Wednesday, August 16, 2017


I began my rabbinical career in Charlottesville, Virginia. From 1988 to 1991 I was the director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center (today called the Brody Jewish Center) at the University of Virginia. The Charlottesville and U.Va. Jewish communities were a lot smaller than they are now. Besides Hillel there was one other Jewish organization, Congregation Beth Israel, and until shortly before I arrived it did not have a rabbi. My Hillel predecessor, Rabbi Dan Alexander, left Hillel to become the rabbi of Beth Israel and served there for 28 years until he retired last year. Although Beth Israel is Reform, it has Conservative services on Shabbat morning and I attended those on Saturdays when there were no services at Hillel. I also played on the Beth Israel softball team.

When rioting broke out in Charlottesville and then three people died as a result, Keleigh and I were out of the country. But as I read and learn about what happened, and as I listen to the President’s remarks, I grow more and more concerned.

Let’s be very clear here. On Friday night Nazis marched through the U.Va. “Grounds” (U.Va. uses its own terminology and has “Grounds” rather than a “Campus”) carrying torches, chanting the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”

On Saturday, three Nazi militiamen dressed in fatigues stood across from the synagogue carrying AR-15 rifles. The leadership of the synagogue, fearing trouble, asked the city for police protection which was denied. (In fairness, it should be noted that the whole City of Charlottesville has only 127 police officers and they were understandably stretched thin.) So the synagogue hired an armed security guard and removed the Torah scrolls for safekeeping. On Saturday morning, after services, congregants left the building through the back door so they wouldn’t be seen by the Nazi protestors.

Let’s be very clear about what happened. There can be no moral equivalency and no equivocation. The President said that what happened was the fault of both sides. Were there anti-Nazi protesters who acted violently? Yes, there were. But the overwhelming majority were there to silently oppose racism and support equal rights for those of all races, religions, orientations, etc. Clergy from all over the country, including a very close friend who is a Methodist minister from Richmond, locked arms to keep the Nazis away from the counter-protesters. And yet, they were met with violence, and one person was killed -- as were two state police officers in a helicopter crash nearby.

The President said on Tuesday that while there were bad people on both sides, there were also some “very fine people” on both sides. No. Very fine people do not march with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. This was not a rally about a statue, although the argument over the Robert E. Lee statue and the renaming of Lee Park to Emancipation Park was the cause celebre to which the Nazis and Klansmen hitched themselves. I absolutely agree that good and decent people were on both sides of the November election and that good and decent people can disagree about whether Confederate monuments should be allowed to remain or not.

But this rally wasn’t called “Save the Statue.” It was called “Unite the Right” and the posters and advertisements for the rally had Nazi, KKK, and anti-Jewish imagery. If you march in a Nazi - KKK rally, you are not a “fine person.” I often get invited to sign a statement or participate in activities initiated by the National Action Network. Very often I agree with the letter or activity but I will not participate in anything that the National Action Network does because it is headed by Rev. Al Sharpton, and as far as I’m concerned that makes it a treif organization. If Sharpton is treif, how much more so the Klan and the Nazis?

This really isn’t about politics. Condemnation of Nazis and the Klan shouldn’t be a political issue and it shouldn’t be difficult. As I was writing this, I received a press release from the Republican Jewish Coalition which I think sums things up very nicely:

The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are dangerous anti-Semites. There are no good Nazis and no good members of the Klan. Thankfully, in modern America, the KKK and Nazis are small fringe groups that have never been welcome in the GOP. We join with our political and religious brethren in calling upon President Trump to provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and antisemitism. As representatives of the Party whose founder, Abraham Lincoln, broke the shackles of slavery, and of an organization with many members who experienced firsthand the inhumanity of the Nazi Holocaust, we state unequivocally our rejection of these hatemongers - you can expect no less from the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Rabbinic Dispensation to Fly in Air Force One on Shabbat?

