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In the Same Boat: Noah, Jonah and the Big Question – Yom Kippur

There is a teaching in the Talmud that, on Rosh Hashana, God opens not one Book, but three.

The perfectly righteous are immediately inscribed in the Book of Life.

The thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed in the Book of Death.

And a third book is designated for those who are beinoni, somewhere in between, whose fate will not be decided until Yom Kippur (Brachot 16b).

That is to say, the ten days of repentance aren’t designed for those who are completely righteous or completely wicked. They’re for those of us, most of us, who fall somewhere in between.

Even our biblical ancestors didn’t always fall neatly into one category or another. Abraham advocates for a doomed city in one chapter and nearly sacrifices his son in another. Moses flees after killing an Egyptian taskmaster, but later returns to help God to deliver us from slavery. And don’t get me started on the patriarchs’ family drama!

Then there’s Noah. The Torah tells us that while the people of Noah’s time were corrupt and lawless, Noah is an ish tzadik tamim b’dorotav, “a righteous man, blameless in his age” (Gen. 6:9).

The rabbis aren’t sure exactly what that means. Would a righteous man let the world around him be destroyed, saving only his own family and assorted pairs of animals? Would Noah be righteous compared to our ancestor Abraham, or was he righteous only in comparison to the evil that surrounded him (Sanhedrin 108a)?

In defense of Noah, some say that he built the ark as slowly as possible, hoping that the people around him might still repent (Tanhuma Noah 5:6) Others argue that Noah didn’t think he was important enough to pray on behalf of all humanity (Kedushat Levi on Gen. 6:9).

The Zohar notes that, after the Flood, Noah wept at the sight of the destroyed earth, calling out, “God, you are called Compassionate! You were supposed to have compassion on your creatures!” To which God replies, “Now you ask me? Why did you not speak up when I told you gently what I was going to do? I spent so much time with you, and spoke with you, so you would request mercy for the world…But once you heard you would be saved in the ark, the evil that would befall the world didn’t impact your heart…” (Zohar Chadash Noach: 109-115).

Any of these interpretations are possible. But I wonder if God and Noah were actually wrestling with the same question, one that echoes through our sacred texts and down the generations to us: Is humanity worth saving? And what is our role in saving it?

This question floods our minds as we watch horrifying events unfold in every corner of the earth.

The world is beset with natural disasters reminiscent of Unetaneh Tokef: fire and flood, earthquake and plague, resulting from our poor stewardship of God’s creation. The world is filled with discord, violence, and hatred. It would not be a stretch to say that many of the leaders in our generation would meet the criteria for “corrupt and lawless.” Have we reached a point where, as in the story of Noah, there is no choice but to wipe us out and start over?

At the beginning of the Noah story, God sees the wickedness of the people on earth and says, “‘I will blot out from the earth the humans whom I created… for I regret that I made them.’” God tells Noah to build an ark to save himself and his family (Genesis 6:5-8).

Noah complies without question or argument. He and his family survive the Flood and save every species of animal. God gives them a chance to start over in a world washed clean.

Putting a rainbow in the sky, God promises, “Never again will I doom the earth because of human beings, since the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done. So long as the earth endures/ Seedtime and harvest/ Cold and heat/ Summer and winter/ Day and night/ Shall not cease” (Genesis 8: 21-22).

Even while making this new covenant with the earth’s only surviving family, God does not forget to tell us that we have an evil inclination. And perhaps God didn’t need to. No sooner has the rainbow dried on this new covenant than Noah plants a vineyard, drowns his sorrows with wine, and strips naked in front of his family, perhaps a nervous breakdown following the impossible choices he had faced while building the ark.

Rashi suggests that Noah and his children had some qualms about about repopulating the earth after such an ordeal (Subversive Sequels in the Bible p. 849). But in the end, they decide to move forward, passing their question of humanity’s worthiness on to the next generation.

This question is at the heart of the book of Jonah that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Like the story of Noah, Jonah features a man who hears the voice of God, and a God who considers whether humanity is worth saving.

God calls Jonah to send a message of doom to the Ninevites. Like Noah, Jonah does not argue on behalf of the people of Nineveh, refusing to warn them even when God asks him to. Instead, Jonah attempts to flee, and, like Noah, ends up in a boat, caught in a storm brought on by the wrath of God.

The storm is so violent that the ship’s crew decides that Someone Up There must be angry with them. After seeking out every possible deity and every possible alternative, they toss Jonah overboard to appease God. For three days and three nights, Jonah repents from the belly of a giant fish. When God finally causes the fish to spit him back up on dry land, Jonah decides that he is ready to heed God’s word and preach God’s message to the Ninevites.

