Nineveh’s Oppression and Syria’s Horrific Crime – Yom Kippur Afternoon Sermon, Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk

In an effort to address the entire congregation at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on Yom Kippur – Saturday, September 14, 2013, Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk shared this sermon, “Nineveh’s Oppression and Syria’s Horrific Crime,” at the Afternoon Service when all our worship communities join together. These remarks reflect on the range of issues being presented here in the U.S. during a period of reflection regarding a military strike, or the threat of a military strike, to Syria, after the August 21, 2013 Chemical weapons attack of the Syrian government on its own citizens. We encourage you to post your responses here and to share these remarks with others in hopes of engendering a dialogue on these vexing issues.

On Yom Kippur in 2010, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren described the difficult mission of Jonah, whose story we are about to examine. In his talk, he laid bare the challenges of the prophet’s mission to change the situation on the ground in Nineveh such that its corrupt people would turn from their evil and repent.

He surveyed the historic and present decisions before leaders of the State of Israel and the U.S., and then warned that “ForJonah though, there was no way to escape his responsibilities the way many leaders do today when conflict arises.   Oren explained that there was no way for Jonah to evade consequences for his action. “If he’d [convince] Nineveh to atone and no harm befell its citizens, many would question whether that penitence was ever necessary.  Jonah would be labeled an alarmist.  But what if the people of Nineveh ignored his warning and the city met the same doom” as other biblical cities God considered corrupt?  Then Jonah would have failed! Facing this “lose-lose situation,” Ambassador Oren said it is “no wonder Jonah runs away.” (Ambassador Michael Oren, 2010 Yom Kippur Speech, Published on

Many of us, living far from the Middle East, have been worried if the same principle is true in the array of lose-lose situations before world leaders debating a military response to Syria. We fear the consequences of any choice our nation makes.

My colleague Rabbi Sam Gordon at Temple Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL recently reminded me of a story that, in its own way, adds to knowledge we might attain of a deep-seated cynicism of citizens in the Middle East when they hear our simple prescriptions for peace offered by those living far from the region’s many conflicts. The story is of a scorpion who asked a frog for a ride on his back across a river. The Frog said: “We are mortal enemies. You will sting me, and I will die.” The Scorpion says: “That makes no sense. If I sting you, you will die but then I’ll drown and die too.”  So the frog lets the scorpion climb on his back. Then half-way across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. As the 2 of them are both about to die, the frog turns to the scorpion and asks “Why would you do that. You’ll kill us both.” The scorpion replies: “It’s the Middle East. Get used to it.”

This story tells a bitter truth so many in the Middle East struggle to explain to well-meaning people around the world whose hearts are broken entering a discussion of Middle East politics. We aim to avert bloodshed. But often we and our leaders are damned for choices we make no matter which direction. The challenge in hearing the story is not becoming so obsessed about the evil scorpion or the righteous indignation of the frog. They both drown!  Instead we should keep our eyes on the story’s message- which is that 99 percent of the options in front of the middle east leaders are lose-lose, just like Jonah’s. But there is a possibility that one choice might be the one that turns the tide, one decision might encourage a durable and honest resolve to numerous crises afflicting the Middle East all at once, ranging from the enforcement of borders, to the proliferation of technology to Iran, to the humanitarian crisis of refugees spilling out of Syria at a record pace into Jordan and Turkey.

In the case of our Yom Kippur Haftarah, Jonah runs from his responsibility to act on God’s command. His choice to hide looks as stupid and pointless to us today as the choice of the scorpion to take his own life along with the one on whose back he is crossing a raging river. Indeed Jonah’s narrative proves him to be a pathetic example of how to respond to God’s call.

But sadly, the narrative of Jonah’s failure ultimately takes on his name! The book becomes about his misfortunes instead of what may have been its original intent- to show that even Nineveh could be thwarted from continuing to oppress its people. As you apply this dynamic to the current situation of Syria, it is important that we focus on what is most important. This is no time to report on the wins and losses politically for President Obama or for John Kerry, or for the internal concerns of the Kings of Jordan or Saudi Arabia, the leaders of Russia, France or Britain. Rather, we should concentrate our full attention on the assertions and proof of horrible inhumane oppressive violence on the part of the Syrian President and his army.

