Why do we read Jonah on Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur: Leviticus 16:1-34
Isaiah 57:14-58:14

Mincha reading: Leviticus 18:1-30
Jonah 1:1-4:11
Micah 7:18-20

It’s just before Kol Nidre when a congregant approaches the rabbi with a dilemma: “I know it’s Yom Kippur tonight and I belong in shul, but my favorite baseball team is in the playoffs and I really need to watch this game. What do I do?”

The rabbi hems and haws: “Well, it’s not exactly within the spirit of the holiday but if you must … don’t you think that’s what DVRs are for?”

The congregant is incredulous: “You mean I can record Kol Nidre?”

In one of the most fantastic stories of the Bible, God charges Jonah, an unknown prophet, to travel to the corrupt city of Nineveh (near Mosul in modern-day Iraq). There he is to rebuke its inhabitants for their evil ways and inform them that in 40 days the entire city will be destroyed.

In an unusual move for a prophet, Jonah seeks to abdicate his responsibility and attempts to run away. He boards a ship and flees to Tarshish (a city near Gibraltar or alternatively, near Tunis) when a fierce gale erupts and threatens to capsize the ship. While everyone on board is frantic and praying, Jonah heads to the bowels of the boat to sleep, knowing it’s him that the storm is chasing.

Eventually Jonah reveals his identity, and that since he’s running from God, the tempest is threatening everyone onboard. He advises the others to throw him overboard in order to quell the heavenly rage. Reluctantly, they oblige and the sea is calm again. At this point, the story turns Disneyesque; a giant fish comes along and swallows the prophet for three days, during which he has a change of heart and repents.

The fish spits Jonah out, and he makes his way to Nineveh, where he convinces the king and its citizens to repent, so the city is saved. In the aftermath, Jonah becomes despondent and laments that he had avoided going on the mission because as God is ever forgiving, Jonah would wind up looking like a charlatan who forecasted doom when he knew it would likely not happen.

God responds that every human and creature is infinitely precious to him. How can any other consideration be more important? Just as we would want an infinite number of chances for forgiveness for ourselves, so we should wish the same for all of humanity.

The question is: Why was this story chosen to be read on the holiest day of the year, and at its most sublime time, just before the Neila prayer in the closing hours of Yom Kippur?

The mystics explain that the story of Jonah must also be understood as a profound allegory. It is the story of our journey through life, and our essential purpose and mission in the world, and this is the ultimate theme of Yom Kippur.

The name Jonah means dove. The Talmud teaches that the Jewish people are called doves (Song of Songs 5:2), for a dove is eternally faithful to its mate. Thus we are all Jonahs sent into this world on a mission to transform this Nineveh of a planet into a world of goodness and kindness. Yet most of us look for ways to evade that responsibility by hiding in our “boats,” symbolized by our bodies that carry us through life. We spend our lives running from our authentic self, becoming engulfed in all sorts of distractions so we don’t have to face the truth of who we are.

But one can’t run forever; we all encounter storms one day that wake us up. For some it can be a crisis of health or employment, for others the feeling that our fellow brothers and sisters around the world are increasingly at risk, and Israel’s security once again threatened. Indeed, the world is shaking all around us, challenging us to confront our Jewish identity and realize that ultimately there’s no running from God.

Yet there is one day a year that calls to us and says although you may have been running or hiding all year, it’s not too late to come home. No matter that you may have lapsed from living Jewishly or didn’t step into a shul all year, you are still a perfect white dove. Deep down, even when we are trying to flee from our historic calling, we know who we are.

Yom Kippur is the one day a year that tolerates no superficiality. We are given the opportunity to encounter our most quintessential self, where, like Jonah, we declare, “Ivri anochi,” I am a Jew.

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected].