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D'var Torah: Yom Kippur Mincha

Here we are together again, less than two hours from the end of Yom Kippur, when thoughts stray from t’shuvah to food and refreshment, when most of us have a headache from the dehydration of fasting. And what do we read once again? The Ten Commandments, surely one of the most celebrated, familiar, and by now rather hackneyed subjects for a d’var. After all, we read the Ten Commandments during the regular cycle of annual Torah readings, and then again at other holidays. So what’s in them that could be new for us?

And what a juxtaposition. In contrast to the Torah portion, we have for our haftarah the story of Jonah. It’s a great story, and it remains a great story even when you are thirsty, hungry, and tired. But what’s the connection?

As a lawyer, I seem to have a certain way of reading any text, one so ingrained I can’t help myself. For the first ten years I belonged to KI Barry Gross gave one literary tour de force after another on the theme of Jonah. I can’t hope to duplicate Barry’s verbal legerdemain or his vast knowledge of literature great and small; indeed, once I met Edwin R. Newman, the newscaster who wrote the books “Plain Speaking” and “A Civil Tongue.” Presenting a copy of each for his autograph, I stuck out my hand and said, “Mr. Newman, on behalf of the lawyers of America, I wish to apologize.” Without hesitation, he shook my hand solemnly, and with a perfectly straight face he replied, “On behalf of English speakers and readers, I accept.”

So in our Torah text what catches my eye is the abjuration “You shall not render an unfair decision; do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly.” In America, we have the luxury of a judicial system that, for the past 134 years, has subscribed to the principle of equal protection of the law. When William Howard Taft, the only person to serve this country as both President and Chief Justice, designed the Supreme Court Building, he had carved on the architrave the words “Equal justice under law.” He might have added “Leviticus 19:15.”

It occurs to me that we are all prisoners of our culture and our era. A Jew living in France in, say, the 16th century probably could not conceive of a world without kings and nobles, or of a legislative body elected by all the people to make laws for them. We find it hard to fathom how in other countries the judicial system can be perverted to serve political goals, instead of remaining steadfast to determine the truth as best as humanly possible and then to apply the law to the facts ascertained impartially and consistently. Our children have no conception of a world in which transportation is principally by foot or on horseback, a world that was all our great grandparents knew and that was bridged by our grandparents. If you are not yet thirty years old, the Vietnam War is as far removed from your lifetime as World War II or the Hundred Years War; there have always been CDs for playing recorded music, twenty-four hour news on television, and for all of us our wives, mothers, and sisters always had the right to vote on reaching adulthood. Americans who lived during World War II could not remember a President they did not trust and respect; we today would be hard pressed to think of one we did.

The tale of Jonah is that of a man complacent with his position in life and with the world in which he lived. Suddenly his comfortable existence is interrupted by the one thing Jonah can’t ignore—G-d. Jonah would rather flee to Tarshish than carry out his noble mission to save Nineveh—and bear in mind that if Nineveh was still a great city, then Assyria was still on the ascendant, and an obvious enemy of any resident of biblical Israel. But Jonah nonetheless is tasked to look beyond the external political situation with its veneer of natural animosity between an independent Israel and the hegemonistic Assyrian Empire, and to recognize that within Assyria there are women and children who harbor no ill feelings toward anyone and who have done no wrong, but who, just the same, are slated to be punished for the sins of others. As the story phrases it, there are more than 120,000 souls “who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well.” Assyria then might be Afghanistan today.

So the story of Jonah is that of a man who, although resistant, finally heeds the call of justice, of tikkun olam. Although he would definitely rather be left alone, Jonah eventually invests himself in saving people he doesn’t know, and probably doesn’t like, from Divine retribution. And isn’t it curious that G-d, who after all is the One about to destroy Nineveh, picks Jonah to interfere with His own plan to erase the city from the face of the earth, and then desists from carrying out His design? Jonah after all has done very little, except walk one day’s journey into the city and announce that in forty days Nineveh would be destroyed. Jonah does not explain why destruction is imminent, and no explanation is given as to why the people “believe G-d.” Perhaps they think no Israelite should be crazy enough to do something like that without G-d’s specific blessing—imagine, if you can, a Taliban soldier, speaking pidgin English, walking around New York City shouting “Forty days more and capitalism shall be overthrown,” and that all the Wall Street bankers immediately put on sackcloth and ashes and give their fortunes to charity, and you have the modern equivalent of the Jonah story. If your purpose is righteous, you will carry the day, irrespective of the odds against you at the beginning.

So the lesson I derive is that we are all called upon, at all times, to be alert to injustice, to speak out against it, to do what we can, whenever we can, to make the world a better place. Jonah reminds us we cannot look outside ourselves for a reward for our good deeds; the satisfaction has to come from within. So this and every Yom Kippur, the last reading of our sacred texts is put here to recharge our spiritual batteries, to ready us to do our duty as Jews and as citizens of Planet Earth during the year to come, to take stock of what we accomplished in this regard last year, and to encourage us to resolve to do more and better this year. In carrying out our duty, we must each answer to the harshest, most unforgiving judges of all, judges who see through every subterfuge, judges who debunk every excuse—ourselves.

—Alan Falk
September 25, 1993

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