The holiday of Yom Kippur starts tonight. For the past few years, I have participated in an “Elul Group” in which everyone says individually over the entire 40 days from the first of the Hebrew month of Elul until Yom Kippur the entire book of psalms, and daily as a group. Each person is assigned one particular day to write something on the themes of this time of year such as: forgiveness, repentance, or personal/spiritual growth.
Below is the d’var Torah (words of Torah) that I sent out to the group. I thought I would take the opportunity to share it with everyone here.
I would like to thank Caryn and Ruthie for creating this group and for their willingness to maintain it!
This group is a vital part of my avodas Hashem (spiritual work) during this auspicious time of year. I love the structure that it provides!
This year, I wanted to write about Sefer Yonah (the book of Yonah), which is read during mincha (afternoon prayers) on Yom Kippur.
I feel so grateful to this group for motivating me to learn more about this beautiful sefer (book) and its connection to Yom Kippur and teshuva (repentance).
So, thank you Ruthie and Caryn for all your efforts and to everyone in this group for your participation!
Most of us are familiar with the story of Yonah. It is such a visual story that reads like a fairy tale and makes terrific material for a Disney movie. In fact, as I was preparing this d’var Torah (DT), I thought I would look up if there was a movie made on this story.
If anyone is interested, it seems as though there are several!
I work as a nurse in psychiatry.
One time, I was on the in-patient unit and there was a young woman there, “Colleen.” This was the first time that Colleen had been hospitalized for a mental illness. Colleen came to the nurses’ station and said to me, “Carol, sometimes I feel like I am possessed by evil spirits. I feel like they are taking over me, and I cannot rip them out of me. I feel like I would be better off dead.”
As I sat there listening to her, another patient, “Aileen,” who has a history of paranoid schizophrenia said to her, “the soul never dies.”
I was struck by that comment. It reminded me of the Mishnah in Perkei Avot (4:22):
Let not your heart convince you that the grave is your escape; for against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will you live, against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give a judgement and accounting before the king, king of all kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. (Ethics of the Fathers)
In other words, we can be in so much pain and torment and think that we would be better off in the Olam HaEmes (the next world). However, it is not true. We are all born to fulfill our unique mission in this world. We may think that we can escape from Hashem’s plan for each of us, but we cannot.
Furthermore, on this day of judgement, how many of us are guilty of judging Hashem?
How often do we tell God about how we think the world should be run in general, and how our lives should unfold in particular?
How often do we think that we know better how events should transpire and judge the outcome or the other people involved?
These questions cut to the core of human existence and our dynamic relationship with Hashem.
Sefer Yonah embodies these themes and the struggle between our ratzon (will) and the Ratzon Elyone (The Divine Will).
Sefer Yonah begins with God asking Yonah HaNavi (the Prophet) to go to Ninveh and cry out to her to try to get the wicked people there to do teshuvah (repent).
Instead, Yonah went to the old port city of Yaffo and boarded a ship voyaging to Tarshish, where he thought he would find respite from Hashem’s will.
Why didn’t Yonah want to go to Ninveh?
According to Rashi, Yonah was motivated by loyalty to the Jewish people. Yonah did not want the people of Ninveh to do teshuvah as they were not Jewish and he was afraid that they would listen to him and repent while the Jewish people refused to listen to the prophets when they were told to repent. Yonah didn’t want to make the Jewish people look bad.
So, instead of trying to refuse God’s command to prophesize, Yonah sought to minimize his contact and distance himself from Hashem.
In Yonah 1:3 we read: “Yonah arose to flee to Tarshish from before God’s Presence. He went down to Yaffo and found a Tarshish-bound ship; he paid its fare and boarded it to travel with them to Tarshish from before God’s Presence.”
