Shabbat shalom. Gemar tov.
I would like to dedicate this drash to the memory of my grandmother, yehi zichronah baruch. Her name was Onofria Napoli, and she was from a village in Sicily called Campobello di Mazara, “the beautiful field of Mazara.” Just three months ago, June 10th, was the 100th anniversary of her arrival at Ellis Island in New York. She joined her older siblings in Chicago, met and married my grandfather (who was also from Italy), and within a decade was able to buy a house in the suburb of Oak Park. Her quest to build a better life in America had succeeded.
I grew up down the road in Fremont. The City of Fremont is a modern invention, born in 1956 upon the merger of five small towns, including mine, which was called Centerville. After attending a housing tract elementary school, I entered a school founded in 1858: Centerville Junior High School. Several other grade schools fed into Centerville, so I had lots of new classmates.
One of my new friends was a fellow named Bill. We spent a lot of time together both in junior high and high school. He was a year ahead of me, but we were two geeky peas in a pod. We loved science with a passion, so we were in Science Club. We played chess. We campaigned for adoption of the metric system. Bill and I were on our high school’s victorious Brain Bowl team, a knockoff of the old College Bowl TV show. The night of a total lunar eclipse, Bill and I, my brother, and some other geeky friends drove out to the darkest place we could find, near Calaveras Dam, and watched the whole eclipse while listening to Tom Lehrer records. (I look back now and imagine a different David, in a parallel universe, who might have tried to find a girl to drive out to the Calaveras Dam to, you know, watch a lunar eclipse.) And finally—and I’ve never before admitted this in public—Bill and I memorized the value of pi to 50 decimal places. (Please don’t ask me why. We never calculated anything with those 50 digits. The effect was long-lasting: I tested myself recently and I can still remember pi to 28 places.)
After high school, Bill and I both attended UC Berkeley; Bill’s major was rhetoric, mine was zoology. We each found new passions while in college, as does every college student: mine were folkdancing and Judaism. And if I surprised Bill by becoming a Jew-by-choice, Bill astounded me by becoming a minister in the Congregational Church, which is today called the United Church of Christ.
Bill’s ordination ceremony was held back in Fremont, at the church his family attended. Bill was nice enough to invite me to the ordination, but I was more than a little surprised when asked me to participate. I was deeply honored, of course, but how could a newly-minted Jew participate in Christian ordination? But Bill had found the perfect job for me. I was to be the Reader of Scripture. Bill asked me to read Jonah. And he insisted on the JPS translation, the very same English text that’s in our machzor.
To this day, Bill’s ordination is the only Christian service I’ve ever participated in. In a manner of speaking, you could say it was the first time I ever spoke from the bimah. I practiced and practiced for that reading, and marked up my text for dramatic emphasis. I was determined to do a good job.
At the end of the ordination was the ritual of laying on of hands. Bill knelt and the minister called up Bill’s parents and sisters to put a hand on his head or shoulder. And the minister also called up me. I think I hesitated for a moment, guessing that this was not a traditionally Jewish thing to do, but then I thought: this is my friend. So I went up and put my hand on Bill’s shoulder while a blessing was read. It was a profoundly spiritual moment, and most everyone had tears running down his or her cheeks.
Well, Bill’s ordination was over 25 years ago. But it was only after I got the idea for this drash that I found myself wondering “out of the entire Bible, why did Bill ask me to read Jonah?” At first glance, Jonah would not top the list for an ordination ceremony. I gave that some thought and came up with some theories:
1. My first thought was that perhaps all ordination ceremonies use Jonah as the text. If this is true, then the question is why. It becomes the parallel to this drash right now: we read Jonah every year on Yom Kippur, and I am just the latest in a long line of darshanim trying to figure out why.
2. Jonah was called by God, fled in the opposite direction, then called a second time. Perhaps Bill had felt some affinity for the clergy when he was younger, rejected it later, then felt the call again as an adult.
3. Perhaps the sailors were an image for Bill: always moving, but yet seemingly stationary amidst the immense ocean and huge sky, sailing endlessly towards the horizon to find spiritual meaning
4. Perhaps Bill prayed from a dark place, as Jonah did from the belly of the whale, and found some answer there
5. Perhaps Bill was moved by the God’s assessment, at the very end of the book, that Nineveh contains “120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left”, which is to say “there is a huge flock of rudderless people, and they need me”
6. Last, and I thought least likely, perhaps Bill was specifically honoring me and tried to find a text that would both fit his purposes and my Jewish sensitivities.
