December 3, 2022 -

Jonah and the Next Chapter of Our Stories: Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader on Yom Kippur 5778

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is adapted from the D’var Torah shared by Rabbi Jordana Chern0w-Reader at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on September 30, 2017, during the Haftara reading from the Book of Jonah at the Congregational Afternoon Service. We encourage you to share comments below or to post this link to social media such as Facebook or Twitter to continue the conversations it engenders.

As the daughter of a judge, I am a very literal and detailed thinker.   I like there to be evidence for conclusions.  I feel this way about conversations, in books I read and in things I watch on TV.   I nit pick hole in plots and am driven crazy when a movie or TV show has an unresolved ending.  I find this challenging because I want to see exactly what happened.  I like the clarity that comes with resolution.

On the other hand, what I like about the unresolved end is that I get to make my own conclusion. In these cases, I give the characters a happy ending.  In my mind, they get together, or work through their issues or the bad guy goes to jail.  Whatever it is, I like to write an ending with clear resolution when the characters end up a good place.  To me that is the beauty of the unresolved ending is that we get to finish the story for ourselves.

One of our most famous narratives with an unresolved ending is the Book of Jonah. The last lines are as follows: “Then Adonai said to Jonah “Are you so deeply angry about the plant?”  “Yes” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.”  Then Adonai said: “You cared about the plant, which you neither worked for not grew, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.  Should I then, not have compassion for the great city of Nineveh, a place of more than a hundred and twenty thousand human being unable to tell their right hands from their lefts and many beasts as well?”

That is how the book the ends.  Jonah does not answer God’s question.  That is all the information we have.

In my mind, I write Jonah answering God’s question, changing his ways and becoming the prophet I wish he had been all along. If the prophet Jonah had another chapter, he could finally step up and care about the people of Nineveh.  He could go through a transformation process and model repentance, compassion and integrity.

There is a theory among Biblical scholars there was more to the book that was not preserved. According to the JPS commentary, the structure of the last part of the book of Jonah is different and shorter than the previous scenes.  This difference in structure and truncation of the last scene leads some scholars to believe there was at some point a more complete ending to the book.

With the book being incomplete it not only gives us the opportunity to fill in the ending but also allows us to ask questions about our own stories. I appreciate this theory not only because it might help the book of Jonah make more sense, but also because it is an important message for all of us.   It is reminds us to ask ourselves are the areas in our lives that we incomplete.  What do we need to keep working on to bring them closer to completion?

In a recent sermon I heard given by Rabbi David Stern, he argues that we are all incomplete, especially in the areas in our lives that are the most holy. For this, he referenced the chapters in the book of Exodus when the Israelites were wondering in the dessert.  God instructed the Israelites to build the mishkan or portable sanctuary so God could dwell among them.  The text is incredibly exacting in the details for the construction of the mishkan.  There are specifications about the color of fabrics, the length of everything and the type of wood used.  The measurements for the mishkan are in whole numbers for example the table is two cubits long, a cubit wide and two cubits high.  What Rabbi Stern points out that all of the measurements for the ark itself, the holiest of holies are in half inches.   The sages call these amot shevurot – broken numbers – the ark is two and a half inches high, one and a half cubits wide and one and a half cubits long.  Stern argues that this is because the work of becoming holy is never complete.  Stern’s point is that we are never fully finished because there are always ways we can be better or try harder.  We can always push ourselves to complete the other half measurement and creating more holiness in our lives.

Rabbi Eddie Feinstein takes this idea a step further. He explains that the book of Jonah ends with God’s question, that isn’t to Jonah, but to all of us. God is asking to write an ending but to do with through love. God is urging us as we move forward to complete Jonah’s story and ours to do so with empathy and kindness.

The Holiness Code which we just read addresses this idea. In these verses, there are instruction about how we can live our lives working towards creating holiness and completion.  Not only do these verses include ritual practices such as keeping Shabbat, but also instructions about how we should treat one another with compassion and love.   The texts includes statements such as you should care for our neighbors, promote equality and build a just society in doing so we will be holy.

Yom Kippur is our chance, to pick up the charge from Jonah and thoughtfully writing the next chapter in our stories. As a society and individuals we are crafting our narratives, we can do to through love, passion, compassion, excitement and holiness striving to complete the half measurement in our lives.

I pray that God will help us along the way

 

God,

In your wisdom

Help us to reach our potential

Through your loving presence

Help us to see the world and each other through love

Guide us as we strive to create holiness in our lives and the world around us

Help us always strive to complete the half measurements of holiness

Caring for each other,

And writing our next chapters as our best selves.

 

The text is challenging us to step up to write our next chapters of our stories. It is up to us to answer the call.