Torah | Like Jonah, our insights can spark growth and change

Yom Kippur
Leviticus 16:1-34 (morning)
Isaiah 57:14-58:12
Leviticus 18:1-30 (afternoon)
Book of Jonah


The week before Rosh Hashanah, I had the honor and privilege of sitting on a panel as part of the third annual rabbis’ roundtable, a community conversation with my North Peninsula colleagues: Rabbi Nat Ezray (Congregation Beth Jacob), Rabbi Dennis Eisner (Peninsula Temple Beth El) and Rabbi Dan Feder (Peninsula Temple Sholom), moderated by Rabbi Lavey Derby (Peninsula JCC). This year’s conversation was about the Book of Jonah, and each of the congregational rabbis began with a short presentation, a personal reading of how we understand this perplexing yet rich text that serves as a focal point of Yom Kippur afternoon.

What made this experience all the more powerful is our genuine love and affection. This is just one of numerous examples of how we as spiritual leaders come together for the sake of partnership, collaboration and community, with the goal of helping people feel connected to our Jewish tradition. It’s a tremendous blessing to be a part of a community where mutual respect and admiration are at the forefront. As we prepare for the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, I share with you a collective Torah born out of our conversation.

The story of Jonah contains a depth (pun intended) that goes far beyond a person being swallowed by a giant fish. This book speaks to so many themes, each with its own unique relevance and connection to Yom Kippur: transformation, forgiveness, fear, reluctance, our desire to run, God’s power, gratitude, a sense of mutual responsibility to one another, living in “the depths” and much more. It’s a story that offers new insight and bewilderment with each and every read, making it a perfect choice for this day.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles once wrote, “Unlike every other prophetic book, the Book of Jonah has no particular time or place. [Jonah] lives in all generations, because the temptation to separate, divide and withdraw is always present. So each year, in the middle of Yom Kippur, at the very moment of deepest self-absorption, when the stomach groans, the head aches, and the feet are tired, we revisit the prophet in the belly of the fish to learn that for the Jew, reaching to the soul within us and reaching to the world beyond us are the ways we reach the God who cares for all of us” (Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, September 2012).

This is the meaning not only of the story of Jonah, but the focus of our attention and introspection on these holy days. There is always something that we are running from, afraid of and seeking. Jonah, as a narrative and as a person, opens our eyes to the reality that there are always ways to grow, to change and to transform ourselves and, hopefully, the world.

Where do we start? Well, as I discovered during the roundtable discussion, we must embark on the next phase of our journey by first being honest with ourselves. True growth and change can take place if we are sincere and authentic, and if it stems from a place of integrity.

Rabbi Sidney Greenberg wrote in his book “Words to Live By”: “Wherever we go, we take ourselves along. God finds Jonah even in the belly of the whale. The only way to get away from ourselves is to effect a change within ourselves. What we need is not a change of scene, but a change of soul” (Ibid.).

We are all like Jonah. What Jonah teaches is that when ready, if we are willing to push ourselves, to wrestle and struggle, we may be surprised by what we can accomplish, how we can grow. Yes, change is hard. It requires sincerity, integrity, patience and a willingness to admit that we can do better. As we approach Yom Kippur, I feel blessed to be surrounded by a community of Jonahs, who inspire me to try again, to start over, to be better personally and for the sake of our community.

May 5774 be a year of transformation, a year of “at-one-ment” with ourselves, so that we may “reach within, reach to the world beyond, and reach the God who cares for all of us.”


Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].