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YOM KIPPUR 2002/5763.

Rabbi Walter Rothschild, Berlin & Munich.

Today we celebrate Yom Kippur - not only fasting and prayer, but also several Bible readings are a part of the day, and in the afternoon we read, amongst other texts, the Book of Jonah. The questions are - Why? What is the point? And there are several possible answers.

Amongst these are - because we, too, like Jonah, often try to run away from our responsibilities and from God. Another might be - If God is prepared to forgive an entire evil city, maybe there is yet hope for us, too. Can we, however, also learn something that is politically relevant for modern times ?

It is a strange book, a little Novella, only four short chapters. What happens ? One day - we are not told precisely when - God speaks to Jonah the son of Amittai and says “Go to Nineveh, that terrible city, and tell them I intend to destroy it.” The third and fourth chapters take place there - in this big city, in Mesopotamia, in the modern Iraq - not that far from the modern Baghdad.

Why ? Why precisely now ? We are not told. How bad, how evil, is this city ? What is happening there ? What has earned it such a punishment ? The Text - here - tells us nothing about this.

Nineveh lay not far from the modern city of Mosul, north of Bagdad. King Sennacherib came back here, after he had failed to capture Jerusalem, in the 7th. Century BCE.. See the story in II Kings 19:35-37, which is largely repeated also in Isaiah 37:36-38. Here he was murdered by his own sons. “And it happened that very night, an Angel of God went out and smote in the camp of Assyria 185,000. And when one went out in the morning, see, they lay as dead corpses. And Sancherib, King of Asshur, fled, and went back to Nineveh. And it happened, as he bowed down in worship to Nisroch his god in the temple, his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer smote him with the sword. They fled to the Land of Ararat, and Esarhaddon, his son, ruled in his stead.”

So - Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, here reigned King Esarhaddon and King Ashurbanipal, mighty tyrants. It was an old city, a large city, a corrupt city, a city where sons could kill their father in a temple. (Ararat, by the way, where the Ark of Noah is supposed to have landed, is clearly the area in northern Iraq / south-east Turkey where the Kurds are now trying to establish their own country.)

In Hebrew, a “Jonah” is a Dove - for many, this is a symbol of peace (Gen. 8:8-12). The same letters can however mean “to warn, criticise, irritate” - the role of a prophet - or even “to oppress” - and these letters are also to be found in the name “Nineveh”. Nineveh was the capital of the brutal empire of the Assyrians. It was a symbol for all that was evil, political as well as moral. It was a brutal society, built upon slaves and human misery and poverty and a personality-cult, and the rulers were all-powerful.

Why does God speak now to Jonah ? We do not know. If God had planned something against Nineveh - would it not have been possible for him to speak to the King of Nineveh direct, to warn him, advise him, persuade him to change his evil ways in time ? But God does not do this. Is it after Sennacherib’s defeat or even an attempt to persuade him not to attack ? The timing is unclear.

Does Jonah have a wife and family ? We don’t know. In 2 Kings 14:25 a “Jonah son of Amitai” is mentioned - so, at the same period as already described - and he is “a Prophet, a servant of God”, who prophesied that the borders of Israel would reach from “the entrance to Hamat until the Sea of the Aravah” - from northern Syria until Eilat, in modern terminology. He prophesied during the 41-year reign of King Jeroboam in Shomron, Samaria - near the modern Nablus. Only one thing is clear - he receives this mission from God, unexpected and unwanted - the mission to visit the Enemy, to warn the Enemy, and to change the Enemy so that he is not an Enemy any more. A difficult task for any of us.......

He does not want to do this. That is understandable. It would be a form of suicide mission for a Jew from Samaria, a Court Prophet, to go to Nineveh in Assyria. There had already been bloody conflicts between these people. Instead, Jonah flees, he goes westwards rather than eastwards, to the Mediterranean port of Jaffa, and seeks a ship that will take him as far westwards as possible, to Tarshish, presumably Tartessus in Spain, out near the Atlantic, out of contact......

Maybe it is easier for a Prophet like Jonah ben Amittai to prophesy Israel’s victory when one is in Israel, not in the capital of the enemy..... Maybe it is a challenge to him ?

But it is not so simple to escape God’s command. God sends a mighty storm. It threatens the lives of those caught up in it. The sailors are not stupid - they can tell that this is something out of the ordinary. Somebody must have annoyed some mighty Power. They sacrifice everything they can, but then must call upon their passengers. Until the last minute they still hope to save everyone on board, but at last it becomes clear that this Hebrew passenger has to be thrown overboard. Only in this way can they themselves survive. And so - the sea suddenly becomes still. And they recognise the power of God. The sailors are the heroes of this story - they are innocents, caught up in a conflict which is not their own, they do their best to find the best solution for everyone - but in the end, they also want to live.

Everyone who has read this story, even if only in a School Bible, will now think of the famous Whale. Actually it is not so important in the narrative as such - it never says anything - and serves mainly as a vehicle to isolate Jonah and then bring him to dry ground. Despite everything, he must go to meet his destiny. Nineveh, even when it does not know this, needs his Warning.

He comes, he preaches, he prophecies - and an amazing reaction occurs. The inhabitants of Nineveh - from the simplest peasant up to the King himself - regret their ways, change their attitude to God and the world. They cover themselves in sackcloth, they sit in ashes. And God decides “Good, I will also then change My ways, I will NOT destroy them after all”.

When Jonah, disappointed and angered, asks why ?, God replies - patiently - “Because there are so many innocent people there, and even animals, who don’t have anything to do with this evil business - why should the innocent suffer and die with the guilty, and why should it not be possible for the guilty also to repent and to change their ways ?” (God also warns - “Why do you show more concern for a tree than for thousands of people ?” - an implied warning for those who become so obsessed with Ecology that they cannot see the People for the Trees.....)

Jonah is not convinced, but the story ends suddenly here. Whether he ever returns home, we will also not learn from this Book. (There is a Moslem tradition that he is still buried there, in a place named now “Nebil Junis”, the Tomb of Jonah.)

Right now, in these days, we stand before a very similar problem. In the very same country, in the former Mesopotamia, there is an “evil city” with an “evil ruler” - described even as part of an “Axis of Evil”. The people there - at least, the leaders - appear hostile and seem to have little interest in Dialogue or Peace. Instead they seem more concerned with War, with Oppression, with Threats, with Weapons of all sorts. Is there a better solution available, than War and Destruction ?

Would it be possible to send them a message, so that they might change their ways ? A Jonah, a Dove, a Message of Peace ? Or not ? And who is prepared to fulfiul this mission ? Would innocent people - like the sailors in the story - also get caught up in the conflict ? Should we not also think of the little people, those who have difficulty telling their right hand from their left, and the other living creatures, before we attack with great destructive force ? Or do we really have to kill them all, in order to get to the really evil ones amongst them ?

From the Bible we can learn a lot. God is here the World Power - and God sees an evil city with an evil ruler. But God alone is also unable to change the people of Nineveh - that is something they must do for themselves. God can only send a warning, a prophet, an “Inspector”, who then has the task of seeing what can still be rescued from the situation.

We should not forget also the story of Sodom (Genesis Chaps. 18 & 19) - there also, there was a city which had “earned” its destruction, and there also God could in the end find no alternative, after all other alternatives had been tried - God sent angels, messengers, to find just ten righteous people - even that would have been enough to save the city, but they were not to be found...... therefore, from the sky rained fire and destruction, until nothing was left. That is also - when necessary - a solution.

The Prophet, the Messenger, is always one who comes from Outside, who is not a member of the normal society. He is free, independent - and at the same time, only human. He can, however, achieve a lot, if the people are ready to listen to him. He can achieve a transformation of the entire society - if the ruler himself is prepared to humble himself and listen, too.

Oh - and one should not forget - Nineveh WAS eventually destroyed later, by the Babylonians ! But that was a generation later. Maybe they didn’t listen the next time. The ruins are still there.....

“There is nothing new under the sun”, says the Preacher. Not for the first time there exists in the modern Iraq an evil, destructive, dangerous, threatening, brutal Empire. Not for the first time some people think “There must be a better way to get out of this situation, without destroying the entire country”. The question is - are they right ?

Is there anyone today ready to be a new Jonah, and go there ? Or not ? Is anyone ready, to be as disappointed as Jonah - he got no praise, no thanks, no Peace Prize - he did only what he had to do, not willingly but - successfully ?

If not - then History will have to repeat itself. As with the history of Sodom. A city which - from the heavenly perspective - had lost its right to exist. Where there was a Power from above, who was prepared to send punishment against the evil ones.

Theologically as well as politically - and indeed personally on this Yom Kippur - all of us, and our world, face a very difficult decision.

Gedanken zum Tischri

Die Torahlesung zu Rosch haSchanah:
Die Söhne Awrahams - Jizhak veJischma'el

Awrahams Zerrissenheit bei der Trennung von seinem Sohn Jischma'el erschüttert den Leser und läßt ihn mit vielen Fragen zurück. Die direkt nachfolgende Geschichte der Akedath Jizhak ist aber die wohl am allerschwersten verständliche Schilderung der gesamten Torah...

Paraschoth zu den Hohen Feiertagen

  • Paraschah für Rosch haSchanah (Gen. 21,1-31, Lev. 23,23-25 Maftir)
  • Paraschah für den 2.Tag Rosch haSchanah (Gen. 22,1-24, Lev. 23,23-25 Maftir)
  • Paraschah für Schabbat Schuwa (Wochenabschnitt)
  • Paraschah für Jom Kippur (Dtn. 29,9-14 u. 30,1-20, Lev. 23,26-32, Maftir, zu Minchah Lev. 19,1-18)

Haftaroth zu den Hohen Feiertagen

  • Haftarah für Rosch haSchanah (1. Samuel 1,1-2,10)
  • Haftarah für den 2.Tag Rosch haSchanah (Jeremia 31,1-19)
  • Haftarah für Schabbat Schuwa (Hos 14,2-20; Mi 7,18-20)
  • Haftarah für Jom Kippur (Jesaja 57,14-58,14)
  • Haftarah für Sukkot (1. Könige 8,22-30; 41-43)
  • Haftarah für den 1. Tag Sukkot (1. Könige 8,2-21)
  • Schabbat Chol haMoed Sukkot (Kohelet 2,1-26)
  • Haftarah für Schemini Azeret/Simchat Tora (Josua 1,1-9)


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