Air Force One left Andrews Air Force Base on Friday afternoon for Saudi Arabia, and among those onboard were Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. The family belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and Ivanka was converted to Judaism by a well-respected Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. White House spokespeople apparently told the press that they had received a “rabbinic dispensation” to fly on Shabbat, something Orthodox Jews are normally not permitted to do. Rabbi Lookstein has denied giving the couple permission to fly on Shabbat, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, but the fact of the matter is that he was never identified as the rabbi who supposedly gave this permission.

Is there such a thing as a “rabbinic dispensation”? Did Jared and Ivanka violate halacha by flying in Air Force One on Shabbat? My answer to both questions is “no.”

First of all, there is no such thing as a “rabbinic dispensation.” In the Catholic church, the pope or a local bishop can grant a “dispensation” when in their opinion, following a specific law would create an undue hardship. The most famous recent dispensation came earlier this year when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday during Lent, and many bishops relaxed the prohibition on eating meat on Friday in Lent so that Catholics could eat the traditional corned beef and cabbage. Rabbis have no such power; no rabbi can release a Jew from following Jewish law due to severe hardship.

Since we don’t know who the rabbi was that allegedly gave this “dispensation,” we can’t know the reasoning behind it. However, Rabbi Jeffrey Woolf, a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, with a Ph.D. from Harvard and ordination from Yeshiva University, wrote that in his opinion Jared and Ivanka’s plane flight was perfectly permissible. He writes: “there are times when the conflict between observance and public responsibility cannot be avoided. In cases of life or death, the Torah commands that Shabbat be set aside to the degree necessary to save lives. This is the guiding principle of the Israel Defense Forces, and the reason that ministers in the Israeli government sometimes violate Shabbat in an emergency. Most such cases, though, are far less dramatic and occur when pressing demands of the public welfare require the attention of the public servant who is also an Orthodox Jew. The individual is then allowed to violate rabbinically legislated restrictions. This is not because a ‘dispensation’ is given (a Catholic term that has no place in Judaism). Rather, Jewish Law maintains that when these rules were enacted, very limited exceptions were built in for extraordinary circumstances and/or persons.”

To understand Rabbi Woolf’s argument, it’s necessary to know that in halacha there are two types of laws: biblical and rabbinic. Biblical laws cannot be suspended except in cases of life and death, but rabbinical laws can be suspended “when pressing demands of the public welfare require the attention of the public servant who is also an Orthodox Jew,” in Rabbi Woolf’s words.

Without getting too technical, it seems to me that flying in Air Force One on Shabbat involves violation of rabbinic but not biblical laws. While operating a car or other conveyance such as an airplane would be a biblical violation, riding in one is only a rabbinic violation at best. The main violation of riding in a conveyance on Shabbat would be amira la-akum, asking a Gentile on Shabbat to perform forbidden labor on your behalf. If the conveyance is operating regardless of whether you are on it or not, technically there is no violation at all. (The main problem with riding the Metro on Shabbat would be carrying the Smartrip card and operating the fare gates.)
Air Force One took off before Shabbat, so getting to Andrews wouldn’t have involved any prohibitions, and it would have flown the same route regardless of whether or not they were on board.  Of course, they landed in Saudi Arabia on Shabbat and then were driven in a car, but again the car wasn’t provided exclusively for them and at any rate they didn’t direct the driver, so I see no issue of amira la-akum here either.

It’s important to remember that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner didn’t go to Saudi Arabia on vacation or a private business trip. They both hold official, though unpaid, appointments as advisors to the President and as such are government officials. While I’ve seen suggestions that they should have flown a day earlier or a day later, I’m certain that meetings were held and speeches rewritten in the plane on the way over, and thus being on the flight was part of their governmental responsibilities.

They aren’t the first observant Jews to have to deal with tensions between Shabbat observance and their official duties. While Senator Joe Lieberman usually walked to the Capitol when important Senate business was conducted on Shabbat, there were times when he allowed himself to be driven there in an emergency or when the weather didn’t allow him to walk. He did this only for Senatorial duties, not for politics. He never campaigned on Shabbat and never attended the Connecticut State Democratic Conventions which nominated him, because they were held on Shabbat. Jack Lew -- someone I know personally and in whose house I have had Shabbat meals -- served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations as budget director and also served as both Chief of Staff and Treasury Secretary under President Obama. During both administrations, it was reported that he had a telephone number which was known only to the Oval Office, and which was used only in cases of emergency -- and when it rang, he picked it up.

