Torah Lights on Shabbat Shuva

Water as a motif of the Yom Kippur fast.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin,

For on this day, He shall provide atonement for you, to purify you; you shall be forgiven of all your sins; before G-d shall you stand pure.”Leviticus 16:30).

One of the highlights of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the reading of the Book of Jonah, a small book which contains a world of philosophy. The major message of Jonah is likewise the major message of Yom Kippur, so that the proper understanding of the former will most certainly illuminate the latter.

G-d comes to Jonah, son of Amitai, sending him to call the people of Ninveh to repent. Jonah refuses to do so, and believes he can escape the G-d of the heavens and earth by sailing to the sea. Why did the prophet find a mission to Ninveh so objectionable? Ninveh was the capital city of Assyria which was the arch enemy of Israel. Indeed, in the 8th century B.C.E, Assyria defeated the Ten Tribes and banished them into exile. Jonah cannot understand why G-d is interested in Assyria’s repentance.

After all, as long as the Jews have more merits than the Assyrians, the chances of an Israeli victory in battle are far greater. Hence Jonah seeks to escape G-d by boarding a ship bound for Tarshish.

A raging storm develops at sea, and a drawing of lots demonstrates that Jonah is responsible for the storm. It is fascinating to note that water is both a major symbol of the Book of Jonah as well as a major symbol of the Tishrei period of festivals.

Water is both a symbol of life as well as of destruction. The Bible opens “and the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1: 2) and no life can grow without the presence of water. At the same time, the Bible tells us right before its description of the life giving waters that “there was darkness on the face of the tehom,” usually translated as the depth of the cavernous waters of the netherworld. It was after all, the waters of the flood which threatened to destroy the world.

The Mishna tells us that on the Festival of Sukkot, G-d judges our merit for the life sustaining rain. Rain is therefore a symbol of G-d’s gracious bounty, His purification of His children on the Day of Forgiveness. As the prophet Ezekiel says in words which we repeat again and again during the Yom Kippur prayers, “And I shall sprinkle upon you the waters of purification and you shall become pure” (Ezekiel 36: 25).

Jonah, who is cast overboard into the raging waters, has challenged G-d, endeavored to escape the Divine mission, and is therefore worthy of death. G-d, however, in His infinite compassion provides a great fish - a creature of the water - to follow Jonah and bring him back to life. In Jonah’s own words “I called, in my distress, to G-d and He answered me. From the belly of the grave I cried out. You heard my voice. You cast me into the depth of the heart of the sea… your waves passed over me… yet You lifted my life from the pit, O Lord my G-d” (Jonah 2:3-7).

The waters almost destroyed Jonah and the waters in the form of a water-creature sent by G-d saved his life. G-d is teaching the crucial lesson that Assyria, who has been so evil and destructive, can and must make a complete turnaround if the world is to be redeemed. And G-d is also teaching that He, G-d, is willing to overlook the evil Assyria has committed if she will indeed repent.

Jonah refuses to accept this. He is after all the son of Amitai, a name which is derived from the word "emet," or truth. Truth demands that evil never be overlooked; evil must be punished. This is how Jonah explains why he refused G-d’s mission “…. This is why I hastened to flee to Tarshish; I knew that you are a gracious and merciful G-d slow to anger abundant in loving kindness and forgiving of evil.” (Jonah 4: 2)

This is not the G-d in whom I want to believe, the G-d who described Himself earlier to Moses as the G-d who is “abundant in loving kindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6). But Jonah has forgotten that his first name means dove, and that just as the dove was saved from the flood so was he, Jonah, undeservedly saved from the raging waters. G-d is teaching him that the G-d of compassion will bestow His life giving purity even upon those who have sinned.

On Yom Kippur, each of us descends into the “waters of death.” We wear the white reminiscent of shrouds, we remove ourselves from all physical necessities and pleasures such as food, drink, and sex, and we wear the non-leather shoes of the mourner. For whom are we mourning? We are mourning for ourselves who have died because of our sins.

G-d in his compassion, however, returns us to life on Yom Kippur, reborn and purified. G-d sprinkles upon us His life giving waters “For on this day, He shall provide atonement for you, to purify you; you shall be forgiven of all your sins; before G-d shall you stand pure” (Leviticus 16: 30). All of us experience the death and the rebirth of Jonah. As the final Mishnah in Yoma says, “How fortunate are you O Israel! Before whom are you purified, and who purifies you? Our Father in Heaven.”

Shabbat Shalom