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Yom Kippur

“Should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, where there are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?” Jonah 4:11

    The book of Jonah ends strangely with a question, which perhaps explains why the rabbis chose it at the last biblical source we chant before entering the home stretch of Yom Kippur. In many ways, this story is an odd choice for Yom Kippur; Jonah is not exactly an inspiring role model for repentance.

    In addition, the book’s almost comic voice (with cows dressed in sackcloth and a big fish vomiting the hero) doesn’t quite suit the solemn climax of Yom Kippur.

    On deeper reflection, however, the rabbis’ choice of Jonah, the anti-hero, is an inspired one for the end of Yom Kippur. By the time we encounter Jonah in the Yom Kippur liturgy, we have been fasting and praying for over 20 hours. We have dutifully pounded our chests, confessed and afflicted our souls. We have done as much teshuvah as is humanly possible. So only one question remains . . . have we actually changed?

    Then at the climax of a full month of doing teshuvah, we read the Book of Jonah, where everyone and everything changes — the sailors, the people of Nineveh, God, and even the fish — but we are left wondering what happens to our “hero”.
    Has Jonah changed? Has he learned anything from his mission and his encounter with God? Does he now appreciate that God’s quality of mercy must complement and exist in tension with God’s quality of judgement? Or is he still the same reluctant prophet we met at the beginning of the story?

    And so, the Book of Jonah ends with a question, just as we end Yom Kippur with a question: have we changed? Has anything changed? After all that, is teshuvah really possible?

    And if not, should God not have pity on us, “sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?”

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