Yonah, Nineveh, Kirk, and Edith
This may sound a bit like the first line of a schmaltzy song, but here goes: I went back to my childhood shul this Yom Kippur.
It was my first Yom Kippur there since 2000, which was the final time my father Z'L led their Yom Kippur services. The experience was strange - the shul has changed so drastically since I used to be a little kid running around the hallways, and even quite a lot over the past six years. There's another post in there somewhere, but for now I want to focus on the Rabbi's talk before Neilah, the concluding service of the day. He shared a very interesting - and to me, novel - perspective on the book of Yonah, which we read as the haftarah on Yom Kippur afternoon.
The basic story is probably well-known to most of you, but briefly: The prophet Yonah (Jonah) is charged to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh, capital of Assyria. Instead, he attempts to flee by ship, and when the storm-tossed sailors discover his identity, Yonah saves the ship by asking to be thrown into the sea. He is swallowed by a "big fish" [not a whale, as per the common misconception] who carries him for three days, then spews him out on the land near Nineveh. Once again, God asks Yonah to go to Nineveh and warn them to repent, and this time, he complies. The city heeds his warning, "turns from its evil ways", and is saved from destruction, much to Yonah's displeasure.
At a surface read, Yonah doesn't come across in a very positive light. He appears stubborn, rebellious bordering on the blasphemous, vindictive, and sullen. Chazal explain that Yonah's main reason for not wanting to help Nineveh repent was that he didn't want Judea to look bad by comparison, since so many prophets had been asking the Jews to repent, with little or no success. Our Rabbi noted this point, but then went on to ask: "Still, how many of you would do what Yonah did - would be so desperate to get out of this responsibility, this mission given directly to you by God?"
When he saw that most of the room looked unsure, he continued "OK, replace 'Nineveh' with 'Hitler's Germany'. Now what would your answer be? Would you save them from destruction, knowing what they would do in the future?"
Indeed, within two generations of the events of the Book of Yonah, Assyria went on to decimate the Northern Kingdom and exile the Ten Tribes of Israel. At a stroke, 75% of our people were gone, wiped from the pages of Jewish history. Even Hitler, Yimach Shmo, didn't achieve those percentages.
Would you help save a nation who was destined to do such harm, such pure evil? I don't think I would, or could. I suspect many would do much as Yonah did - try to run away, and failing that, prefer to sacrifice their own lives to prevent this great tragedy from ever occurring.
And yet... we are told in the book of Yonah that, at least for the moment, Assyria did sincerely repent - and their repentance was accepted by God. They were spared their fate and later, this Divine mercy would doom the Ten Tribes. The lesson for Yom Kippur - the reason this most unsettling story is the very last biblical portion we read that day - must be that God judges us for how we are now, not what we might do in the future.
Interestingly, the same point is learned out from the first High Holiday Torah reading, on Rosh Hashanah morning. Chazal tell us that God spared Ishmael from certain death, despite all the evils his descendents would perpetrate on the Jewish nation and the world - as we have seen so vividly in our generation - because as he was at the time, he didn't deserve death. The future would take care of itself.
A few months ago, Soccer Dad wrote about arguably the best and most celebrated Star Trek episode, "The City On The Edge of Forever", in which Captain Kirk must let his love, Edith Keeler, be killed in a car accident, rather than allow her to change history by delaying America's entry into World War II. I couldn't help be reminded of this episode when pondering this startling new viewpoint on Yonah and Nineveh. Viewers of the episode are meant to conclude that Kirk made the only right choice, that Edith's death and his personal sacrifice were necessary evils, for the greater good. Yet it seems the Torah's viewpoint is otherwise. Even the temporary repentance of a violent nation gained them acceptance, and forbade their destruction despite their destined course of action. How much more so for a well intentioned, essentially virtuous Edith Keeler?
And what about us?