirmation. We ask ourselves: "Who am I? What are my fears? What am I running from? Where am I going?" Yom Kippur grounds us as Jews. For that day, we are part of a people and connected to a forgiving God who has stood by us for millennia. We are not alone.
Jonah's turmoil continues long after the book that bears his name, as evidenced by his anguish in the final chapter. Three times he says that he would "rather die than live" (4:3, 8, also see 4:9). He doesn't understand that the choice between life and death, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, atonement and forgiveness is in his hands-choices given to him by a compassionate God. Jonah has a long journey ahead of him: He has a lot yet to learn when the book ends. And so do we. Sometimes we are Jonah, complaining and afraid, dissatisfied and inconsolable.
In the book Vanity Fair, Thackery wrote: "The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly, kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice." The Book of Jonah is our looking glass as the gates of repentance slowly close for another year. Thankfully, we have the ability to leave the protagonist Jonah behind with the setting sun for a more positive, confident, satisfied, and consolable self. Sometimes we are not Jonah, and that is also a good thing. Shanah tovah!
Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D. D., is the senior and founding rabbi of Temple B'nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Virginia.