Yonah could not actually run away from God. However, Yehuda HaLevi taught in Sefer HaKuzari that Yonah was hoping to be able to run away from the Shechina (Divine Presence) and God’s prophecies. According to Yehuda HaLevi, all prophecy either takes place in the Land of Israel or is concerning the Land of Israel. As it says in Dvarim 11:12: “The eyes of God are always upon it (The Land of Israel).”
The Talmud, Nedarim 38a states that Yonah went down to Yaffo and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid its full cost of four thousand dinars of gold and went down into it. Normally a ship that had just arrived in port would not set sail again until a lapse of at least several days while it assembled a sufficient number of passengers to fill up all its berths. Yonah was so anxious to embark that he paid the fares for the entire passenger load.
We all know what happens next. A storm hits, Yonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, Yonah is swallowed by a large fish and gets spit onto dry land (back in the Land of Israel) after praying in the fish for three days.
This time, when God commands Yonah to go to Ninveh, he goes!
True repentance according to the Rambam is when you are put in the same situation again and you do not repeat the same transgression a second time.
We see from the story of Yonah that no one can escape from Hashem who is omnipresent and omniscient. God was with Yonah on the boat, God was with him when he was thrown into the water and God was with him in the fish (it otherwise would have been impossible for him to live in the fish for three days without oxygen). There is no place where God is not present. God’s immanence is within each and every one of us wherever we may be, in the good times as well as in the bad times.
King David in tehillim perek 51: 18-19 says:
כִּ֤י ׀ לֹא־תַחְפֹּ֣ץ זֶ֣בַח וְאֶתֵּ֑נָה ע֝וֹלָ֗ה לֹ֣א תִרְצֶֽה׃
You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings;
19 זִֽבְחֵ֣י אֱלֹהִים֮ ר֪וּחַ נִשְׁבָּ֫רָ֥ה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּ֥ר וְנִדְכֶּ֑ה אֱ֝לֹהִ֗ים לֹ֣א תִבְזֶֽה׃
True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.
What this means is that Hashem does not need our sacrificial offerings.
As human beings, we are fallible and we make mistakes. Hashem, in His wisdom gave us free will. What Hashem wants is for us to rise above our desires and choose to do His will — even when we are presented with situations or obstacles that we don’t like or feel uncomfortable.
The story of Yonah teaches us that we cannot run, hide, avoid, or escape from Hashem’s mission for each of us. Our actions reveal who we are and what we stand for.
How we respond to our challenges and to our triumphs in life defines how successfully we have embraced the will of Hashem.
The book of Yonah also illustrates Hashem’s qualities of not only judgement, but also of mercy and compassion. If the teshuvah of the people of Nineveh, who were completely evil, could be accepted, then there is hope for all of us if we are sincere in our attempts to change.
We need to ask ourselves: Are we behaving in a way that brings us closer to Hashem, or distances us from Hashem?
How do we conduct ourselves not only in the mitzvoth which govern our relationship with God, (bein adam l’Makom) but in our relationships with others (bein adam l’chavero)?
Teshuva is really a gift from Hashem — it enables us not only to repair our middot (character traits), but to become better than we were before. As our chachamim (Rabbis) teach, “A person who returns to G-d stands in a place even higher than that of a completely righteous and holy person.”
During this month of Elul, and these days of teshuva, may we all be blessed the strength and clarity to accept with simcha (happily) and achava (love) the tests that Hashem places before us. May we trust in Hashem’s ultimate goodness, knowing that He is lovingly guiding each us to reach our potential so that we can fulfill His mission for us in this world.
May we be privileged to bring Hashem tremendous nachas (joy) through our actions individually and collectively, so that we will see the fruits of our efforts in our lifetime with the coming of Mashiach (Messiah).
May this be a year of peace, happiness, blessings, prosperity, good health and redemption!
May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. Amen.
Zlotowitz, Rabbi Meir (1978) The Twelve Prophets: Yonah, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, NY
Other great sources:
There were other sources as well, which I will try to send out later.
For tedakah, I am donating on everyone’s behalf to Tomchai Shabbat.