Sinking into Compassion: The Book of Jonah and Yom Kippur

In honor of Yom Kippur, this week we bring you two queer takes on The Book of Jonah. Tomorrow, poet and professor Dr. Joy Ladin offers her reading.

If it takes holy
to argue with God, Jonah has it in spades. God’s word steers him to Nineveh, the great Babylonian metropolis whose wickedness is driving the Divine to distraction, but instead of traveling to Nineveh to “proclaim judgment upon it” (Jonah 1:2) as God asks, Jonah books passage on a boat heading to Tarshish, in the opposite direction. Angered that Jonah would turn “away from the service of the Lord” (1:3), God sends a storm to shake up his ship. While the sailors pray and bail water, Jonah sleeps down below in the ship’s hold. After the sailors toss him overboard in the hope of calming the storm and deflecting God’s anger, Jonah spends three nights in the belly of a giant fish, and finally gets coughed up onto the beach of Babylonia. There, he makes a half-hearted pass through the city, proclaiming destruction in forty days.

Creative Common/Dead Air
Creative Common/Dead Air

This, my friends, is Judaism’s most successful prophet – the only prophet the Hebrew Bible records as actually bringing about the full repentance of his flock. If nothing else, he’s proof positive that God has a sense of humor, or at least a fine appreciation for irony.

In spite of himself, Jonah provokes the people of Nineveh to such repentance that they even garb their cattle in sackcloth and ashes. Yet when Jonah sees God spare the city, he’s furious. “God!” he says, “Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? This is why I fled toward Tarshish. Because I know You are compassionate and generous, slow to anger, abundant in Your kindness, slow to anger, and refraining from evil” (4:2). Rabbi Haim Ovadia teaches that Jonah is actually raging against God’s compassion — Jonah wants the bad guys to get what they deserve. Jonah runs because he knows God will forgive them, and he’d rather die than be a part of it.

But God doesn’t truck with Jonah’s vision. Over the course of the Book of Jonah, the haftarah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon, God drags Jonah on his own journey of transformation – showing him compassion, witnessing his anger, trying to wake up his heart. But it’s precisely Jonah’s attachment to judgment I want to highlight here, because I believe many of us live in Jonah’s shoes. Judgment is bedrock in Jonah’s universe.

As queer folk, many of us carry deep wounds around judgment. Coming out and being out leaves some tender places in our lives open to public scrutiny. For many of us, Yom Kippur gets tangled up with our own memories of being judged – often by those who claim to speak for God. As we take stock of own lives and try to make amends for where we’ve fallen short, most of us face the harshest judge of all: ourselves.

Humans have a hard time expressing love and limits simultaneously. As children, many of us found “being good” the best road to love and approval, while “doing bad” made love harder to find. But on Yom Kippur, we have the chance to submerge ourselves in a different story. For the Holy One loves with a love that cannot be withheld. The Holy One loves with a love that cannot be undone. For all our power to inflict harm and pain on one another and ourselves, we cannot separate ourselves from God’s compassion. We can deny it, forget it, or ignore it – but we cannot shatter it. No matter what you or I do, the love bond between us and God endures.

This is Nineveh’s lesson. This is truth that Jonah knew and couldn’t face.

God’s love doesn’t excuse our actions. It isn’t about our actions. God’s compassion is not an ethical force. It cares not one whit for what we do or who we are or what mishigas we’re mixed up in. God’s compassion is a Presence that stays with us, regardless. It doesn’t fix our problems, and it doesn’t spare us pain. It doesn’t protect us from tragedy or misery or fear. God’s Presence changes nothing, and it changes everything. Because the soul needs love in order to survive. Love is the very stuff of life, as elemental as breath and just as necessary.

Amidst this love that exists and endures and sustains us, Jewish tradition also calls forth God’s capacity to express righteousness and moral judgment. Unlike human hearts, which have a hard time expressing love at the same time that they feel disappointment and pain, the Holy holds all this in one awesome bundle. The discerning God, the God who desires the world to be a more ethical, wholesome, life-sustaining place. It is the God who weeps at human suffering, who cries out against evil, and calls us to make a whole and holy world. The God who knows we can transcend our smaller selves, transform our moments of mean-spiritedness, and hallow our hearts. The God who holds us, all the while, in compassionate and enduring love.

Discover More

Jonah: Following God’s Example

God also repents in the Book of Jonah.

Full Text (in English) of the Book of Jonah

The Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur Prayer Services. Yom Kippur in the Community.

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