Our Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur Afternoon is The Book of Jonah, the annual reading of which will be delightfully delivered by Mike Wolfson, and we look forward to it, as always. Within these four brief chapters, the book delivers an important message, which is central to our observance of these Days of Awe. The following is a brief commentary in our new machzor, Mishkan Hanefesh (p.343).
The Book of Jonah is full of anomalies. Other biblical books contain the words of prophets sent to influence the people of Israel; Jonah is sent, instead, to speak to the people of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, Israel’s arch-enemy. Other prophets fear that the people will not believe them; Jonah is afraid that they will believe. Other prophets expend thousands of words to warn or exhort the people without apparent results; Jonah speaks just five Hebrew words (3:4) and achieves instant success. Other prophets stand as exemplars of courage and integrity in a corrupt society; Jonah is a rigid, narrow-minded malcontent who exhibits less compassion and moral concern than the non-Jews around him. Other prophetic books reflect a mood of impassioned solemnity; Jonah is replete with irony and comic elements – animals who fast and wear sackcloth; a prophet who flees in the opposite direction from God’s command; who sleeps through a major storm at sea; who spends three days in the belly of a fish; who frets and fumes when a great city is saved from destruction; and is more attached to a plant than to his fellow human beings.
Why, then, do we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur? Because, despite its farcical elements, it eloquently conveys themes appropriate to the holiest day of the year: universalism – the intrinsic worth of all human beings; our responsibility for one another; God’s compassionate care for all living things; the power of t’shuvah (repentance); and the human capacity for change.
It continues to be my hope and prayer for all of us, that these Yamim Nora’im, these Days of Awe, be filled with meaning and blessing for us and for those close to us. G’mar Chatimah Tovah.