A sermon for Yom Kippur Morning: In The Belly of the Whale

This is the sermon I offered this morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Once there was a man named Jonah, “Dove,” son of Amittai, “Truth.”

And God spoke to him and said, Go to the great city of Nineveh and tell them to make teshuvah, otherwise I will destroy them for their wickedness. And in response, Jonah fled.

This is a familiar story. We’ll read it again this afternoon during mincha, and we’ll look at some fascinating modern commentaries during our Torah study afterwards. But I want to lift up a few details now, because some of you may not return for mincha, and there’s something powerful about encountering this particular story on this particular day of the year.

Jonah flees from God, onto a ship bound for Tarshish. He heads in precisely the direction God didn’t tell him to go. An actual Wrong-Way Corrigan. Does he really think he can escape from the Holy Blessed One, the King of Kings, Who can see him anywhere he goes?

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells a Sufi story about a great teacher whose disciples wanted to learn his mystical wisdom. Okay, said the teacher; here is a dove; go someplace where no one can see you, and kill it, and when you come back, I will teach you what you want to know.

Of his 12 students, eleven came back with dead birds, and he sent them away. One returned with the living dove. “I couldn’t find a place,” said the student, “where no One could see me.” It was to that student, who understood God’s omnipresence, that the teacher chose to transmit his blessing and his wisdom.

But our Jonah, our dove, forgets that. He flies from his calling, flees from God.

Once his ship is at sea, a mighty storm arises. The sailors are in a panic. And Jonah is sound asleep belowdecks. This is comedy. Imagine the ship rocking wildly from side to side, sloshing with seawater and in danger of foundering: and our hero, or perhaps our anti-hero, is sound asleep!

It’s also a deep spiritual teaching. How often, in our lives, do we hide from what we know we’re meant to be doing? How often are we spiritually asleep?

In her book The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, Avivah Zornberg writes beautifully about this moment. She quotes the midrash, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer: “The captain of the ship came to him and said, ‘Behold, we are standing between death and life, and you are sound asleep!'” And here’s Zornberg:

The captain expresses the existential plight of those who stand between death and life. Uneasily straddling death and life, the sailors stand and cry. Jonah escapes into a stupefied sleep.

Here, the midrash registers the core of Jonah’s flight. To flee from God is to refuse to stand between death and life; it is to refuse to cry out from that standing place. The opposite of flight from God is, in a word, prayer.

The opposite of flight from God is, in a word, prayer.

Jewish morning prayer has a trajectory. We begin with blessings for waking and for the miracles of each day: that’s the realm of the body. We ascend into the realm of the heart with psalms of praise. We ascend into the realm of consciousness with the Shema. And then we ascend to the highest peak, the place where we stand before God, with the amidah, the prayer whose name means “standing.”

Standing isn’t merely a matter of choreography. It’s an existential truth. When we pray, we are called to stand before God, whatever we understand God to mean: God far above or deep within, our highest aspirations, the One Who set the Big Bang in motion, the source of love and compassion in the universe. We’re called to be wholly present.

The opposite of prayer, says Zornberg, is flight. Fleeing from our responsibilities. Fleeing from God. Fleeing from whatever calls us to be better people, to improve ourselves, to be good to others, to choose mercy and kindness over strict justice.

How much of our lives do we spend fleeing from what matters? From the awareness of our mortality? From the acts of lovingkindness we know we should be doing? From the brokenness of the world, the awful stories on the news, murder and rape and injustice? Even from our loved ones, when we choose checking email again on our smartphones rather than putting away the electronics and connecting with our parents, our children, ourselves?

This is not new. The internet offers new and fascinating ways of fleeing, but this inclination is as old as humanity. We see this in the Psalms — both the desire to flee, and the realization that flight is inevitably impossible. Here’s a taste of psalm 139:

Where can I escape from Your spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I descend to Sheol, You are there too…
It was You who created my kidneys;
You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
I praise You,
For I am fearfully, wondrously made.

Notice how the psalm moves from anxiety — “where can I escape from Your spirit?”– to praise: “You fashioned me in my mother’s womb; I praise You.” Today offers us an opportunity to make that same leap.

In the belly of the great fish, Jonah offers a monologue which sounds very like a psalm. Jonah’s first prayer comes when he has reached rock-bottom: he goes down to the harbor, goes down into the belly of the ship, goes down into the sea, goes down into the belly of the whale. It is only from those depths that he is able to pray.

