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D'var Torah: Yom Kippur Mincha

I have abused. I have betrayed. I have destroyed. I have embittered. I have falsified. I have gossiped. I have hated. I have insulted. I have feared. I have killed. I have lied. I have mocked. I have neglected. I have oppressed. I have perverted. I have quarreled. I have rebelled. I have stolen. I have transgressed. I have yielded to evil. I have been cruel. I have been unkind. I have been violent. I have been wicked. I have been xenophobic. I have been a zealot for bad causes. If it’s in the alphabet, I’ve done it or been it. About the only sin I can claim to be innocent of is charging usurious interest—and not from excess of scruple but from lack of opportunity. And this has been a comparatively good year, a year in which, compared to others, I’ve been pretty good.

I am, for all of that, filled with regret but not with the pang of guilt. I cannot pretend to be like the man in the Hawthorne story who has a serpent in his bosom (Hawthorne assures us, in a footnote, that that physical fact has been known to occur in more than once instance.) “It gnaws me!” What gnaws him? Not “the tooth of physical disease.” He has been guilty “of some deed which has made his bosom a prey to the deadly fangs of remorse.”

Maybe because I hear my sins ritually and communally echoed by all of you—you too, huh?—I feel no gnawing deep down in my innards. I do, however, feel something, but something more akin to an itch, somewhere in here where it can’t be scratched, more like a tickle than a pain or a pang. I don’t feel it biting or gnawing but I do feel it rising and growing, threatening to bubble up and finally burst—into a giggle, into a laugh!

How inappropriate! How irreverent! To giggle during Vidui! To laugh during Selichot! I stand among you, punching my chest as you do, but, I fear, for a different reason altogether: it’s to keep that subversive impulse down there where it belongs, to prevent it from rising up into my throat and erupting into laughter. That is the source of my guilt every Yom Kippur—not the secret knowledge of all the sins I’ve committed throughout the year but the secret knowledge that what I really feel like doing is laughing.

Not all during Yom Kippur. It starts late in the day, in fact, right about now, although it has nothing to do with that light-headed giddiness that comes from fasting. No, it’s when we get to Jonah, it’s when Jonah tells the men on the ship that “the Lord (has) cast a mighty wind upon the sea, and such a tempest came upon the sea that the ship was in danger of breaking up” because of him, because Jonah “was fleeing from the service of the Lord” and that if they heave him overboard the sea will calm down.

Nothing funny here. It’s what happens next that makes me want to laugh: “a huge fish... swallow[ed] Jonah; and Jonah remained in the fish’s belly three days and three nights.” Now that’s funny, this whale just happening by when the men heave Jonah overboard and swallowing Jonah whole, not to eat him but to save him from drowning, and then Jonah—what? sitting? standing? floating?—remaining in the whale’s belly for three days and three nights. And then “the fish... spewed Jonah out upon dry land”! That’s even funnier, the whale not coughing or spitting, mind you, but vomiting, throwing Jonah up whole onto dry land.

Maybe it’s not so funny. After all, the whale didn’t just happen by: “the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah.” And the whale didn’t just happen to decide, after three days and three nights, that he had had enough of Jonah: “the Lord commanded the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon dry land.” There is nothing funny about the various religious, theological, moral, and ethical messages of the Jonah story: the Lord moves in strange ways; there is no escaping God; you can’t evade your responsibility or avoid your fate; you can run but you can’t hide, and, finally, you can’t even run. And there is certainly nothing funny about the psychological import of what’s going on: as he had previously descended into the hold of the ship in an attempt to hide from God, hide from his fellow men, hide from himself, now Jonah descends even deeper, into the depths of the sea and then into the bowels of the beast, plunging into his own depths, trying to suppress the beast in him, the submerged self, but succeeding only in unearthing his inadmissable and unspeakable impulses—his wish to vanish, his wish to be obliterated, his wish to die. What a profound lesson we are given on the complex and ambiguous relationship between life and death: wanting to die—trying to die—Jonah is, instead, reborn, delivered whole from the whale’s womb.

Not very funny. But I can’t help but see the whale swallowing Jonah and Jonah squatting in the whale’s belly and then the whale ejecting Jonah onto dry land in absurd technicolor and Jonah is not a man but a boy, a boy with a silly hat and an overlong nose. What I remember every Yom Kippur when I’m supposed to be seeing what lies ahead for me—is a Disney cartoon from my childhood—Pinocchio swallowed by a whale, Pinocchio sitting in the whale’s belly, Pinocchio building a fire (is that right? or did I make that up? Where did he get the wood from? How come it’s dry? Where did he get the matches?), and then the whale not spewing (nobody vomits in Disney) but coughing or sneezing, from the fire, of course, and Pinocchio escaping that way.

