By Josie Glausiusz
My husband Larry’s father, Jacob Kluger, died last year on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The shiva period, traditionally seven days of mourning, was observed by his family for just one afternoon, as the arrival of a Jewish holiday brings an end to the official mourning period. My husband was in the United States with his father when he died, while I was in our home in Israel, looking after our girl-boy twins, then 5-and-a-half years old. I knew I would be taking care of our children by myself all day on Yom Kippur, while fasting and repenting on this holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Even so, I thought, how hard can it be? It’s just one day.
It was hard. It was more than hard. This difficult day, however, was redeemed by 15 minutes of peace: my recitation of the Book of Jonah at Yedid Nefesh, the Conservative congregation in our Israeli town of Modi’in. Many years ago, my friend Solomon Mowshowitz, who taught me how to chant from the Torah, said to me that if all you do on Yom Kippur is go to synagogue to listen to the Book of Jonah, you have fulfilled the obligations of the Day of Atonement. Last year, I understood the meaning of his words.
The Book of Jonah tells the story of a reluctant prophet, the eponymous Jonah, who is ordered by God to “go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.” Jonah instead flees to the port of Jaffa and boards a ship going to Tarshish. But God sends an almighty storm that terrifies the sailors; they end up flinging Jonah overboard into the sea, where he is swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah prays for three days and nights inside the mystical sea creature, whereupon it spews Jonah onto dry land.
He resumes his journey to Nineveh and, walking the city streets, proclaims the city’s demise within three days. But the king proclaims a fast, calling on each citizen to turn back from his evil ways. God relents, and does not destroy the city.
As Robert Alter writes in his translation and commentary on Jonah in his book "Strong As Death is Love," the story of this recalcitrant prophet is an unusual one, as it “aims to recast traditional Israelite notions of prophecy in a radically universalist framework.” Unlike other Israelite prophets, whose messages are addressed to the people of Israel and are concerned with the fate of the nation – “its imminent destruction by foreign powers if it fails to mend its evil ways, the fulfillment of its hope for national restoration after the disaster has occurred” – Jonah never engages with any Israelites. The God in this narrative, Alter says, is not only the God of Israel, but the God of the whole world, of Ninevites and sailors and beasts and fish and plants.
Sand sculpture of Jonah inside the whale. (Lynn Friedman via Flickr) ©lynn friedman c.c.
I have chanted the book of Jonah many times, beginning a decade ago at the West Side Minyan, the Manhattan community in whose embrace I first learned how to chant from the Torah. But it was only last Yom Kippur that I truly understood the Book of Jonah’s message of forgiveness. And I needed a whole heap of forgiveness, because my behavior as a parent on that day was truly dreadful.
The morning of Yom Kippur began well enough. We walked to our synagogue, the partnership minyan of Darchei Noam in Modi’in. My kids were especially excited because on this one day of the year – a day when almost all cars in Israel stay off the roads – I allowed them to cross the streets by themselves, without holding hands with me. For most of our walk they crossed streets back and forth over and over again, laughing exuberantly. In synagogue, not untypically, they did not want to sit down inside, and so, for the most part, neither did I. I did very little praying or repenting or inward reflection or singing or anything else. Instead, I sat outside and read stories to my children.
Soon enough, they wanted to go home. I took them home. And then, for the next several hours, I yelled at them over and over again.
I was tired. I was sad about the death of my father-in-law, a loving, kind and gracious man. I was hungry. I was hangry – that bad-temperedness that comes from being hungry. I was angry at myself for being so angry. I yelled at my kids for not eating the lunch I had prepared. I gave them time-outs for minor infractions. They wanted to ride their bicycles in the empty streets, as other neighborhood children were doing. I said no. Then I said yes. Then I yelled at them for asking me to carry their heavy bicycles down the stairs. I yelled at them for riding out of my sight. A neighbor stuck her head out of the window and yelled at me for disturbing her afternoon rest. I yelled at her, too.
At 3.45 p.m. I sat down, put my kids on my lap, and read them the Book of Jonah in English, our annual Yom Kippur ritual. Half an hour later we walked to Yedid Nefesh, and I stood, recited the blessings and chanted the Book of Jonah in Hebrew. My children sat quietly, angelically, throughout the entire reading. Then we walked home in the late afternoon. I gave them cornflakes for dinner. There was no more yelling, and they went to bed.
I have thought a great deal about God’s message of forgiveness in the Book of Jonah. God forgives the people of Nineveh even though, as the capital of the Assyrian Empire, it was the dwelling place of Israel’s enemies. In 722 B.C.E., the Assyrians conquered the land of Israel, scattering 10 of its tribes to distant corners of its empire. Prophets from Nahum to Zephaniah denounce Nineveh, predicting its utter ruin and desolation. Jonah, too, is angry that God spares the people of Nineveh. He leaves the city, building himself a shelter from which he can watch the city’s fate unfold. God provides a gourd plant, a kikayon, to shade his head. But at dawn the next morning God sends a worm to devour the gourd plant, and it withers. In the hot sun and blistering east wind, Jonah is angry, “to the point of death.” Then comes the most important message of the book:
Then God said to Jonah, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” “Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.” Then God said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?”
Every time I read these words, and even now as I write, I am moved by their beauty. As a parent, as a mother, I want to offer this kindness and forgiveness to my children, and to teach them forgiveness for others and kindness for animals, plants and insects. But hardest of all, for me, is to forgive myself for my actions last Yom Kippur, when I yelled at my children in anger and repeatedly for no compelling reason.
In the Book of Jonah, God instantly forgives the people of Nineveh and retracts his evil decree. When I sang out God’s words of forgiveness, I was redeemed from my wretched state of anger. I hope that in future years my awful yelling will fade from my children’s memories and they will instead remember these moments of redemption, when they sat quietly and listened.
Josie Glausiusz is a science journalist writing for Nature, National Geographic, Haaretz and other publications. Follow her on Twitter: @josiegz