Haftarah Yom Kippur Mincha (The Book of Jonah)
October 4, 2014 / 10 Tishre 5775
The sages are adamant in their choices for the prophetic readings for Yom Kippur to remind their audience that the rituals of the day are insufficient in and of themselves to mitigate God’s judgment against sinful behavior. Teshuva or repentance is the order of the day. Changed behavior is a prerequisite. The behavior of the people of Nineveh, the unsung heroes of the book of Jonah, is the paradigm for this change. When the Ninevites heard Jonah’s stern message, they responded accordingly: “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he had the word cried through Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: ‘No man or beast, of herd or flock, shall taste anything! They shall not feed or drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth, man and beast, and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows but that God will not turn and relent? He may turn away from His wrath, so that we do not perish.’ And God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way; and God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them and He did not carry it out.” (3:6-10)
The rabbinic sages saw in the exemplary behavior of the Ninevites a model for repentance, using it as a means to implore their own people to repent. The Mishnah in Taanit records the ritual performed in Eretz Yisrael during Second Temple times when the land was smitten by drought: “What is the order [of the service] for [the last seven] fast days? The Ark is taken out to the square of town, ash is placed on the Ark, on the head of the Nasi and on the head of the Av Bet Din. Everyone else [however,] places ash on their own head. The elder among them addresses them with words of admonition saying: “Our brethren, it does not state regarding the people of Nineveh: ‘And God saw their sackcloth and their fasting,” rather: “And God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil ways.’ (Jonah 3:6). And in the Prophets it is said: And rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13).” (Mishnah Taanit 2:1)
What impressed God? It was not ritual. It was the transformation in the behavior of the Ninevites. It was the hope of the sages that this ceremony would be a “game changer” and that their own people would respond in kind. Yom Kippur is supposed to have that same impact on us. Those few moments of atonement may be cathartic for us, even exhilarating, yet it is the change in each of us like that of the Ninevites that God truly desires.