Thursday, September 28, 2006

Yom Kippur (Haftarot)

“Is this the fast I have chosen”

The haftarah for Yom Kippur morning is Isaiah 57:14-58:14: yet another selection taken from the group of chapters that have been the focus of attention throughout the seven weeks of comfort. The reason for its choice is quite clear. In the first half, God—“the high and lofty One, who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy”—says that He will not quarrel with the sinner indefinitely but, after a period of anger and punishment, will heal him and bring him rest. The second, longer section (58:1 ff.) calls upon the prophet to raise his voice “like a shofar” and inform the people of their true sin. He describes sarcastically how they seek him “daily,” considering themselves righteous, fasting and afflicting themselves and bowing their heads “like a bullrush”—the whole time behaving hypocritically, unrighteously. The true fast, says the prophet, is to “give your bread to the hungry, and make the misfortunate part of your household, clothe the naked…” Then, and only then, will God shower blessings upon them and rebuild their ancient ruins.

The motif of public fasts, their use and misuse, is a perennial one among the prophets (compare Zechariah lengthy answer when asked by the people, after the Return, whether they need continue to observe Tisha b’Av; Zech 7:12-8:19)—and rightly so. There is a propensity for every institution, even the most spiritual and elevated, to become misused, its spirit distorted and perverted. Hence, there is a constant need for Musar, for moral admonition, or—if that word carries connotations of a negative, self righteous kind of moralizing—of calls for renewal, for refreshing its vital life energies from within, and ridding it of the dross, of preoccupation with tangential and minor things. This is the essence of the prophet’s call in this chapter, with special focus on the institution of fasting—a much needed reminder in the midst of the Great Fast Day.

Jonah and Moby Dick

The haftarah for the afternoon of Yom Kippur is the Book of Jonah—one of the two longest haftarot of the entire cycle, and one of only two occasions when an entire book (albeit one of the “Twelve”) is read as haftarah. The story is one of the more popular “Bible stories” in Western culture, but mostly for the wrong reason—i.e., for it being a whopper of a “fish story.” It has a close connection to the Yom Kippur message, of the power of teshuva, of atonement and forgiveness, as will become clear from our reading, but that has nothing to do with the fish.

Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, whose main protagonists, so to speak, are the great white whale of its title and the half-mad whaling captain Ahab, is considered one of the great works of American literature. Moby Dick is, of course, not only a great sea epic, but first and foremost a moral tale. (There is also a direct connection between the two books, beyond the nautical setting: in the opening chapters of Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael describes a sermon about the Book of Jonah he heard from Father Mapple, the preacher at the whaler’s chapel in the town of New Bedford from which Ahab’s whaling ship, the Pequod, departed. This sermon is disappointing: Mapple completely misses the point of the Book of Jonah, conveying a conventional Calvinist outlook in which obedience to and rebellion against God are the only meaningful parameters of the religious life.) Its hero, Ahab, is obsessed with a single-minded craving for vengeance against the white whale who years earlier bit off his leg; in the process of pursuing this beautiful and essentially innocent great sea creature, he destroys both his own and his crew’s lives.

Jonah, like Ahab, is a stubborn, obdurate character. Unlike Melville’s novel, which sprawls over six or seven hundred pages, in the expansive and leisurely tradition of the nineteenth-century novel filled with illuminating and informative digressions, Jonah’s tale is told in spare, concise terms, as is typical of the Bible: the whole thing is read aloud in the synagogue in ten or fifteen minutes. It opens with God’s call to Jonah to prophesize to the great city of Nineveh “for their evil has come up before Me”; instead, he flees from God, boarding a ship headed to the then most distant imaginable place, the city of Tarshish on the far end of the Mediterranean. Unlike other prophets, such as Isaiah or Moses, who initially rebuffed God’s call out of a sense of their own smallness and inadequacy, Jonah seems to have run away because of a principled quarrel with God’s way of running His world, as we shall see in Chapter 4. Another difficulty: what kind of conception did he have of God, that he thought he could run away from Him? Or was his flight an unthinking, instinctive impulse?

Once they are on the high seas God sends a tremendous storm, which threatens to capsize the ship; the sailors pray to their respective gods, while Jonah is fast asleep below deck. Interestingly, these pagan sailors are shown as pious people, with an innate sense of awe and of the presence of a moral order in the universe. When the captain wakes Jonah to ask him to pray to his god, he realizes immediately that it is on his account that disaster has overtaken these men; significantly, he describes his credo with the words “I am a Hebrew; I fear the Lord, God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9; meaning: there is no place on earth or at sea where he can escape the reach of God’s hand). The sailors are horrified at what he has done and, as the storm worsens, see no option but to throw him into the sea (as a kind of propitiatory sacrifice to his god?). This is not done lightly or callously; note the prayer in v. 14, where they say “let us not be lost on account of this man, nor place upon us his innocent blood, for You, God, have done as You wished.” The sea immediately ceases it raging, and the relieved sailors offer sacrifices of thanksgiving.

