5780 – 2019
By Rabbi Pam Frydman
One of the messages of Yom Kippur is to never give up. Always keep trying. The message to never give up is embodied in the story of Jonah and the whale that Jeff Dielle will chant for us in Hebrew on Yom Kippur afternoon. Tonight, I want to tell the story of Jonah in English.
Jonah was a man with a guilty conscience. He heard a voice that said, “go to Ninevah, because the people of Ninevah are very wicked. Jonah was supposed to go to Ninevah to help the people, but he didn’t want to go, so he boarded a ship that was heading for Tarshish. When Jonah was on the ship, a storm came up, and Jonah decided that the storm was his fault, so he convinced the people on the ship to throw him overboard.
When Jonah’s body hit the water, the storm stopped and Jonah was swallowed by a big fish. Jonah stayed in the belly of the fish for three days and then the fish spit out Jonah on dry land and Jonah went to Ninevah and saved the people by telling them to stop being wicked. But Jonah was upset because he didn’t like it that he didn’t get any credit for saving the people of Ninevah.
We all know that the story of Jonah is a fairy tale. But why is this fairy tale in the Hebrew Bible and why do we read it on Yom Kippur? Perhaps we read the story of Jonah in order to connect with our own guilty conscience. Our conscience that says, “wait a minute. My mistake caused all those problems. If I didn’t make that mistake, things might have turned out better.”
Maimonides was a Jewish scholar who taught about many things and one of the things he taught was how to leverage our feelings of regret to help us do better.
However, the way of Maimonides is not the way of world. For the most part, instead of feeling healthy guilt, we blame others for our problems and we act as though it is always someone else’s fault when things go wrong.
The blame game keeps us trapped in a never -nding cycle of feeling badly without affording us the ability to make things better. Yes, of course, we do need to hold others accountable and sometimes it is our responsibility to be the ones to help bring about a better society and a safer and more just society through our actions and our words.
We need to do what we can to right the wrongs of society, and at the same time, we also need to keep ourselves focused on our own regret when have failed to live up to our own standards.
Maimonides taught that the process of teshuvah should include admitting our mistakes, apologizing, making amends and promising to not make the same mistake again. According to Maimonides, feeling guilty is an important part of letting go of bad habits, and once we learn our lesson, then we can stop feeling guilty.
However, Rabbi Joseph Solevetchik says no, don’t ever stop feeling guilty. (See, our Jewish mothers and fathers were right!) Remember your sins, do not blot them out, do not cast them into the depths of the sea. The big fish that swallowed Jonah and spit him out on the shore is a symbol of our guilty conscience. According to Rabbi Solevetchik, “It is the memory of our sins that releases the power within the inner depths of” our soul to help us “do greater things than ever before.”
I believe that Rabbi Solevetchik teaches us to remember our sins and to feel our regret, because the memory of the pain and heartbreak can propel us toward change.
Sometimes, when we are driving or riding in a car, we come to a sign that says, “Dead End.” Now, we all know what “dead end” means, but how many of us continue to go down that street anyway? And we also see this pattern in other areas of our lives. We have all heard people say, “I will never give up feeling badly that such and such happened,” and then the person goes on to blame and blame someone or something. How different our lives would be if we could just let go and forgive others, while still retaining the regret for our own mistakes.
I regret that I could not avoid my mistakes and I am also trying to let go of blaming others, because blame is a dead end.
Almost every Shabbat, Guenter Gruschka comes up to this bimah to read from the Torah and he brings with him his un-sanctimonious sense of humor. When Guenter cracks a joke at the Torah, we are once again reliving a moment when a Holocaust survivor who has been through so much is once again defying our collective tormenters by insisting on being a Torah reading comedian.
The story of Jonah is easier for us to swallow than our own sins and misfortunes. We know that our problems were not just caused by us. Our problems are bigger than us and there are many things that have happened that we cannot control or repair or reconcile. But if we have the courage to let life take its course and not become trapped at the dead end of being fixated on blame, then we can continue to evolve as the great unstoppable Jewish people who we have always been since our founding during the time Abraham and Sarah. Collectively, we are unstoppable in our accomplishments, in our helping of others, and in our faith that things will get better.
Many of the cities named in the Bible still exist. In Iraq, there is a city called Ur and in Turkey, there is a city called Haran. According to the Bible, Ur and Haran are the cities where Abraham lived before he came to the land Canaan, which later became Israel.
The city of Tarshish, mentioned in the Jonah story, is in Lebanon; and the city of Nineveh that Jonah supposedly saved, is in Iraq. The Jewish communities in Iraq and Iran were among the greatest Jewish communities in the world.
There is an entire form of worship called nusach Bagdadi, the worship of Baghdad. Nusach Bagdadi was used by Jews in India, Burma, Afghanistan and Singapore. Two great Jewish families from Baghdad, the Khadouris and the Sasoons, helped to save Jews in Shanghai during the Holocaust. These windows on the northern wall of our synagogue are called the Khadouri windows in honor of the Khadouri family that left Bagdad, made their fortune in Asia and leveraged their fortune to save the founders of our synagogue and thousands of other Jews and their Chinese neighbors.
One of the main messages of Judaism is to never give up. May every one of us have the courage to apologize to ourselves and forgive ourselves even if others don’t have the wisdom to forgive us. If you happen to be a person who needs to apologize, may you have the courage to apologize. And if you are worried that someone will not treat you right when you apologize, then protect yourself and don’t apologize; and may you also have the wisdom to know the difference between when it is safe and when it is not safe to say I am sorry. But whatever you do today and every day, never give up.