We, too, are often moved to our deepest prayers in moments of crisis and brokenness. Sometimes it’s hard to make the time for standing-before-God when life is good. But when we’re at the bottom of the sea? They say there are no atheists in foxholes; and though that can’t be true, it is human nature to cry out when times are tough. “From the depths, I call to You, O God!” (Psalm 130:1)

Midrash offers a fascinating window into Jonah’s experience inside the whale. In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, written in the early first century C.E., we read that Jonah entered the mouth of the whale as we enter the doors of a synagogue. Light streamed in through the whale’s eyes, like the windows of a synagogue. Jonah approached the bimah, the whale’s head. And Jonah said to the whale, show me the wonders of creation.

So the great fish took Jonah on a tour of the deeps. He showed Jonah the Foundation Stone of the Temple, fixed in the depths of the sea below the land. (Our ancestors believed that our lands rested atop primordial chaotic waters.) And the fish said to Jonah, you are standing beneath God’s temple; you should pray. And Jonah said to the fish: “stand in your standing place; I want to pray.”

Stand in your standing place. Jonah asks the fish to help him do what he has been unable to do: to stand before God. Again, this isn’t literal, it’s existential. Stand, sit, lie down, swim: but be present. You have to be wholly present in order to pray.

The funny thing is, when he finally offers a prayer, Jonah doesn’t use his own words. In the midrash, Jonah quotes from Hannah’s song of gratitude, which she speaks when her prayer for a child is answered. In the book of Jonah itself, Jonah’s “psalm” from the belly of the whale is deeply derivative; it sounds like bits of many different psalms stitched together. His prayer is pastiche. It’s a collage of other peoples’ words.

We are all Jonah. We are all prone to fleeing from the things we don’t want to face, the truths we don’t want to own up to, the work in the world we don’t want to have to do. Here we are in the belly of this great whale, the windows of our sanctuary offering eyes for looking out on the world. Together we are transported, this morning, into someplace deep and strange.

We too pray using other peoples’ words. The words of our Torah, the words of our sages, the words of our tradition. And let me be clear: I love these words dearly. But how do we invest them with the meaning we need?

How can we graft our inchoate cry into these borrowed words? Can we pray them with authenticity? What is it that we yearn for, as we crest the wave of this Yom Kippur and prepare to dive into the depths of our own seas?

I can tell you what I yearn for. I yearn for connection. I yearn to be truly seen, in the fullness of who I am, and to be loved not despite that fullness but in and through it. I yearn to be held. I yearn to be heard.

I yearn for a world healed of trauma. A world in which people of all genders, of all races, of all religions and none, are safe. A world in which no child need ever fear abuse.

I yearn to live up to the best of who I can be. To be kind and compassionate, always, and to receive kindness and compassion in return. I yearn to be a good person, a good spouse, a good child, a good mother. A good rabbi.

I yearn to be grateful. I yearn to experience the full range of my emotions, from joy to sorrow, without numbing myself either to what hurts me or to what heals me.

Yom Kippur offers us the opportunity to face ourselves and to seek what we most yearn for. On this day, connection: the sages tell us that today God is most near to us. On this day, we are truly seen, and truly loved, in all that we are. Even our failings. Even our fears.

And on this day, we have work to do. Today we reconsecrate ourselves to the task of healing the world from its brokenness.

Why does Jonah run from God? Because he knows that once he goes to Nineveh and preaches teshuvah, the people will repent and God will forgive. And they do, and God does, and Jonah is furious. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of our childlike fantasies of a world of simple equations, where those who do good are rewarded and those who do evil are struck down.

Jonah says, I am so angry I want to die! And God says, “Hmm, are you really angry?” Zornberg sees this as a therapeutic question. I see it as a parental one.

What would happen to us if we let go of our anger? If we let go of our need to be right? If we acted out of mercy, not the desire for vindication? Maybe then we would be less like Jonah, and more like God. Less like a cranky toddler, and more like a beneficent parent.

Here we stand in the belly of the whale. God is calling us to awareness, to stand before God in the place where we are, to do the work that needs doing in the world. To bring healing, to bring mercy, to bring kindness even to those who are unlike us.

Are we listening?

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