During the course of my career I’ve met many Jews in government service who have had to make decisions about what they will or won’t do on Shabbat. I’ve spoken with career military officers who have seen their careers suffer because, while they will perform mission-sensitive work on Shabbat, they won’t attend purely social events. Unless we want to maintain that observant Jews can’t serve in crucial government or public safety roles, we ought to respect the decisions about Shabbat observance that others make in good faith, even if we think that in their place we would have decided differently. We also need to make sure that our evaluation of a decision another Jew makes about their observance isn’t clouded by our disapproval of the administration in which that person serves.

I don’t have any problem with the decision that Jared and Ivanka made. I am concerned about the way it was presented. There are valid worries that presenting this as a “rabbinic dispensation” rather than a legitimate setting aside of rabbinic prohibitions for public necessity may make it harder for other observant Jews in the future. “Jared and Ivanka got permission from their rabbi to fly on Air Force One, why can’t you get permission from your rabbi to make this presentation on Saturday?” We may need to explain the difference between government officials fulfilling their public responsibility on Shabbat on the one hand, and making a sales pitch or finishing an audit or a legal brief on the other It’s always an issue when observant Jews are perceived to be acting contrary to Jewish law, even when in fact they are not. It would be a public service for the rabbi who supposedly gave permission to step forward and explain his reasoning. I’m not an Orthodox rabbi, and there is no reason that the Kushner family would turn to me, but had they done so I would have advised them that it was proper for them to accompany the President in Air Force One on Shabbat. But I would have insisted that my reason for doing so be made public as well.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Thoughts After A Civil Rights Tour of Atlanta

I returned very late last night from Atlanta where I attended a conference for “Jewish innovators” called The Collaboratory. As part of the conference, yesterday morning I participated in a Civil Rights tour of Atlanta lead by Billy Planer, a Jewish educator who runs tours of the South for Jewish student and adult groups looking at the history of the Civil Rights movement, including the involvement of Jews in the movement.

Our first visit was to the Pencil Factory. This apartment and retail complex in a gentrifying neighborhood was the site of the National Pencil Factory managed by Leo Frank, a Jewish man originally from New York. In 1913, a 13-year-old female employee of the factory was murdered, Frank was falsely accused and convicted of the murder in a trial replete marked by vicious antisemitism. The governor of Georgia, John Slaton, towards the end of his term in office, concluded the trial was unfair, commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison, and then himself fled the state with his family for ten years. The prison where Frank was held was stormed by a mob and Frank was lynched, the only white person ever lynched in the South. Frank was posthumously pardoned by the Georgia Parole Board in 1986. The Leo Frank lynching was the catalyst for the formation both of the Anti-Defamation League and the modern Ku Klux Klan.

From there we went to the Martin Luther King, Jr., historical site and visited both the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached, and the gravesite of Dr. King and his wife Coretta next door. After that, we went to the headquarters of the NAMES Project, aka the “AIDS Quilt.” We heard from the project’s executive director Julie Rhoad about the history of the Quilt and how our society did very little to find a cure or treatment for AIDS/HIV as long as it was thought to be a disease which mainly afflicted the LGBT community.

The unspoken but very real question: what if anything is the connection between antisemitism, racism, and prejudice against the LGBT community? What is the role of religion in both creating and fighting prejudice?

And then we returned to our hotel only to learn that a suspect has been arrested in connection with the spate of telephoned bomb threats to Jewish institutions. As we all know by now, the suspect is a Jewish teenager who lives in Israel and has both Israeli and American citizenship. From news reports, we learn that he was rejected by the Israel Defense Forces under circumstances which lead pretty clearly to the conclusion that he suffers from mental illness.

Before we breathe a sigh of relief that the hoaxer has been caught, let’s remember that it hasn’t only been bomb threats. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and swastikas have been painted on Jewish institutions, and it’s not likely that these crimes, too, were perpetrated by a teenager living in Israel. Even if the JCC threats were a hoax, antisemitism remains real.

