Jonah and In-Between-ness

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Here we are in the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The books of life and death are open. This is the time, we’re told, that the gates to heaven are open. Teshuvah (returning/realigning/repenting) is most possible now. It’s a good time to meditate, I think. We can watch our own shifts and resistances and desires. We can take some time to reflect on what we love and what’s difficult for us, to see where we are in our worlds. 

I’ve been thinking about how we read the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur. In reading a lot of interpretations and drashes on Jonah, I keep coming back to one thought: Jonah is super unlikeable. And, Jonah is just like us.

In the story, Jonah’s prophesy is unwanted and resisted. God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah (probably to tell them to repent), and Jonah says no. He’s not interested in being a prophet. He doesn’t want people to think he’s crazy, and also, he’s scared. Of all outcomes. So he purposefully goes in the wrong direction: he goes west when God tells him to go east. When there’s a storm, sent by God, to sink the ship he’s tried to escape on, he goes to sleep in the ship’s hold [Can’t we all relate to that? We’re in the midst of a storm in our lives and all we want to do is crawl under the covers.], then asks to be tossed off the ship and is swallowed by the fish.

After praying and getting released from the fish, Jonah reluctantly goes to Ninevah, tells the people to repent… and they do! They totally listen and the city is saved by God, and Jonah is not happy. There’s more, but it’s the same thing. Then it ends. It’s a mysterious story. There’s no real change in Jonah’s unlikeability. He doesn’t seem to have redeemable qualities, just familiar ones.

Aviva Zornberg’s theory about Jonah resonated with me. She asks what exactly Jonah is resisting, and finds that he’s completely uncomfortable sitting between life and death. Jonah can’t acknowledge that no one has any security, that life is uncertain. Zornberg says that it’s unbearable for Jonah to recognize that we’re not firmly in life or death; we’re somewhere in between. She says that Jonah is “deeply allergic” to standing in uncertainty, and it’s actually an unbearable position for any human being. Except that this is exactly what life is, standing before God, in between life and death, always.

In the story, we find that Jonah would rather die, and asks for it, than stay in this in-between, of life. When Ninevah is saved, after he fulfills his prophecy, he is disturbed because this is also uncertain. His perspective might be that God is showing that nothing is for sure. Jonah thought the people would ignore his prophesy and be punished, but instead they all repented and saved their lives. This doesn’t make any sense. It’s frustrating. In a logical world, where Jonah, and probably all of us, would feel more comfortable and safe, evil people would be punished, good people rewarded. But this is not the world.  

This sounds a lot like the kabbalistic concept that the world is broken, and the path is messy.

On Yom Kippur we pray the al chet- the prayer with all the sins, it’s usually translated as sin, but it really means missing the target. So teshuvah is returning to the target, returning to the path. It’s also what we’re doing in meditation. We have a target in mind: focusing on the breath, a prayer, sitting in awareness, awaking our hearts and minds to compassion and kindness. And then we misstep, we miss the target and we return again and again and again. We distract ourselves often because we, like Jonah, feel completely uncomfortable with our human-ness, with standing before God, sitting between life and death, and when we run away from that reality, we misstep. We make mistakes, and we hurt ourselves and others.

We can use our meditation practice, especially in this time of the Days of Awe, as an invitation to sit in that in-between. We can recognize our uncertainty and be gentle with it. Here’s an opportunity to not approach this intellectually and not think about it, but to feel what it’s like to return, to practice teshuvah, to allow our practice of returning be a reminder of what it feels like to sit in uncertainty, to feel what Jonah felt, but not to run away.

Somehow Jonah’s story is a little bit inspiring in that “what not to do” way. We learn that resisting and running away may lead to our worse case scenario, and sitting with the way things are often changes our perspectives and strengthens our capacity to practice teshuvah, returning and realigning with our true and best selves.

May we all have meaningful and sweet new years.