Over the years I have decided on my favorite characters in the story, and those are the sailors. Many commentators have pointed out that nothing in the Jonah story is meant to be taken literally, but I think the sailors are fairly realistic. They’re hard-working regular guys, because sailing is hard work. When the storm hits, they find the culprit in classic Navy fashion: they gamble. (This alone is enough to show that they’re real sailors.) When Jonah says “throw me overboard”, they sensibly view him as a lunatic and try to save all hands. Finally, Jonah convinces them to throw him over, but first they pause to pray. When the seas calm, the sailors are really impressed: they fear God, perform sacrifices and make vows. Which is to say, they became Jews-by-choice (although back then the proper term was “Hebrew-by-choice”).
Jonah is special to me for another reason: many of you here will remember Sandy Schneider, yehi zichrono baruch. When this congregation was young, Sandy read Jonah almost every year, and I eagerly looked forward to it. He made a big impression on me with the different ways he read narrative and dialog. I said to myself, “I am going to learn to read the way Sandy does.” I have always counted Sandy as one of my teachers, though sadly he never knew that.
So after compiling my list of theories about why Bill chose Jonah, I gave him a call. He lives in Pennsylvania, and we’ve only seen each other twice in the flesh since his ordination. Bill, of course, gets to deliver sermons every week. I told him about my drash, and read him my theories about why he picked Jonah. He listened politely, and then told me that all my theories were wrong. A typical ordination, Bill said, would have a reading from one of the Christian Gospels.
The answer to why Bill picked Jonah was: he didn’t, because it wasn’t his decision: the officiating minister picks the text. Bill thinks that the minister chose Jonah because of the “called by God” theme. Had Bill been allowed to choose, he would have picked the end of the book of Joshua: “you serve whomever you want, but I and my family will serve the Lord.”
Bill went on to say that has come to adore Jonah over the years, and that it has become perhaps his favorite book in the entire Bible. I asked him why, and he replied:
It’s truly a funny story, but it portrays God in a way that is utterly sympathetic. Jonah is complaining that “you’re our God, you’re supposed to care for us. The folks in Nineveh are a bunch of jerks. They’ve attacked us many times.” That whole bit about Jonah’s reluctance; he can’t even see how successful he is. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he sulks. God says “This isn’t about you. This is about them, and about me. I can bless people other than Israel too.” It’s one of the most outward-looking passages in all of the Scriptures—it comes closest to a Universalist view. I love that these pagan sailors are more Jewish than Jonah is. The sailors won’t even kill him: they’re Phoenicians, but they don’t kill him because it’s not the right thing to do. The book’s world view is truly amazing. There are so many places in Scripture where it says “the God of Israel” or “the God of the Egyptians”. But here God is the God of everyone. And God can be benevolent to the sailors and the Ninevites. It moves the faith from being very isolated, one nation-faith, to being a worldwide faith.
Those of you familiar with my previous drashot know that this is about the point when I would cleverly weave in a reference to Cecil B DeMille’s 1952 movie The Ten Commandments. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to do that this time. Instead, I’m going to use Star Wars. So, as you recall: Luke is in his X-wing fighter trying to blow up the Death Star, but Darth Vader is right on his tail! but Han comes to the rescue! and Luke fires! and the Death Star blows up in this awesome explosion! This is what Jonah wants to happen to Nineveh; that’s why he’s up on the hill: faraway enough to avoid injury, but close enough to enjoy the awesome explosion.
But suppose instead, when Obi-Wan Kenobi and Vader are having their light-saber duel, and Obi-Wan says “You can’t win Darth. If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine,” suppose that Vader stops and says “Hmm. Your powers are strong, old man.” Vader sheaths his light-saber, shakes hands with Obi—no, he hugs Obi-Wan, the Empire dissolves itself, the old Republic is re-established, the Light and Dark sides of the Force get married and live happily ever after. That is what actually happens in the book of Jonah, but Jonah himself—the doofus—is disappointed because he wanted to see the awesome explosion.
Thus, in swashbuckling adventure movies our Hero vanquishes Evil and becomes happy, whereas in Jonah, the Evil realizes its own mistake and repents, and our Hero becomes unhappy. A story line like that makes a lousy movie, but in fact this is what I, David, honestly, idealistically and naively want to happen: I want All the Evil in the World to simply realize its mistake, dissolve into a puff of smoke and vanish in the wind. It will never happen, of course, but I can dream about it once a year, on this day, the Day of Days. I will never be perfect either: as long as I live, I will never arrive at Yom Kippur without the need to say kol nidrei, and ashamnu, and al heit. But I can dream about it once a year, on this Day of Days.
So for me, with this drash, Jonah has come full circle from Bill’s ordination all those years ago. Bill sent me a recent sermon he gave on Jonah, and I sent him this drash. Jonah has become a touchstone for me, listening to it every Yom Kippur afternoon, thinking of Bill, Sandy Schneider and those Jew-by-choice sailors. And for Bill, the surprise pick for a reading at his ordination has grown to become his favorite Biblical story.
Shabbat shalom, and gemar chatimah tovah, may you all be sealed in the Book of Life for a very good year.