Jonah: Growing A Wild Compassion


Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 6:52 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus 16:1-34; 18:1-30;
Numbers 29:7-11
Haftarah: Isaiah 57:14-58:14;
Book of Jonah; Micah 7:18-20
Yom Kippur ends: 7:49 p.m.

Just as the shadows of the great gates are falling, we read the strange story of a man who is swallowed by a whale. Why, when our bellies are at their most empty, when our heads are swimming in a caffeine-deprived whirl, do we read this tale? Jonah is not a great guy. When God calls him to service, he runs away to sea.

One answer: When we’re all in the Neilah service together, at the 12th hour, at our most heartbroken and open moment, singing, almost as one, doesn’t it seem as if we’re in the belly of some great fish, caught in an enormous cavern, whale-like but also womb-like, giving birth — we can imagine — to newer, better selves?

That’s only half the story. After Jonah is rescued from the belly of the fish, he goes to Ninevah to warn them of their evil ways, they repent, and God forgives Ninevah.

And Jonah is angry! Angry at this forgiving God. You see, Jonah is a lot like us, at our most child-like. We want a simple, comprehensible world, where there is justice, where things make sense. As Avivah Zornberg says, “Jonah finds the world unintelligible — the dynamics of reward and punishment are arbitrary. There is a failure of reality to meet Jonah’s sense of emet, of truth, of rational meaning.”

So, he goes to a place east of the city. And God does an amazing thing. He provides a gourd to shade Jonah’s head. That word, “provides,” I read it as the moment that grace descends — when everything, just everything in your life seems to be going wrong — and there it is! Something small, wondrous, strange — a gourd.

But then God “provides” a worm that attacks the plant. All of that providing, “giving” to Jonah the things he doesn’t seem to need.

God hounds Jonah, saying, “Are you thoroughly angry about the gourd? You pitied the gourd, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should I not pity Ninevah?”

The Hebrew word translated here as pity, chasta, also means “concern,” or, caring for something that often gets overlooked. God asks Jonah to meditate upon his feeling for the gourd, for all the interconnected layers of life. This feeling — this concern — this compassion, if you will, is what links God and Jonah. God speaks to our reluctant hero, one on one, and he asks Jonah to grow his compassion, to move toward the vulnerable heart of the world. God begins with the smallest of moments, a moment of pure feeling, and asks Jonah to participate with God in the Mystery. To accept an imaginative possibility of interconnectedness, of a Oneness that penetrates all of existence.

Now I ask you: How can you begin, in the next days and moments, to grow your compassion? Where are the places you can start? How can you protect and nurture that feeling, grow it into something splendid?

I was riding home on a plane last summer, returning from a trip I hadn’t wanted to take. A dear friend, an artist, a sailor, the last one we would have thought would go first, had died suddenly. I’d been at the shloshim ceremony (30 days after death) with his wife.

When I’d walked into her son’s house, although people were gathered in the living room, Laya came into my arms and gave a shriek, a howl of pain I can still hear. I held her in that moment, not knowing whether to shush her or to tell her to scream louder. We spent two days together, and then I was on the plane going home, feeling now that I didn’t want to leave.

It’s so rare in life when we get to feel an overwhelming sense of mission, of purpose, of being called to do exactly what we should be doing in any given moment. The last of my children left the house four years ago and you could say, since, I have developed an obsession with purpose.

So I was on the plane from Miami, counting all the losses, and suddenly, as the sun set, there was a golden light that came streaming over a bank of purple clouds and I knew in that moment what perhaps Jonah was trying to learn, once God asked that question — should we not care?

There is only one thing we have to do. That’s it. That’s all, really. To offer up compassion, to grow it, wildly, impossibly, like the gourd. Small, inconsequential, the root beginnings of new life in a New Year. May it happen for each and every one of us.

Shelly R. Fredman teaches writing at Barnard College and for the Writer’s Beit Midrash at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El.