Scene 2: Jonah is swallowed by a great fish (not, as usually thought, a whale) sent for that purpose by God, in whose innards he survives for three days (long enough for the creature to swim the great distance from wherever they were—perhaps already well into the Western waters of the Mediterranean—to the seashore closest to Nineveh). While in the fish Jonah utters a prayer, reminiscent in both spirit and language of many of the more personal psalms of prayer uttered in times of stress found in the Psalter, with appropriate references to water, sinking to the depths, etc. Did Jonah learn anything from this experience? Did he realize that God was trying to tell him something? Can we perhaps think of the fish as his rebbe, or Zen master, whose task was to teach him through indirection?

Scene 3: In any event, in due course Jonah is spit out on the dry land somewhere near Nineveh, and this time realizes that he has no option but to fulfill God’s command and prophesy to the men of that great city. The so-called “pagan” people of Nineveh immediately repent and exhibit sincere contrition, not only fasting and wearing sackcloth, but abandoning their evil and violent ways. God in His turn forgives them and reverses the decree of destruction against them. Uriel Simon, in his studies of Jonah, has noted the parallel between the two non-Jewish groups —in the sailors of Chapter 1 and the Ninevites of Chapter 3—both of whom exhibit exemplary natural piety and capacity for repentance, as foils to Jonah’s stubborn and intransigent nature.

Scene 4: The crux of Jonah’s quarrel with God is in 4:1-2. Jonah felt very bad that God forgave the people of Nineveh, explaining this as the reason for his flight. “Is not this what I said when I was still on my own land; that’s why I fled to Tarshish: for I know that you are a compassionate and forgiving God…” What a strange, paradoxical answer! Why should he flee because God is compassionate? The only coherent answer is that Jonah was unable to accept such a God. He wanted God to be stern, unforgiving, angry, vindictive, one who only loved those who never made a mistake, punishing sinners in full measure—no doubt, because that is how he himself was. Jonah nevertheless knew that God was compassionate, forgiving, loving, long-suffering, etc.—but he couldn’t take it. Bizarre and illogical as it may sound, Jonah must have thought that he knew better than God Himself how He ought to run his world; he considered himself, so to speak, as “frummer,” more pious, more religious, than God Himself. (Not to mention that the Ninevites were non-Jews, and quite possibly part of a group that had historically been enemies of Israel to boot!)

God makes a last ditch attempt to teach Jonah. Jonah goes to sulk in a makeshift hut outside of the city, over which God makes a gourd grow to give him shade. Next morning a worm comes along, making it dry out, and God also sends a harsh east wind, a hamsin, to make things even more unpleasant. When Jonah complains about all this, God answers by drawing a comparison between the gourd “on which you had pity, even though it flowered and died in a single night” (4:10), and His own compassion on the people of Nineveh (4:10-11). What kind of an answer is this? How can God’s compassion for the people of Nineveh, based upon selfless empathy for imperfect creatures who had gone astray in their ignorance, be compared with Jonah’s complaint about the loss of the gourd, rooted, not in empathy, but in self-pity and grief at the loss of an object that had been convenient to him? This is indeed the point: God was mocking Jonah’s capacity for compassion and his much-vaunted moral uprightness, by exposing his essential self-centeredness and egotism. In passing, He makes the important point that human sin, evil and monstrous as it may often be, is ultimately grounded in simple ignorance and lack of understanding (“more than twelve myriads of men who do not know their right hand from their left”), rather than in any deliberate choice of evil.

Did Jonah change his own view of the world? We are not told; I somehow doubt it. In any event, God has the last word here.

To return for a moment to Moby Dick. Melville’s story involves other issues as well, such as the elemental struggle between man and nature, but at root there is an essential similarity between Ahab and Jonah. Ahab is motivated in a single-minded way by emotions of hatred and vengeance, blinding him to all else around him; killing the whale has become the sole purpose of his life. He is impervious both to the consequences for the crew placed under his charge, whom he drags with him on his mad vendetta, and to the essential innocence and purity of the white whale itself. Ahab learns nothing. Only Ishmael, the battered survivor, lives to tell the tale. Jonah, too, represents an all too familiar religious type: stern, unloving, without compassion, frozen in a rigid, stereotyped type of thinking dominated by Fear rather than Love. At least Jonah suffers nothing worse than a touch of sunstroke in the last scene and, we are told by the midrash, returns to a normal life (he is even cited briefly as a prophet in 2 Kings 14:25), and doesn’t bring a ship-full of men down to the briney deep.

In Jewish tradition, this haftarah concludes with the final verses of Micah (7:18-20; see HY II: Shabbat Shuvah), bringing home the point about Divine compassion, a central theme that permeates Yom Kippur, and particularly the final hours of the fast.


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