This arrest also brings up another question for me. Yesterday I studied antisemitism, racism, and homophobia. What of prejudice towards those who are mentally ill? What if Congress repeals laws which require that insurance companies cover mental illness treatments the same way they cover treatments for other kinds of illness?

Lots of things to ponder.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Jews As "Resident Aliens"

More years ago than I care to acknowledge, I was the Hillel Director at the University of Virginia. We had an association called United Ministry which included most of the religious groups on campus, except for the extreme fundamentalist Christians who didn’t believe in participating with non-Christians.  Every year we would have a day-long retreat. We would all read the same book in advance and that would be the focus of our discussions.

One year the Methodist campus minister, Rev. Brooke Willson -- who is still a good friend -- suggested we read what was then a new book, Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimons. The main thesis of the book is that for most of American history, White Protestant Americans controlled the culture and the government and simply got used to the idea that both reflected their ideals and beliefs. But since the 1960s, this was increasingly not the case. This is what gave rise to groups like the Moral Majority and similar Christian Right organizations. It was an attempt on the part of some White Protestants to turn the clock back.

Hauerwas and Willimons said this was a mistake. That first of all, it probably couldn’t be done. But even if it could be done, it shouldn’t be done. Something had gone wrong when Church and Empire fused under Constantine; and the Church, to be true to itself, should not seek to have coercive power or hold the reins of government. Hauerwas and Willimons said that Christians should learn to be more like the Jews, who lived for centuries under governments which were hostile or at best indifferent to their ideals and nevertheless managed to create supportive communities which met their needs and took care of each other.

Many of us are now concerned about the possibility that the United States may soon, or may have already, become a place where discrimination and xenophobia will become much more acceptable. It seems to me that these things are something against which we must all be vigilant, no matter who you voted for in the recent election.  I was glad to see that the President-elect promised to be the President for all Americans and reach out to those who didn’t support him for guidance and help. All of us -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents -- need to hold him to his word.

At the same time, Hauerwas and Willimons were on to something. As I said in my sermon on Kol Nidre evening, our experience as American Jews who are not subjects but citizens is, in historical terms, very novel. It may well be the case -- I hope not -- that as of January 20, we will be faced with a government that is opposed to many things we hold dear and supports many things we find reprehensible. This may be shocking to us but it would have been utterly familiar to most of our ancestors.

The prophet Micah said to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” He didn’t say “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God -- as long as the White House says it’s OK.” The Torah commands us 36 times to love the stranger -- our commitment to fulfilling that mitzvah isn’t dependent on which party holds the White House or the Congress. As individuals and as a community, we can continue to love the stranger, support the weak and the disabled, feed the hungry, heal the sick and love our neighbors. This is at the heart of why we are Jews, and we can do it no matter who is in the White House. So let’s continue to do it, no matter what.

Morning After Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I sent out a “Prayer Before Voting” which ends with the following words:

Creator of all flesh, we know also that the real work begins tomorrow morning. Whether or not I am pleased with the outcome of this election, help me to be a good citizen and work for understanding and reconciliation among all Americans. May we continue to work for the day when none shall hurt or destroy, when justice shall flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

That morning has now arrived. Based on the results in Montgomery County and also on the usual breakdown of the Jewish vote, most of you reading this are not pleased but some of you are. Now that the election is over, the hard work begins.

A few scattered thoughts:

  1. We really are two countries, almost evenly divided in population. One of the things which I’ve not seen receive too much notice is that although Donald Trump won the Electoral College, Hillary Clinton seems to have won the popular vote by over 100,000. We have got to, as a nation, figure out how to speak with each other more civilly, try to work together and try to understand each other.
  2. Our tradition wisely gives us a road map for dealing with grief and loss. When emotions are at their most raw we don’t do anything but focus on our loss. But there is a time limit. After sitting shiva we get up and ease back into our lives. If this describes you, it’s OK, in fact probably a good idea, to take some time and work through your grief. My only advice to you is be careful how you treat yourself and those around you for the next few days.
  3. If you supported the winning side, congratulations. Just be aware that many people around you are in shock and grief. Be compassionate. Treat them as you would want to be treated.
  4. Our commitments as Jews and as human beings don’t change or waver depending on who is in power. We are called to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. This hasn’t changed.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Prayer Before Voting

Early voting has begun in Maryland. Some of you reading this have already voted; it is my sincere hope that everyone reading this (unless you are not yet 18 or not a U.S. citizen) will vote either on Election Day or beforehand, via Absentee Ballot or early voting.

