The Book of Jonah is a powerful narrative in our High Holiday readings.
Throughout Yom Kippur, we explore collective responsibility, the purpose of fasting, and inspiration to be a holy people. Then Jonah rolls along. A prophet like no other. Jonah is moody, stubborn, antagonistic, and surprisingly, the only successful prophet. In five words, “Another 40 days, and Nineveh will be overthrown,” (Jonah 3:4).
Jonah convinces the entire population of Nineveh, all 120 thousand persons, including the king, to repent and perform teshuvah, the complete act of repentance. It’s quite an astonishing feat.
Should we take this mass teshuvah as factual? Do we believe that an entire population can change their ways? Who are we to question their motives? That didn’t stop many classical rabbis who tried to minimize the efforts of the people of Nineveh, saying they didn’t really perform teshuvah.
One stands out from the rest, the 12th century Spanish rabbi, Ibn Ezra, who defines what happens in Nineveh as a teshuvah gemura, a complete, unparalleled teshuvah.
Nineveh is the Las Vegas of antiquity, a metaphor for human vivacity – but teshuvah is a growth mindset, a change that everyone can make. Jonah instructs us that growth is a mindset that anyone can achieve.
If they can change, we all can. It’s what we hope for during Yom Kippur. We hope all of us are able to grow and be better people in this new year. Are we too quick to judge the ability of others to change? When we are in relationship with others, we have even more reason to believe that people can change.
Jonah teaches us to view other’s teshuvah in a charitable light. For if we offer this generosity to others, we can hope to receive the same kindness in return.
Shanah Tovah u’Metukah! Θ
Rabbi Evan Sheinhait is the spiritual leader of Temple Tiferet Shalom of North Shore in Peabody.