Jonah and the Whale
The Inner Meaning of Yom Kippur
The Jewish holiday Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is the highpoint of the holy days that began on Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, ten days before. It occurs on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishrei — this year on September 29th.
The inner work of Yom Kippur is the examination of our intentions engendered by the reading of the Sefer Yonah, the Old Testament book of Jonah. This story, like the others in the Bible, seems like a fantasy tale to be read to children. Seriously? A man swallowed by a whale who escapes unscathed? There is, however, a deep inner meaning.
God orders Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh, who had become hateful to one another, to correct the relationships among them if they wanted to survive. However, Jonah did not want to accept this mission and took to the sea in an effort to escape God’s command.
In the story, Jonah’s escape from his mission by ship caused the sea to roar and the vessel came close to sinking. At the height of the storm, Jonah went below deck to sleep. He understood the reason for the storm and knew that someone in the ship’s hold would drown first, thus saving the sailors upon his watery demise.* Gradually, the sailors begin to suspect that someone among them is the cause of the storm. They cast a lot and discover that it is Jonah, the only Jew on board.
The sailors on Jonah’s boat make a desperate attempt to calm the sea. Jonah tells them that the way to escape harm is to throw him overboard. Reluctantly they do so, recognizing that this action was what God clearly wanted and begged Him not to hold them accountable. Once he is in the water, the storm calms, but a whale comes along and swallows Jonah. For three days and three nights he introspects in its abdomen. He begs for his life and promises to carry out his mission. The whale carries Jonah to the shores of Nineveh and spits him out. There Jonah completes his mission.
What Jonah Teaches Us
Ten days have passed since Rosh HaShana during which reconciliation is sought with those harmed during the past year — an examination of one’s intentions in relationships. Wrongs are corrected if possible. Only then is the preparation for Yom Kippur complete — atonement for sins between man and God.
Transgressions of man against man occur when using ego to take advantage of others — receiving only for self. Transgressions between man and God are being out of alignment with the nature of the upper force — love and bestowal.
These ten days of penitence, or Days of Awe, are like taking an x-ray of the heart, identifying where one cares only for himself and where actions are for the sake of others. Fasting during the holidays symbolizes restricting, if you will, the egoistic need to satisfy only the self. True reconciliation with others is not that they should forgive you, but that you should build in your heart whole love for them.
Observance of Yom Kippur includes, as well as a fasting and attendance at synagogue for the reading of Sefer Yonah and prayer. Interestingly, one is expected to eat more than usual — specifically to snack — the day before the fast, including a traditional, semi-formal meal in the couple of hours before. Though in the fashion of a festive meal, there is nonetheless a hint of a death-row last meal, enhancing the serious though positive mood entering into the fast.
The fasting on Yom Kippur reminds us that we should stop receiving egoistically and start bestowing unto others above our self-benefit. The fast is carried out by observing five prohibitions — a sign of the restriction of these egoistic desires: the prohibition of eating and drinking, the prohibition of washing, the prohibition of anointing, the prohibition of wearing leather shoes, and the prohibition of sexual intercourse.
We learn from the story of the prophet Jonah that we have to put ourselves aside and act for the sake of others. A person cannot turn to the Creator if there are people he has hurt in the world.
Although Jonah wasn’t an ordinary person but a prophet, we have to see the difficult missions that the Creator gives us. Jonah understood that in their current state the people of Nineveh would repent out of fear, not out of an inner transformation. If his admonitions toward them resulted in this type of conversion, Nineveh would become strong and rise up against Israel. He fled from the task because he didn’t want to be the instrument of Israel’s suffering. He felt in a double bind.
Through the hardship imposed by living inside the whale’s body, he was shown the importance of his mission. He was then able to accomplish it by passing on the wisdom of connection and unity, love, and bestowal to the people of Nineveh, who represent the whole world.
On Yom Kippur I must forget myself and totally focus on the benefit of others: first our people and then the rest of the world. This is the mission of the Israeli nation, the Jews. By accepting this work, we begin to correct our actions of bestowal when Yom Kippur is over, and the holidays that follow Yom Kippur symbolize that.
All of mankind is destined to go through this process. The tale of Jonah illustrates that this spiritual journey may be one of moving forward toward the Creator, or of being forced from behind by life’s hardships and blows.
Yom Kippur can be seen as a day of sorrow, in that we cry about what we discover inside us. However, if we discover within us the negative traits which were initially created by the Creator, we can ask Him for correction. This brings us to a state of being closer to Him and to a state of love toward our fellow man. This turns Yom Kippur into a day of joy, a state of continuous awe.
This joy and awe take us into the celebration of the holiday of Sukkot, five days later.
*According to one Biblical scholar’s interpretation
With gratitude to Edward Ponderer.