A number of years ago, on the morning of Election Day, I received an email from a classmate which said something along the following lines: “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain. As a Jew, I am terrified of losing my right to complain.”

But the fact of the matter, as I explained in my sermon on Kol Nidre evening, is that throughout most of our history we Jews did not have a right to complain. Both democracy and full citizenship for Jews are relative late arrivals on the scene of world history. We ought to be grateful that we have this opportunity.

Barring a replay of the 2000 election or some other unforeseen occurrence, some of us will go to bed on November 8, or early in the morning of November 9, very happy, and others will go to bed unhappy. But for 220 years, since John Adams took over as president from George Washington, we have been blessed with a peaceful transition of power.

I have written a brief “Prayer Before Voting,” using many of the ideas contained in the Prayer for Our Country we say every Shabbat and holiday.  If it speaks to you, I’d be honored for you to use it:
Eloheinu v’elohai avoteinu v’imoteinu,
Our God and God of our fathers and mothers,
I thank you for the opportunity to cast this vote.
May it strengthen the bonds of unity among all inhabitants of this country. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.
Creator of all flesh, we know also that the real work begins tomorrow morning. Whether or not I am pleased with the outcome of this election, help me to be a good citizen and work for understanding and reconciliation among all Americans. May we continue to work for the day when none shall hurt or destroy, when justice shall flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Yom Kippur Sermon: It's Not About the Whale

It was the summer of 1980 on the Georgetown University campus. I had just returned from spending my junior year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and because of credits I had received for taking Hebrew ulpan during the previous summer, I discovered that if I took two summer session classes I could graduate in December rather than June. So that’s what I did. One of the two classes was a foreign affairs course taught by a visiting professor from Tel Aviv University, and one of the other students in that class was Egyptian. Although he was from Egypt, for most of his life he had lived elsewhere, since his father was a member of the Egyptian diplomatic corps. So Hisham had spent many of his elementary school years in London, where his father was Consul, and went to high school in Nicaragua, where his father was the Egyptian Ambassador.
1980 might well have been the high point in the Egyptian - Israeli relationship. Israel had completed its withdrawal from Sinai and returned it in its entirety to Egyptian control. The land border between Israel and Egypt was open and you could take a bus from Tel Aviv to Cairo. Or, as I did with a friend, you could take a shared taxi from the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem to the border between Egypt and Gaza at Rafah, take another taxi from Rafah to the Suez Canal, cross the canal by ferry and then take a third taxi to Cairo. Israelis and Jewish tourists in Israel regularly visited Egypt, and there was some, although less, traffic in the other direction as well. It may have been this new spirit of cooperation that lead Hisham to take a course taught by an Israeli. At any rate, we soon became close friends and wound up rooming together in an off-campus apartment.
Although of Muslim background, Hisham considered himself an atheist, but like most Georgetown students he was nonetheless interested in religion at least in an academic way. I was taking an advanced tutorial in Hebrew bible and was beginning to think about going to rabbinical school after graduation. In 1980, Jerry Falwell and other elements of the Christian evangelical right wing were starting to come into prominence, and I remember one evening Hisham and I sat and watched a Jerry Falwell speech on TV. Hisham finally turned to me and said “this is the Muslim Brotherhood, except in English.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was the first Islamist organization, created to make Sunni Islamic sharia the law of the land. It was founded in Egypt in 1928 and, although it exists all over the Arab world, Egypt remains its heartland. In 1980 the Egyptian governing class was very worried about the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed Sadat's government, and especially the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel. And they were right to worry, since in the fall of 1981 Sadat was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In many ways I served as Hisham’s guide to all things American, and he wanted to understand the phenomenon of Christian fundamentalism more. He found my approach to religion somewhat puzzling, since in Egypt, whether Muslim or Coptic Christian you were either religious or not. The kind of religiosity exemplified by the Jesuits at Georgetown, or liberal forms of Judaism, which takes scripture seriously but not literally, was something new to him.
It must have been this time of year, because we were discussing the Book of Jonah, which we of course read on Yom Kippur afternoon. At any rate we were standing on Wisconsin Ave. waiting for the 30 bus to take us uptown to the corner of Wisconsin and Mass. Aves, where our apartment was, when we were approached by an attractive young woman. She had a name tag that identified her as a “WOW Ambassador.” I didn’t know exactly what group or denomination she represented but I assumed that she was a missionary of some type.
The young woman asked us “do you always stand around on street corners talking about religion?” I responded “well, I was just explaining to my friend here how fundamentalists get the Bible all wrong.”
She was somewhat taken aback and said “why, whatever do you mean?”
I responded “take the Book of Jonah, for instance. A fundamentalist will go to great lengths to try and convince you that there was an actual man whose actual name was Jonah, who was swallowed by an actual whale and actually lived three days in the belly of that whale and then was actually spit up on dry land and actually lived to tell the tale. Meanwhile, with all the emphasis on the actual whale, they miss the whole point of the story.”
“Which is?, she asked.
“That God forgives you if you repent.”
“How do you get THAT?”, she nearly shouted.
Thankfully, perhaps through divine intervention, our bus pulled up and the conversation ended.