In the original Hebrew, Jonah’s prophecy is only five words long, the shortest in the entire Bible. Od arbayim yom v’Nineveh neh’pechet. Forty more days and Nineveh is overturned (Jonah 3: 4).

Though most biblical prophets are ignored, the Ninevites listen to Jonah. Every living being—from the king to the beasts of burden—put on sackcloth and ashes, fast and pray … and change their ways (Jonah 3: 5-9).

And their teshuvah works. We read that, “God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment that God had planned to bring upon them” (Jonah 3: 10).

The Ninevites repent, so God is happy. God renounces the punishment, so the Ninevites are happy. The only person who isn’t happy is Jonah, who spends the final chapter of the book sulking.

Some say that Jonah was concerned with being labeled a false prophet. Or maybe he was just hoping for a good show of fire and brimstone.

Others argue that Jonah cannot handle the cognitive dissonance of a people doing evil and not being destroyed, even though he was spared punishment earlier in the story. Despite his own experience, he does not believe that people can change, and thus he cannot accept that a sinful people could be forgiven.

So God, partly out of pity, and partly to show Jonah that he’s being ridiculous, causes a plant to grow over Jonah’s head, giving him shade from the hot sun as he waits to see what will happen to Nineveh. But just as Jonah is starting to feel better, God causes a worm to destroy the plant, leaving Jonah exposed to the elements. Jonah is so unhappy that he begs for death.

God responds to Jonah’s sniveling with a question: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should I not care about Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?” (Jonah 4:10-11).

In other words: I created these people and their animals, I have been in relationship with them in a way that you could not possibly understand. Are they not worthy of My compassion, as you were?

Biblical scholar Judith Klitsner suggests that the Jonah story is a “subversive sequel” to the story of Noah, turning God’s zero-tolerance policy towards evil on its head. The story of Jonah pops up to remind us that we still haven’t answered Noah’s question of whether humanity is worth saving, and that the answer might have changed!

Here, as in the story Noah, we have a boat, a storm, and a dove—the latter hidden in Jonah’s name. We have a quick-growing plant, a people bent on evil, and a prophecy that dooms them to destruction. Here we have hamas—lawlessness—and nichum—regret. Only here, God regrets not the creation of humankind, but the punishment that God had planned to bring upon them.

Professor Klitsner writes that, at this moment, “the human heart is no longer a stumbling block, inevitably leading humanity towards evil and requiring God’s mercy. Now it is an instrument of change. Although it tends toward evil, if humanity so decides, the heart can be refashioned” (Subversive Sequels in the Bible p. 976).

The key to this change can be found right in the words of Jonah’s prophecy. Nehepechet comes from the Hebrew verb, l’hafoch, which means “to turn upside down.” Jonah meant it to foretell imminent destruction—as it does in the story of Sodom and Gomorroh and in the book of Lamentations. But the Ninevites choose to hear one of l’hafoch’s alternate meanings—to change.

And God changes too, from a God of strict justice to a God of mercy and forgiveness. No matter how deep the depths of human evil have become, God has kept God’s promise to never again destroy the entire earth.

The process of teshuva is an outgrowth of this change of God’s heart. Each year, we have the opportunity to examine our deeds and ourselves. And each year, we confront the same burning question: Are we worth saving? Are we—like the citizens of Noah’s world—corrupt and lawless, evil from our youth? Or are we, like Jonah and the Ninevites, capable of turning ourselves around?

On Yom Kippur, we pound our chest and cry out to God, asking for forgiveness for a litany of human sins. Hearing these harsh words come out of our mouths, year after year, we may begin to feel, as our prophets felt, that human beings are beyond repair.

But here is where Mishkan HaNefesh gets a little subversive in itself. After the confessional of al cheit and the tortured alphabet of Ashamnu, the machzor turns the confessional on its head with al tikkun, a prayer “for acts of healing and repair.” It begins: “Let us speak now of the healing acts by which we bring You into the world, the acts of repair that make You a living presence in our lives.” The recitation lists the righteous acts by which we change our world for the better: forgiveness, charitable giving, caring for the sick and the mourner, honoring our elders and teaching our children, pursuing justice, protecting nature, and making peace. These acts, says the machzor, “bring nearer the day when You shall be One and Your name shall be One” (Mishkan Ha Nefesh Yom Kippur p. 93).

The first time I read this prayer, it felt false and self-congratulatory. Just as I didn’t want to be accused of sins I hadn’t done, I didn’t want to be patted on the back for righteous acts I had failed to do, either.