Have you watched the recent media stories?  Too much of what we hear is pointless noise about the views of potential presidential candidates in 2016, and not enough attention is being applied to calling on our congressional leaders to explain their intents to support or not support a military strike with moral clarity and a basis in reality. Given the desperate need for information, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to ignore the political chatter!. This is a moment for grown-ups to consider carefully the risks involved in the most-grave decision to which we can offer assent: the use or threat to use our military firepower to change a situation for the better.

If you apply this same principle to the Book of Jonah, it means keeping your eyes of interpretation focused on Nineveh, the target of God’s call to repentance. You will likely not be surprised to learn was a capital city in the Assyrian empire. But within the text of Jonah, this Assyrian royal city of antiquity was described as great, in both size and in its level of corruption during Jonah’s prophecy.

  • Torah commentaries explain that the inclusion of this comment on Nineveh’s greatness was meant to illustrate just how critical it was for Jonah to try to turn such a major city away from sin. It was a city rotted out by violence, a place worthy of condemnation. (The JPS Bible Commentary: Jonah, Edited by Uriel Simon, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999, p. 4)
  • The minor prophetic book Nahum sheds further light. It is called by Nahum a “city of blood, an utterly treacherous place, full of violence, where killing never stops.”
  • Twelfth century commentator Rabbi David Kimchi explains that the sin of the Ninevites was hamas, the inciting of violence by robbery and oppression, the same sin Torah accused of Sodom. But in the case of Sodom, God sought to destroy the city for its robbery and oppression, while in the Book of Jonah, God believed that an intervention could change Nineveh’s desire and capacity to oppress its own people. (Sefer Yonah, Translation and Commentary edited by Rabbi Meir Zlotwitz, NY: Artscroll Publications, p. 81)

This discussion mirrors the dilemma we are facing in Syria. We are contemplating an intervention. If either a military strike or the current plan being discussed by our State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry move forward, will it change Syria’s path? Or are we merely waiting for them to fail so that Syria might be broken altogether, and invest in a future led by opposition forces? If indeed the Free Syrian Army does take over, will they be any more humane than current Syrian leadership?

It is difficult to tell. Yet some have said that no matter what, the government in Syria must change because of their inhumane use of chemical warfare. These voices, though hardly popular, warn of the consequences of doing nothing to stop another genocide to occur in which a people are gassed to death while the world does nothing but make speeches and turn away boatloads of refugees.

Think about it. At Fairmount Temple, we just concluded an hour of study and inquiry, during which our Stern Social Action speaker spoke to us about tangible social activism in the face of world-wide genocide. Naomi Natale over the past several years has guided thousands of citizens to come together to respond to the millions of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, to the lives destroyed through genocides in history and in the present day. She was here to help us think of how we might promote a tangible social activism, a voice that petitions world’s leaders and accounts us to one another to respond when genocidal plans are enacted.

I have been extremely moved by this type of work. But today I must ask aloud: of what use is such tangible social activism, if the world’s leaders are willing to simply dismiss the pleas of civilizations so deeply touched by genocide as our people. Seventy-five years ago this November was Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. I wish it had never happened. But more than that, I wish the United States and other world powers had the courage in 1938 to have made it impossible for a Final Solution to be imposed in which human beings would be gassed to death, human beings oppressed and then slaughtered and baked in crematoria! Let us not forget what slowed the response of the U.S. and others into World War II. There were many factors. But one of them was a nation weary from World War I, and anyway, Hitler was only hurting his own people!

It is this history which prompted Israeli President Shimon Peres to recently say: “The world cannot accept genocide and slaughter of children and women… Assad is not his people’s leader – he is a murderer of children.” (Israeli Daily Newspaper- Yediot Achronot, August, 2013)

More than a year ago, after the Houla massacre where conventional Syrian weaponry killed 100 of its own citizens, our Reform movement’s President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, condemned in the strongest terms the aggression, saying: “This tragedy is yet more evidence – as if any were needed — why Assad must relinquish power and bring an end to the violence.” He further lauded the United States and Canada for expelling Syrian diplomats whose country had gone off the moral grid. (Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President, Union for Reform Judaism, Published on, May 29, 2012)

A week ago, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, explained her disappointment at the failure of diplomatic efforts. While acknowledging the difficulty of a decision to strike or even threaten to strike Syria, Ambassador Power pointed to what she called Assad’s “monstrous crime.” She described the anguish of a father in Syria whose children had been gassed to death, saying goodbye to his two young daughters. His girls had not yet been shrouded….Still dressed in the pink shorts and leggings of little girls, the father lifted their lifeless bodies, cradled them, and cried “Wake up! What would I do without you? How do I stand this pain?”  (Samantha Power’s Case for Striking Syria, speech before the Center for American Progress, September 5, 2013, published on, September 7, 2013)

I know, just as you do, that no military strike we might take, nor even the surrender of chemical weapons by the Syrians, can reverse that father’s horrific pain! But are there steps we can take to prevent another father’s agony going forward? I believe there are. I believe if we take military action, if we use force, it will be our last resort. And our goal would be to show that we will forcibly prevent further torturous inhumane death, whether from a chemically-armed Syria, a nuclear-armed Iran or one of its proxies in Lebanon or Gaza.  This is a time to avert more chemical weapons attacks: whether through force or the threat of force. As our UN Ambassador said, “these weapons kill in the most gruesome possible way. They kill indiscriminately. They are incapable of distinguishing between a child and a rebel. And they have the potential to kill massively.”

I have placed before you (in your afternoon service prayer-book) an article I encourage you to read from Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, that uses our Jewish texts to raise and respond to the moral ambiguity many feel in this frightening moment in history. In this article, Rabbi Hartman warns against our seeking an absolute purity of motivation for our military threat to Syria. But at the same time he points out the particular evil and danger that chemical weapons represent within the moral fiber of the world, because of the truly indiscriminate and extensive killing they cause. (Rabbi Donniel Hartman,, “Syria: Moral Responsibilities and Ambiguous Circumstances, September 1, 2013)

Oh, how I wish it were easier! I wish it were easier for Jonah as well. But he had no easy escape hatch. Nor will it be simple for us to trust Syria if this plan goes forward to surrender its chemical weapons. But certainly there is nothing to be gained from closing our eyes as so many nations did while the Syrians amassed these weapons in the first place. Nor can we afford to use war-weariness as an excuse for allowing Iran to proceed in becoming a nuclear power!

It is Yom Kippur, a day to face mortality. This will never leave us at ease. But on Yom Kippur, in communities across the world, we come together.  We come together, admit our failings and then pledge to try again to build a more just world, a world more at peace, a world where we are “at one.”

No doubt the members of our community are not “at one” in how this situation in Syria can best come to a peaceful resolve. That I would support a strike in Syria does not speak for all of you. Nor would I pretend it does! But what should be most important to us day is not unanimity – it is our unity! On Yom Kippur, we can build unity. We can ask for God’s strength to build unity within our people and within our nation. For reading the Book of Jonah today is not just about repentance.

As Ambassador Oren of Israel taught, Jonah also contains a message of “unity and faith” to inspires us. “In my trouble I called to the Lord,” proclaims Jonah, “VaYa’aneini” – “and He answered me.”

So O God do we now pray this Yom Kippur to you. We pray with contrite hearts for our misjudgments and our complacency. We have sinned by watching as others grew their capacity to destroy in a wanton manner. But God, inspired by the very unity you represent, we pray now in your image.

  • On this Yom Kippur let us be unified enough to educate ourselves on the dilemmas before our nation.
  • Let us be unified enough to remember our history of being gassed to death by cruel leaders.
  • And let us be unified enough to call on our leaders not to run and hide as Jonah foolishly tries. This is a moment not to look for an escape route. But to look toward our leaders to step up and express both the wisdom and the moral standing of their position.

We need your help O God, to realize these high aspirations. For no Nineveh, ancient or modern, can be allowed to cause human oppression – not now, not tomorrow, not ever again.