I suppose for this young lady it may well have been difficult to understand that the point of the Book of Jonah is indeed that God forgives you if you repent. Because if you are a fundamentalist Christian, you don’t believe that. God doesn’t forgive you if you repent; God only forgives you if you profess your faith in Jesus. So that can’t possibly be the message of the Book of Jonah; it must, therefore, be a test of faith in our accepting of the literal truth of a story which scientists will tell you can’t have happened as described, since no one could survive for three days in the belly of a whale without being killed by the digestive juices.

There is a great video which you can find on youtube that deals with the different ways men and women tend to relate to problem-solving called “It’s Not About the Nail.” Perhaps a good tagline for the Book of Jonah would be “It’s Not About the Whale.” Our sages chose the Book of Jonah for the Haftarah on Yom Kippur afternoon -- the entire book. Why? Surely, it’s not about the whale.

Jonah was a reluctant prophet but he was also a successful prophet. The other prophets of the Bible like Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah were sent to the Israelites to get them to repent, and generally had very little success. Jonah, on the other hand, was sent to Nineveh. Nineveh was in what is today Northern Iraq and it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It was the capital of the kings Sargon and Sennacherib who conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Hezekiah and carried the ten tribes of Israel into captivity. The book of Jonah describes it as a metropolis of 120,000 people and three days’ journey to cross, and the archeological ruins extant today confirm this as possible. The book of Jonah describes Nineveh as a wicked city worthy of destruction, but God sends Jonah to get them to change their ways.

The whole business of the whale comes in because Jonah doesn’t want to accept this mission. He gets on a boat heading to Tarshish, which was most likely a city on the southern Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey. So Jonah headed northwest instead of northeast as he was commanded. Why? We don’t exactly know, at least not at first. But Jonah quickly learns that you can’t run away from God. His boat is almost capsized by a storm, and Jonah tells the sailors that it’s because of him and the only way to stop it is to throw him overboard. At first the sailors -- all of them non-Jews -- are reluctant to do so. They row hard, trying to get back to land, with no success.  Then they pray to God not to let them die because of another man’s sins. But their prayers are of no avail, and finally they do throw Jonah overboard. Then he’s swallowed by the whale and after three days spit out on dry land. He’s learned his lesson, and this time embarks on the mission he was given.

