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Yom Kippur (afternoon) 5771

Haftarah Yom Kippur Afternoon
(The Book of Jonah)
September 18, 2010
10 Tishre, 5771

Yom Kippur – Minchah (The Book of Jonah)

It is obvious to all that the book of Jonah was chosen as the haftarah for Yom Kippur because its subject matter is the repentance of the people of Nineveh. The sinful behavior of the people of Nineveh had incensed God. So God sent Jonah to Nineveh to proclaim to its people the destruction of the city: \”Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.\” (3:4) The people of the city proved to be God fearing and set about the process of repenting. God heeded their behavior and recanted their punishment: \”God saw what they (the Ninevites) did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.\” (3:10) God\’s reversal here is clearly based on the repentance of the Ninevites.

The Israeli theologian/philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibowitz claims a disparity between this explanation of God\’s behavior and that found in the fourth and climactic chapter of the book. In that chapter, Jonah complains of God\’s merciful change of attitude toward the Ninevites which he deemed unjustified. God responds to Jonah\’s complaint: \”And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city…?\” (4:11) Leibowitz wants to claim that God\’s merciful response is independent of the behavior of the Ninevites and is done for God\’s own inscrutable reasons.

It seems to me that Leibowitz interprets this way in order to make the idea of repentance independent of God\’s interaction with the world. This makes the response of the Ninevites truly for its own sake (lishma) and not reliant on ulterior motives like reward and punishment. In addition, it removes the idea of repentance from all empirical considerations which in his rational way of thinking seems more religiously plausible. (See Sihot al Hagei Yisrael uMoedav pp. 192-3)

In the end, it is this idea of \”teshuva lishma\” which seems most attractive. A mature approach to rapprochement with God should not need to be based upon threat or coercion. The pure desire to be the best person one can be and to live with oneself and with God should be enough to give us the requisite strength to correct who we are.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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