Jewish Holiday: Yom Kippur

Heroes & Villains
By: Amy J. Kramer

Jonah and the Whale

On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, while many families are resting at home before coming back to synagogue for the concluding service of Neilah, the Book of Jonah is read. Everyone knows about Jonah and the whale. But the Book of Jonah, says a lot more about Jonah and G-d than about Jonah and the whale.

Jonah is what we might call a reluctant hero. He is told by G-d to go the city of Ninveh and tell the wicked people to repent their ways or they will be destroyed. Jonah did not want this mission so he decided to run away. Why and how, as a prophet of G-d, he thought he could run away, is unclear, but he did.

So, Jonah boarded a ship for a far off country, but during the voyage, a terrible storm struck. The only person unaffected by the torrential downpour and crashing of waves, was of course, Jonah. While everyone on board was praying to their gods, Jonah was fast asleep. Finally, the captain of the ship noticed Jonah's disinterest, and when Jonah awoke, the captain asked why he wasn't worried and praying to his god.

For some reason, Jonah told the captain that the storm was his fault for not listening to G-d and that the only way to stop it was to throw him off the ship. At first, Jonah's shipmates were reluctant to toss him overboard, but as the storm grew worse and worse, they did as Jonah asked. As soon as Jonah hit the sea, the waters stilled.

Soon, a whale came by and swallowed Jonah. For three days and three nights, Jonah sat inside this fish. Finally, realizing the folly of his behavior, Jonah began to pray and promise that if delivered from the belly of the whale, he would go directly to Ninveh to fulfill G-d's word.

When G-d realized how sorry Jonah was, he caused the fish to spit him out on dry land. Jonah makes his way to Ninveh and tells the people they must repent or be destroyed. The people of Ninveh repented and were saved.

However, instead of being happy that the people of Ninveh were saved, Jonah was angry at G-d for forgiving them. He went outside the city and sat down, waiting to see what would happen next. It was very hot and soon Jonah fell asleep. To protect him, G-d made a gourd grow by his side. It was a plant with very large leaves that provided a lot of shade. When Jonah awoke, he was very happy to see the new plant. That night, however, G-d sent a worm to eat away at the plant until all its leaves were gone. When Jonah saw what happened to the plant the next morning, he was angered.

Then Jonah heard the voice of G-d: ''Jonah, you have pity for a plant for which you have not labored. It grew up in one night, and disappeared in one night. Yet you have no pity for the thousands of people in Ninveh and their cattle, and you are angry at me for saving them?''

Jonah understood his mistake: It's not up to him or anyone else to decide who is worthy of forgiveness.

When you compare Jonah's behavior with that of Moses, who pleaded with G-d to forgive the Jewish people, you realize how very different these heroes were. Read on....

The Sin of the Golden Calf

One cannot discuss Yom Kippur and forgiveness without mentioning the sin of the golden calf. Without this landmark event in the history of the Jewish people, there might not be a Yom Kippur.

We all know this story. Moses is up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Aseret H'adibrot, the ten commandments, the children of Israel grow restless. They beseech Aaron, Moses' older brother, to fashion a god for them to worship. Moses returns, sees the golden calf and the people dancing in religious frenzy, and breaks the tablets in anger.

G-d is also angry and tells Moses he is ready to destroy them. But unlike Jonah, Moses pleads on their behalf. He is the people's strongest advocate. He doesn't run away or agree with G-d about their unworthiness. Instead, he pleads for the children of Israel to be granted one more chance.

That was the first Yom Kippur. And what Yom Kippur teaches us, is that at any time, not just the tenth of Tishri, we can observe our own Day of Atonement. Everyone is worthy of forgiveness. It is not up to Jonah, or your neighbor to decide. To be a proper servant of G-d, you must have compassion for others.

Jonah had no compassion. He did not believe the Ninevites repentance was real. He believed in strict, unmitigated justice. We must not be like Jonah. On Yom Kippur, there is a tradition of asking one's friend or neighbor for mechilah, meaning forgiveness, for any wrong you may have committed. Our sages tell us, if you don't forgive your friend, you can't expect forgiveness from G-d.