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Taking the Lessons of Yom Kippur Beyond the Synagogue

The Book of Jonah teaches us to reach beyond our own community with the holiday’s message—whether we are accepted or rejected

Shmuel Herzfeld
October 01, 2014

I once received an unusual phone call from a good friend. She told me that she was on the Council of Foreign Relations and wanted to nominate me for a prestigious fellowship. My initial reaction was, of course, nominate me—what took you so long to call? Then I thought that before I accepted, I should probably ask some questions. “What’s involved?” I asked. “It’s a fellowship to Japan,” she told me. “You will have to live in Japan for the next year.” Then I asked, “What about minyan? How can I find a minyan there? What about my synagogue? I love my shul. I know some congregations would pay the moving expenses for their rabbi to move to Japan, but in this shul we love each other.”

Finally, I said, “What about my family? I don’t think my wife will be too happy with me if I go to Japan for a year.” By this time, she was laughing because we both realized it wasn’t going to happen. She jokingly said to me, “Rabbi, your wife is the one who asked me to call you!” No, I was not going to Japan. But the truth is that a part of me had really wanted to go.

At the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service we read the story of Jonah. God tells Jonah (Jonah 1:2): “Get up and go to the city of Nineveh and command them to repent.” Nineveh was the wicked city of that era. It was the archenemy of the Jewish people, but it was very far away. Jonah was being commanded to travel there and instruct the inhabitants to repent. But Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. Does that make sense? Jonah is a prophet, a man of God. He hears God’s voice. How could he knowingly disobey God’s will? Why wouldn’t he listen to God?

Here are two possible answers to this question. The first explanation comes from a rabbinic midrash. According to the rabbis, Jonah was in the Temple at the time that God called to him. (Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 5:1 (55a)). He was engaged in prophecy. He was meditating. He was part of the spiritual elite who had a special intimacy with God. But then God told him, “Kum. Get up. You need to go to Nineveh.” Jonah doesn’t want to leave the Temple and go to Nineveh. After all, in the Temple he has everything he needs spiritually. He has a great relationship with God. God talks to him! Why should he leave that and run to the people of Nineveh? They were sinners. They were at the other end of the world. No wonder Jonah resisted. He wanted no part of it!

But Jonah had no choice. Prophecy is not an option, it is a responsibility. When you hear the call of God, you must share the message with the people. Once you hear the message, you can no longer maintain the same relationship with God, and if you don’t share His message with the people, then—just like Jonah—you are running away from God.

There are no prophets anymore and we are not on the same spiritual level as Jonah, but in our own way, we have the same responsibility. We have to get up, leave our Temple, and share the teachings of God with the world. Today, Nineveh no longer means wicked sinners; it represents anyone who is distant from the synagogue. Many in the organized religious community feel the same reluctance as Jonah. We don’t want to leave our Temples to go out and talk to the Ninevites. We are happy where we are. We are happy praying. We don’t want to disrupt our union with God, our spirituality, our upward spiritual path, to go out and look for the people of Nineveh. But it is not an option, it is a responsibility.

Maimonides calls prophecy a massa—a burden or a responsibility (Guide for the Perplexed 2:32). It is our responsibility to carry the message forth to the world. It is our responsibility to leave our Temples and prophecies and go to Nineveh. On a practical level, each of us is responsible for seeking out people so that they can hear the word of God, for bringing them closer, bringing the Temple to Nineveh. Many people are shy about this. They just don’t want to do it. I know because sometimes I ask people to share all their “contacts” with me so I can invite all their friends to shul, and they demur.

This brings us to my second point. There is another reason why Jonah doesn’t want to go. A friend of mine once said to me, “Jonah doesn’t want to go because he is afraid that the people of Nineveh will reject him.” I think that the opposite is true. Jonah is not afraid that they will reject him, but that they will accept him. In fact, Jonah can be considered the most successful prophet in the entire Bible. He utters one sentence: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jonah 3:4). One mere sentence, and all of Nineveh repents. Jonah doesn’t even reach the center of the city. He only makes it to the outskirts, and word of his message reaches the residents on its own. Compare this to the other prophets of Israel. They are rejected and attacked, whereas Jonah is accepted before he even enters the city.

There is a part of us that fears going out and sharing our message since it might be rejected, but an even greater part of us fears that somehow, it might be accepted. Many of us like our relationship with God just the way it is. If we preach the religion to others, they might make us uncomfortable in some way. They could be less meticulous, or even more conscientious than us. We don’t want any part of either.We want to be with people who are just like us. Isn’t that what Jonah feared?

