Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger
Former Shaliach in Boca Raton (1999-2007)
Currently Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of Dallas Kollel
Broken Vessels Pleading to be Mended
Not every biblical character manages to get himself swallowed by a whale. But if you listen carefully to the reading of the Book of Jonah on the afternoon of Yom Kipur, you will hear even stranger tales than that. God directs the prophet Jonah to head for the great city of Ninveh – and he promptly sets off in the opposite direction! He seems to be a man of boundless chutzpa. But God of course catches up to him and Jonah does indeed end up – against his will – in Ninveh. He traverses the city as commanded and proclaims the divine decree that the city will be destroyed for its sins. But the city emerges from the ordeal unscathed – its inhabitants all mend their evil ways and are forgiven by God.
And then the prophet’s chutzpa wells up again and he wags a finger at God saying: I knew that you were going to forgive them, so what was the point of the whole thing? You never make good on your threats, you always forgive the sinners. The whole prophetic calling is futile.
And if that is not strange enough, what about God’s response? It appears, if I may say so, rather lame. The Almighty sidesteps Jonah’s argument and responds by basically saying that ‘they are My handiwork and I care about them. I pity them’. Why doesn’t God say the obvious, that nothing is futile here, it all went according to plan. The prophetic proclamation brought the people to reconsider their deeds and to mend their ways. Who could have hoped for better results?
But that is perhaps the whole point. Jonah is a man of ‘din’, of absolute and strict divine justice. The truth is, however, that there is no such thing. The foundational assumption of Jonah’s grievance is faulty. If it were all a matter of justice, we would not be here to begin with. We did nothing to deserve our existence here on planet earth. Life itself is a gift. God cannot justify the fact that human beings continue to live anymore than He can justify the act of our creation to begin with. There is no rational explanation for God’s mercy and care. It is completely undeserved. Why are we given a second chance, and sometimes a third and a fourth? Why are we given life at all? It is a mystery. Life is an irrational gift, presented to us on a silver platter. All God can really say is that He pities us, He cares about us, we mean something to Him.
Yes life is a gift! God’s grace in granting us life can never be repaid. We are eternally in debt to the Master of the Universe and ought to feel unbounded gratitude. And not just gratitude but rather embarrassment – embarrassment for taking advantage of the favor of life bestowed upon us without any possibility of ever paying back what we owe.
Friends, on Yom Kippur there is nothing so whole as a broken heart. We must be broken; we must dig down deep inside and connect to our brokenness. We must be completely engulfed by the existential anguish of the human condition on Yom Kippur. Even before we recall any of our sins we must be overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy. Even before we become aware of who we are – and who we are not, we must be radically ashamed of the fact that we are at all. And then our embarrassment must deepen as we stand in the presence of the Holy One Blessed be He and recall our failures. We must feel shame over what we have not accomplished. We must be humbled by all our mistakes and misdeeds. Then and only then, is there hope for purification. We are broken vessels pleading to be mended, and only through our profound sense of inadequacy and unworthiness will we be redeemed.
I wish all our readers and the whole House of Israel a Shana Tova and a G’mar Hatima Tova.