Forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
That was the warning presented by the prophet Jonah, according to the biblical book that bears his name.
Forty days, and it shall be Yom Kippur.
That is the warning presented by the coming of the month of Elul last Sunday.
Yes, the season of repentance has begun, even if the season of August vacations has not passed, and it seems a propitious time to speak with Teaneck’s Rabbi Chaim Jachter about his new book, “The Depths of Yonah: Unleashing the Power of Your Yom Kippur.” (Yonah is Jonah in Hebrew.)
Rabbi Jachter leads Shaarei Orah — The Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also teaches Bible at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, also in Teaneck.
This book came about because last year Rabbi Jachter was assigned to teach Jonah to four different classes. (At TABC, all four grades study the same Jewish texts, allowing a common conversation throughout the school.)
“I had never taught it before in depth,” Rabbi Jachter said. “I was a nervous Nellie. It turned out to be the biggest bracha” — a blessing.
As he immersed himself in preparation and study, “I was not satisfied with any of the current books on Yonah,” he said. Some were too academic. Others were just “anthologies of interpretations without analysis,” he said.
His work is different. It is focused toward the book’s role as the Yom Kippur afternoon reading.
“What are the lessons we learn?” he asked. “How should it impact us?”
In both his class and his book, Rabbi Jachter recounts the medieval commentators’ classic interpretations of the biblical story. Then “we try to add another level,” he said. “We try to make our contribution to the tradition. At the end of the day, as the Gemara says, there’s no study hall without an innovation.”
So what is it with Jonah and Yom Kippur?
“The bottom line is that we have a mission in this world,” Rabbi Jachter said. Just as Jonah was assigned by God to prophesy to Nineveh, “God has put us on a mission. We can try to dodge that mission but it’s not going to work. Hashem is going to keep us on track for that mission.
“It’s a sobering thought. It’s probably the most serious lesson to hear on Yom Kippur. On a mystical level, there’s a belief in gilgulim” — reincarnation. “We’ll have to come back again” if we avoid our mission. “You don’t have to go as far” as reincarnation,” he said. “You have a job to do in the world. Stay the course. Keep on with the godly mission.”
Rabbi Jachter said that Jonah also revolves around a theological issue that is at the heart of the High Holiday liturgy. “The real struggle is midas hadin” — God’s attribute of judgment — “versus midas harachamim,” God’s attribute of mercy.
“Yom Kippur is about convincing God to be more lenient. Yonah tried to convince God to be more strict. In the end God explains why He is more lenient. The book is ultimately a triumph of God’s midas harachamim. It’s one of the major reasons we read it on Yom Kippur.”
Here’s another practical lesson Rabbi Jachter found in Jonah.
“When the people of Nineveh try to do teshuva, to repent, they made their animals fast and covered the animals with sack cloths,” he said. “It’s bizarre.”
This should serve as a warning: “This is what happens when one tries to repent and do teshuva without proper direction. Without proper guidance people act bizarrely; a person will head in a very unhealthy direction even though they’re trying to reach out to God.”
Then there’s the fish. Was Jonah indeed swallowed by a fish? Or is the story an allegory?
Rabbi Jachter presents both perspectives in his book. He champions the literal approach. But he also offers an original allegorical interpretation: “Yonah in the fish is like the Jewish people in exile. As a representative of the Jewish people, Hashem would not let Yonah die, just like God wouldn’t let the Jewish people die out. Even in exile he is not forgotten.”
And another original insight: “Yonah thanks God for his release even while he’s still in the fish. It’s the Jewish power of positive thinking, the idea that if you visualize success it will help you achieve it.”
Not all of the insights that are original to the book are the products of Rabbi Jachter himself. Throughout the book he attributes insights to particular students of his, who came up with them in class.
One former TABC student plays a special role — Rabbi Jachter’s oldest son, Binyamin.
Binyamin was studying in yeshiva in Israel last year, but sometimes his father would patch him into the class on speakerphone. He also reviewed drafts of the book’s chapters.
“He has a very creative mind,” his father said. “This book is permeated with dozens and dozens of his insights. Some I quote in his name; others are just integrated in the text.” Binyamin is listed as the co-author of the book.