The Universal and the Particular in the Book of Yona

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rivital Singer

There’s a machloket between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua in the gemara in Rosh Hashana about when the world was created and when redemption will come. Rabbi Eliezer says both dates are in Tishrei, but Rabbi Yehuda says they’re in Nissan. This machloket reflects a greater question: Is the universal or the particular more important in Judaism? Which aspect led to Creation, and will ultimately be the source of Redemption?

Passover, which takes place in Nissan, represents the national aspect. On Passover we celebrate the start of our particular nation. Non-Jews are not allowed to take part in the Passover ceremonies (although converts may). Tishrei (specifically Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), however, is a universal time. G-d judges the whole world in Tishrei, and makes decisions as to how the year will turn out for everyone. When we pray on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we pray for the whole world, and anyone is welcome to take part in this time of forgiveness.

We also see the universal aspect of tshuvah in the story of Yona that we read on Yom Kippur. Yona is asked to help the people of Nineveh, who are not a part of the Jewish people, with the process of repentance/forgiveness. Yona refuses to accept that he has an obligation to non-Jews. He thinks that Jews need to stick together and be a good moral nation, and that we should keep apart from other nations as much as possible. Throughout the story, G-d tries to convince Yona that there is more to Judaism. Our job is not only to have our own society, based on justice and kindness, but that we spread our moral code to the rest of the world. Even though Yona doesn’t want to, G-d makes him go through with helping Nineveh achieve repentance and forgiveness.

Amazingly, it doesn’t seem that at any point in the story G-d succeeds in convincing Yona. When he’s in the stomach of the big fish and he prays to G-d for three days, he never admits to changing his mind. He asks G-d to let him out, he praises G-d and he agrees to go through with G-d’s request, but he still thinks that he shouldn’t have to go to Nineveh. As he journey, he continues to question G-d’s judgment, and until the very end of the story, he is waiting for G-d to punish the people of Nineveh even though they repented.

Yona, who sees the Jews as a special “chosen people,”  feels very committed to his nation, and is unwilling to be a part of the universal world. He wants G-d to be the G-d of Pesach, who gives the Jews special treatment and saves us when we’re oppressed.  With Yom Kippur approaching, this is a good time for us to reflect on these two very important aspects of Judaism. How much should we be focused on making the Jewish community a better place, and keeping ourselves apart from the other nations, and how much should we be trying to be a part of the universal community and affect it, being “a light of the nations”? When asking for forgiveness, are we speaking for ourselves, for our people or for the whole world?

I hope that this Yom Kippur we can find the correct balance between caring about our nation the way Yona did, and caring about the world the way G-d wanted him to.

Rivital Singer (Midreshet Avigayil 2015) just began a year of pre-army Mechina in Israel.  

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