Humans have been trying to hide from G-d ever since the days of Adam and Eve. We know it can’t be done, but we try to do it anyway. In my own life, I procrastinate, letting duties of the heart pile up like unopened bills on the kitchen table. Eventually, I realize I’m just fooling myself. Futility of futilities, writes Ecclesiastes. Alas, it turns out that resistance, too, is futile!
I think about this whenever we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur. You know the story: G-d ordered the prophet Jonah to travel to Nineveh and tell the people there that they had forty days to change their bad behavior, or else they would be wiped out.
Jonah didn’t want this job. So what did he do? He jumped on a ship to Tarshish, heading in the opposite direction.Jonah, you might say, was misguided to think he could hide from G-d. Faster than you can say, “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” a wild storm threatened to engulf and sink the ship.
The crew—G-d fearing in their own ways—figured that one of the passengers was responsible for this storm. They drew lots and, sure enough, Jonah “lost” the lottery and was quickly thrown overboard.
The storm ended, but Jonah’s troubles were really just getting started. Next thing he knew, he was swallowed by a large fish.It was in the dark depths of the fish’s belly that Jonah “saw the light.” He got that he had to carry out G-d’s commands whether he wanted to or not. As soon as he accepted this, the fish spat him out onto dry land to deliver him to his mission. Arriving at last in Nineveh, he convinced the people to repent, as he himself had done. The city was saved.
In a miracle of mercy, G-d spared Nineveh even after deciding it was doomed. On Yom Kippur, we come to learn from Jonah, that although a divine decree may already have been written and sealed, these judgements can still be changed—but only if we change, too.
Jonah’s message speaks to me, and so does the timing of the reading itself. Jonah’s story is read during the Mincha service on Yom Kippur—the very time when attendance at synagogue services has dwindled. By this point, I’m out of rabbinical ammo—my prepared material that is part sermon, part stand-up comedy routine is spent. Like Jonah, I have nowhere to run or hide. All I can do is stand before my community and my G-d, humbled, ready to face them, ready to change.
Simcha Weinstein is the rabbi at Chabad of Clinton Hill and Pratt Institute