But on closer examination, I realized that this list was aspirational, designed to remind us of our great potential for good, on a day when we might otherwise be thinking entirely about our inclination towards evil. We have known our share of lawlessness and corruption. But we have also seen our share of kindness, justice, and love.

 It is said that there are 36 righteous people who walk the earth, called the lamed-vavniks or “36-ers,” whose presence saves the world from destruction (Sanhedrin 97b; Sukkah 45b). These are the people who live up to the best of their human potential, and in doing so, might buy us just a little more time to live up to ours.

I sometimes joke—though I’m not really joking—that the beloved musician and prolific philanthropist Dolly Parton is probably one of the 36, as is Jose Andres, chef and founder of World Central Kitchen, which provides “chef-prepared meals to communities impacted by natural disasters and during humanitarian crises.”

But the anonymity is an essential part of this legend. If we don’t know who these lamed-vavniks are, we could be sitting next to one. And if we don’t know who the lamed-vavniks are, we might need to step up and become one.

Being a lamed-vavnik is about more than doing the right thing—that is why there are so few of them in the world. It is about sticking our neck out, speaking up and taking action, even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Professor Klitsner proposes that both Noah’s and Jonah’s stories ask us, not only whether humanity is worth saving, but, “Does the end result have to be destruction? Or is there another way?”

This year, the Reform movement is taking part in a few initiatives that aim to seek out that other way, both in terms of violence between human beings, and in the harm and destruction that is impacting our natural world.

On the state level, RAC-PA is partnering with CeaseFirePA to pass the Common Agenda to End Gun Violence. In an effort to combat community violence, firearm suicides, and mass shootings, the Common Agenda demands Extreme Risk Protection Orders to remove guns temporarily from those experiencing a severe mental health crisis; mandates reporting lost or stolen guns within three days; as well as universal background checks and safe storage laws. You can learn more about these efforts from the fliers on the table outside, or by contacting Karen Gurmankin and Cheryl Turetsky.

On a local level, we are also working with Champions for Cheltenham to support those in the Cheltenham School District who are unhoused, food insecure, or otherwise in need. You can learn more by contacting Ellen Friedman.

On a national level, the Reform movement has partnered with other American Jewish institutions in an emerging movement called Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. Their mission is: “To secure a just, livable and sustainable world for all people for generations to come by building a multi-generational Jewish movement that confronts the climate crisis with spiritual audacity and bold political action.” You can learn more about this movement by connecting with Mark Kaplan, chair of our Shomrei Adamah Committee, and by participating in our four-part “Jewish Wisdom, Environmental Justice” course this fall.

Each of these initiatives resonate deeply with the stories we explored today, in which humans, in partnership with God, confront both the destruction of the natural world and the violent inclinations of human beings. We cannot wait for one problem to be solved to confront the other. We cannot curl up in the belly of the ship and hope that someone else figures out a way to weather these storms. We cannot give up on the question. We must be part of the answer.

To many, Yom Kippur feels like a day of punishment. But as imperfect as we are, the opportunity to do repentance and ask forgiveness is a tremendous gift. Today we have the chance to start over, to do better, and to try again to heal that which is broken in our world. Because, as we’ve learned from Noah and Jonah, no matter how broken things become, we are not released from our responsibility to try and turn things around.

As we prepare to begin another year, our slate wiped clean through fasting and prayer, teshuva and tzedaka, we need to ask ourselves: Will we fill this coming year with failures of integrity, justice, and love? Or will we turn ourselves around, and fill our days with acts of healing and repair? What will we do this year to save our world from destruction?

Will we, like the sailors, who made every effort not to throw Jonah overboard, seek out non-violent solutions to our problems? Will we, like the plant that provided shade for Jonah’s head, bring comfort to the afflicted? Will we, like the king of Nineveh, be the kind of leader who leads by example, showing our people how to turn from evil and do good? Will we, like the boats in both stories, provide safe harbor for the vulnerable? Will we, like the prophets, use our voices to encourage others to change their ways, or will we keep our head down and only look out for ourselves?

Most importantly, will we, like Noah, like Jonah, accept this gift of a second chance that God gives us each year? Will we have the courage to live again? And will we do better this time?

The liturgy and scripture of Yom Kippur remind us that God does not want the wrathful destruction described in the Bible’s early chapters. God wants us to look deep into our hearts and wrestle with the regrets that we find there. God wants us to reverse course, turn back, and try again. God wants us to transform the mistakes of al-chet into the healing acts of altikkun. God wants us to live our lives as proof that humanity was, and is, worth saving.

Gmar Tov.


Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz