The book of Jonah and Yom Kippur
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The book of Jonah and Yom Kippur

Musings on comedy, prophesy, literature, and life

Turning over a new leaf
Turning over a new leaf

First time tragedy, second time farce.

When Karl Marx said that he had something entirely different in mind, but I frequently think about it on Yom Kippur afternoon as I listen to the book of Jonah.

There are all sorts of reasons our tradition gives us for asking us to read that book on that afternoon, but it seems to me to be an act of mercy, of chesed, to provide us with a bit of comic relief. Think of the book of Jonah as a spiritual first cousin to Hamlet’s gravedigger or Lear’s fool. Not actually funny, that is, but a definite change of pace.

Pieter Lastman, “Jonah and the Whale,” 1621, oil on oak, at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, Germany. (Wikipedia)
Pieter Lastman, “Jonah and the Whale,” 1621, oil on oak, at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, Germany. (Wikipedia)

We listen to Jonah after having fasted for maybe 20 or so hours. The sun is lower in the sky but it’s not down yet. The liturgy has presented us with harsh images of judgment, death by fire, death by sword, death by starvation, by plague, by strangulation. We have heard stories of martyrs — some from our distant past, some from across the ages of our sad history, in my shul from within the still-living memory of the Holocaust — that would have made us cry even if we had not been weakened by then. God is the authoritarian father; we are indentured servants. We are in the desert, a place of little color, merciless light, no shade, and no water. We beg for forgiveness but are offered no sign that anyone is listening, much less considering the plea.

It’s all very enervating. Sleep beckons.

And then we get back to shul after a short break and listen to the story of this man who runs away to the sea, gets in a boat, talks to sailors, and is swallowed by a fish big enough to hold him. A fish, moreover, that vomits him out on demand.

The sea hasn’t featured in the Bible since the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds, and that’s nothing like the Mediterranean. There are no boats after Noah’s ark, no sailors ever. Once fish are created they disappear from the scroll, and certainly there are none that barf up whiny prophets. Until now, the Israelites have resolutely turned their backs on the sea, facing only the desert.

Jonah is something else entirely. It is not exactly funny — certainly not ha-ha funny — but it is fabulous, in the old, unfabulous sense of that word.

Jonah himself seems almost like a reprise of Job. It seems almost as if God regrets his part in allowing his adversary to almost demolish Job by stripping away from him everyone and everything he loved. God tested Job — and, of course, once Job passed the test he was allowed a new wife, new children, new wealth, and a new life, but his old wife and children remained dead, Rosencranz and Guildenstern-like collateral damage in the testing process. So God tested Jonah, but, in this comic version of the story, God did not allow Jonah to fail — and Jonah seems to have had no wife and no children. No hostages to fortune. So the sailors, the storm, the fish all come to save the unwilling, ungrateful prophet. Jonah passed the test, albeit grudgingly.

First time tragedy, second time farce.

Sculpted capital from the nave of the abbey-church in Mozac, France, 12th century. (Matthieu Perona/Wikipedia)
Sculpted capital from the nave of the abbey-church in Mozac, France, 12th century. (Matthieu Perona/Wikipedia)

But Jonah isn’t done. He trudges into Ninevah and is astoundingly effective, for no apparent reason other than because God really wants him to be. The king and all the people repent immediately, cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes, and fast. And so do all their animals (and the little dog, too…). The image of those animals — presumably sheep and goats — in sackcloth, starving, is another odd one.

Still Jonah is not happy. In fact, he is angry. Jonah is a nasty, sulky little brute, as self-indulgent as a teenager and just about as reasonable, miserable because he has inadvertently kept other people from suffering. He says he wants to die, but he doesn’t seem to mean it.

This is when the book of Jonah gets even weirder, and more mid-20th century modern. It goes from Job-in-bizarro-world to the absurdist landscape through which Vladimir and Estragon wander as they wait for Godot. It is hot. There is no color. Nothing much happens. Jonah waits. God sends a plant to give him shade, and then the next day God sends a worm to eat it. Jonah mourns for the plant as he has mourned for nothing else. God notices it and calls him on it. Again, Jonah is angry.

And then God asks Jonah if it was not right to have had pity on Ninevah. And then, as the book ends, God asks “and also much cattle?”

What? Really. What? And also much cattle?

“Jonah and the Whale in the Jami’ al-tawarikh,” c. 1400, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. (Wikipedia)
“Jonah and the Whale in the Jami’ al-tawarikh,” c. 1400, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. (Wikipedia)

I have no idea what that means. I do not know why an entire book, part of the canon, would end in such a way. It dangles. It is silly. It leaves us hanging.

What’s the lesson? I don’t know. Then we finish the Torah service. We move on, push on to the exhilaration that comes with sunset and Ne’ilah. But there’s something about that “and also much cattle” that dangles in the air. Unfinished business.

First time tragedy, second time farce.

We are often told that Yom Kippur is all about the collective. The Jewish collective. We do teshuva not only for our own sins but for the community’s. Even when the high priest, about whose ritual atonement we read on Yom Kippur, repents first for himself and then for his household, eventually he does repent for the community. He enters the Holy of Holies alone, but with a cord wrapped around his ankle, a tangible thread to the outside world.

We read Jonah, the theory goes, as a rare break on Yom Kippur from the Jewish to the universal.

Nitzan Yoel Avidor’s “Jonah and the Whale” at Kfar Saba Park in Israel (Dr. Avishai Teicher via Pikiwikisrael)
Nitzan Yoel Avidor’s “Jonah and the Whale” at Kfar Saba Park in Israel (Dr. Avishai Teicher via Pikiwikisrael)

But maybe it’s a rare break from the collective to the individual. We know that collectively we will be back exactly in the same place next year, saying the same words, thinking the same thoughts, listening to the same music, apologizing for the same sins, making the same mistakes, throwing ourselves on the same floor. Collective life is a cycle. If it changes it at all, if anything breaks that cycle — if a new piece of writing or melody enters the liturgy — it does so very slowly. At most, the circle inches into a spiral.

The community will be back next year, but not every one of us will be there. Some of us will die in this coming year, and others of us suffer through the deaths of people we love. Some will move. Some will find another shul. Some will refuse to pay for tickets.

Jonah, in an odd way, understands this. Sometimes things don’t make sense. Sometimes they change. Sometimes we don’t do as we are told. Sometimes we don’t take advantage of the huge gifts we are given.

Sometimes we are human. No, always we are human.

So — first time tragedy, second time life.

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