Yet, had I never seen Pinocchio—had there never been a Disney Pinocchio—I think I would still find what’s going on in Jonah, this swallowing and spitting out, funny. Although awe implies solemn and reverential fear, although it implies terror and dread, it is neither irreverent no irrelevant to feel like laughing on this Day of Awe. In fact, the Days of Awe begin with a giggle: “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born unto him. Sarah said, ‘God hath made laughter for me; everyone that heareth will laugh on account of me.’ And she said, ‘Who would have said unto Abraham that Sarah should give children suck? For I have borne him a son in his old age.’” Who indeed? To understand this laugh we have to go back to an earlier one: Sarah is standing by herself in the tent, isolated, excluded, like Eve in Eden, from male company; outside three men and Abraham are conversing and she hears them tell Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son. And what does Sarah, that supreme realist, do? Why, of course, she laughs. Knowing that she and Abraham are “well-stricken in age” (how delicate that “well-stricken” is) and knowing that it has “ceased to be with her after the manner of women” (how delicately put that is!), she laughs.

“Wherefore did Sarah laugh?” God asks Abraham. Abraham’s reply is not recorded but it was probably “Why did Sarah what? I didn’t hear anything!” And he didn’t because, we are told, Sarah laughed within herself. This is some God: He sees, knows, hears everything, even the laugh within. Furthermore, He knows He’s some God: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” he asks Abraham (that’s a rhetorical question, of course, not a real one: of course, nothing is too hard for the Lord!) “At the set time, I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.” But God can’t seem to get Sarah’s laughter out of His head: He asks Sarah why she laughed. “Say what?” says Sarah (not really: “I laughed not,” is what she says, but a lot of good that does—just try fooling Father God: “Nay, but thou didst laugh,” He tells her.)

I don’t blame Sarah for lying: she knows you’re not supposed to laugh at God, just as I know I’m not supposed to laugh on Yom Kippur. But, really, how can she not laugh? She and Abraham are old and she knows she is no longer able to conceive. Who’s kidding who? It’s God who’s the jokester—and I don’t mean that irreverently or subversively. The fact is, this God makes inappropriate choices and the inappropriate is always comic. Why choose as patriarch of a people an old man, “well-stricken in age” and a matriarch, an old lady who no longer menstruates? Why, later on, will He choose as spokesman for an enslaved race—spokesman, mind you—a man who is slow of speech? And, why does He keep choosing as His messenger, Jonah, a man who keeps fleeing from His service? This God knows everything, even when someone laughs within, so He’s got to know Abraham is too old and Sarah is incapable, that Moses is tongue-tied and Jonah is unwilling.

Is He on an ego trip? Does He pick the most unlikely and inept from among us to prove that He can, in fact, do anything, like make an old woman who is no longer able to conceive, conceive? As He says to the stammering and protesting Moses, “Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? is it not I the Lord? Now, therefore, go, and I will be with thy mouth and teach thee what thou shalt.”

I don’t think that’s it—maybe because I don’t want that to be it: I am not interested in, or comforted by, a muscle-flexing God who picks barren matriarchs and bumbling messengers just to prove how terrific he is, just to prove there isn’t anything He can’t do or make happen (to put it plainly, I want a God who’s more sure of Himself, who doesn’t have to keep proving Himself). No, I think He makes these unlikely and inappropriate—and, hence, very funny—choices because He wants it understood that there isn’t anything we can’t do or make happen. Because even more unlikely and inappropriate—and hence, even funnier—than the roles Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Jonah are assigned are the roles we are assigned on Yom Kippur, on every Yom Kippur (what, again? yes, again!): we who abuse, betray, destroy, embitter, falsify, gossip, hate, insult, jeer, kill, lie, mock, neglect, oppress, pervert, quarrel, rebel, steal, transgress, and yield to evil, we who are cruel, unkind, violent, wicked, xenophobic, and zealots for bad causes are—are you ready?—our own saviors, keepers of our own destinies! That’s not just funny, that’s incredible.

So, I’ve decided that I should no longer feel guilty for wanting to giggle on Yom Kippur, should no longer even try to suppress that subversive impulse prompted by a silly flashback from my childhood of a big-nosed wooden boy building a fire in the belly of a Walt Disney whale. I’ve decided that it’s all right to laugh on Yom Kippur for it is the human comedy Yom Kippur celebrates, not the human tragedy: the possibility of salvation, not the inevitability of damnation; the possibility of overcoming weakness and adversity, not the inevitability of succumbing to them; the possibility of renewal, not the inevitability of decay; the possibility of rebirth, not the inevitability of death—cause for laughter, not for tears.

—Barry Gross
October 13, 1986

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