A part of us likes the fact that our faith has such a small population. Think about how minute Judaism is; it is one of the smallest religions in the world. Some of us like it that way. Ever wonder why? The Talmud (Kiddushin 70b) tells us, “Converts make life difficult for the rest of the Jewish people.” The great commentary Tosafot explains that this is because the converts perform the commandments properly and it embarrasses the rest of us who were born as Jews and do not observe the commandments fully. (The printed Tosafot to Kiddushin 71a, s.v. “kashim” (begins on 70b)).

This is what Jonah was afraid of. The Ninevites would hear his message and accept it. Of course, this is precisely why God told him to go. God wants us to preach the message, for when we do so, we are forced to practice what we preach. God’s message is “Kum.” Get up. Go out into the world. Whether it is Japan or Washington, DC, we must find our brethren and share His message with as many people as possible.

The first words that we recite on Yom Kippur night are: “We declare it legal to pray with sinners.” It is a reminder of our responsibility to go out into the world with our message. We say these words as we begin Yom Kippur because we are being taught: Go and gather in the synagogue and take your message to the world; don’t just stay in the synagogue and don’t be afraid of others.

As Yom Kippur draws closer, I always sense a change in the atmosphere. I feel that Jews who have drifted allow themselves to be attracted by the power, the awesomeness of this holiday. So every year on the eve of Yom Kippur I make a special effort to connect with souls who have drifted from their connection to the Jewish people. The eve of Yom Kippur is the time that I especially seek out the unaffiliated, the disaffected, and the unconnected in the hope that perhaps on this Yom Kippur they might give our faith another chance. Some people in this town have extensive Rolodexes. Mine, too, is quite substantial. It contains the names of people who do not return my calls or respond to my e-mails. I have e-mailed thousands of Jews in this city to invite them to services, and often I get no response.

But one Yom Kippur eve, it was different. In 2005, I sent an e-mail to a man named William Cohen and his wife Janet Langhart Cohen. I was familiar with their story from the media. As a young boy, the Orthodox rabbi of Bill’s synagogue had not allowed him to have a bar mitzvah because his mother was not Jewish. At that time, Bill elected not to convert to Judaism. Later, he went on to become a congressman and senator, and then secretary of defense. He eventually married Janet. It is an interracial marriage and together they have written a powerful book about the different prejudices they have faced in their marriage.

Now, by nature, I do not proselytize, but I reached out to Bill and Janet because our rabbis teach us that even if one’s mother is not Jewish, the child is still considered zera Yisrael, the seed of Israel—a Jewish soul—and it is a mitzvah to convert such a child. I thought about the pain they had experienced in their lives and felt that they might appreciate the uplifting spirit of our Kol Nidre service. Soon after I sent the e-mail, I received a call from Bill and Janet. I heard the emotion over the phone as they said, “Thank you so much for this invitation. We have been waiting for such an invitation for a very long time.”

Early on the morning of Yom Kippur eve, I went to their home to put up a mezuzah and I heard just a sliver of their story. Bill told me that he attended Hebrew school for six years; he was the number one student in terms of grades, but the rabbi would pick on him because his mother wasn’t Jewish. Because the rabbi was so mean to him, Bill decided not to convert and said goodbye to a Jewish life. I have a little bit of chutzpah left over from my high school days, so I told him exactly what I was thinking: “The tragedy is that if they had only seen your potential, we could have had another rabbi for our people. The world got a senator and a secretary of defense, but the Jewish people could have had a great rabbi.”

When I stood with them, I felt inspired by their sincerity and spirituality. I also felt the loss of what could have been had we not turned away such a talented person. The point is that we never know what a person who walks into our lives can end up becoming. If we look at everyone as a child of God, blessed with unlimited potential, we will end up turning no one away. When you go looking for Nineveh, you never know who you might find, and you never know what you might learn.

Those of us who attend shul on Yom Kippur are already connected to our faith, otherwise we wouldn’t even be attending services. But once we are in shul, reading the story of Jonah, we are being taught that we should not just spend our lives in a synagogue or in the cloistered confines of our community. The book of Jonah is trying to teach us to go out to the Ninevehs of the world and share our souls.

This essay is excerpted from Food for the Spirit: Inspirational Lessons from the Yom Kippur Service, © 2014 by Gefen.

Shmuel Herzfeld is the rabbi of Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C.