He gets to Nineveh and travels one day’s journey into the city. He proclaims that within 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown. And now we begin to see a possible reason for Jonah’s reluctance. Prophets who were sent to Israel were met with hostility, sometimes thrown in jail, sometimes even killed, but rarely did they succeed in prompting a change in behavior. But the Ninevites believe Jonah. The people and the king proclaim a fast, and everyone wears sackcloth and ashes and refrains from food for three days -- even the cattle. The king urges everyone to turn away from their evil and violence. Maybe, if they do so, God will forgive them and not destroy the city. It’s not about the whale.

And so Jonah heads back to Israel, pleased with himself for a job well done, and everyone lives happily ever after. Right? Well, not exactly. He’s not happy at all, in fact he’s furious. He says to God: “see, I knew this would happen, and that’s why I tried to get out of this assignment in the first place. “For I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Why is Jonah so angry? A lot of commentators claim it’s because he’s been made to look foolish. After all, he proclaimed that Nineveh would be destroyed and now it’s not going to happen. But I don’t think this is what’s going on here. Although we often think that a prophet is someone who can accurately predict the future, that’s not what a prophet is at all. A prophet warns of what will happen if the people don’t repent and change their ways. Far from looking foolish and being a failure, Jonah was a smashing success. He wasn’t sent to Nineveh to predict the destruction of the city; he was sent to warn the inhabitants that their city would be destroyed if they kept up their evil ways. And they believed him! They changed their ways! The city wasn’t destroyed. It’s not about the whale.
And this, my friends, is precisely what gets Jonah angry. Maybe because he wanted Nineveh to be destroyed; after all, they were the enemies of the Jews. Or maybe he was upset because the Ninevites made the Jews look bad in comparison. God sends prophet after prophet to Israel, and nothing. But one little pipsqueak of a prophet sent to Nineveh, and boom, total repentance. We’re supposed to be God’s special people, schooled in morality and the ways of the Lord. What’s going on here? At any rate, it’s not about the whale.

But Jonah doesn’t give up hope. He decides to camp out east of the city and builds himself a sukkah, waiting to see if maybe the city will be destroyed anyway. So God makes a special plant grow to shade him, and Jonah is happy. Then God sends a worm to destroy the plant, and Jonah once again is furious and wants to die. So God essentially says to him, “you can have compassion on this plant, which you didn’t plant or water. It came up in a night and was destroyed in a night. But you get mad because I have pity on Nineveh, a city of 120,000, and all their animals besides.” You see, it’s not about the whale.

The people of Nineveh became, for the rabbis, the classic paradigm of what true repentance, teshuvah, means. There is a tractate in the Mishnah called Ta’anit -- a Ta’anit is a fast which is proclaimed in the wake of some extraordinary catastrophe, the classic paradigm being a drought. And so if there is a drought, tractate Ta’anit tells you how the community is supposed to respond -- the assumption being, of course, that the drought is sent by God as punishment for the community’s sins.

When the drought has gotten really severe, this is what the sages tell us to do:
What is the order of the fast-days? The ark containing the scrolls of the law is to be brought to the city square… the elder shall then address them in heart-moving terms: "My brethren, consider that it is not written in respect to [the repentance of] the Ninevites, that God regarded their having wrapped themselves in sackcloth, and considered their fast-days, but that 'God saw their acts, and that they had turned from their evil ways' (Jonah 3:10), and the tradition of the prophets also is, 'Tear your hearts, and not your garments' (Joel 2:13)."
The town elder as cited by the Mishna conveys the powerful idea that fasting and sackcloth are merely the outer trappings of repentance, whereas the requisite change must be a fundamental reorientation of lifestyle. Nineveh epitomizes this ethic. Though they did fast and don sackcloth, this was not the critical element. Instead: 'God saw their acts, and that they had turned from their evil ways.'

It’s not about the whale.

This afternoon we will read the Book of Jonah. Shortly thereafter is Ne’ilah, the hour of the “closing of the gates.” We’ll hear the Shofar, our fast will be ended. What happens the next day? Will we as individuals, as a community and as a country, have changed our behavior? Will we turn from our evil ways, love the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked? If so, our fast will have meant something. Let us make it so. It’s not about the whale.