Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5777

October 12, 2016

Now that we’re well into Yom Kippur, and we may be starting to get a little woozy from hunger, I think it’s a perfect time to sing some Gershwin. Don’t you agree?!  Please join me if you know it:

It ain't necessary so
Ah, it ain't necessary so
The things that you're liable
To read in the bible
Ain't necessary so

[Let’s repeat that chorus again]

It ain't necessary so
Ah, it ain't necessary so
The things that you're liable
To read in the bible
Ain't necessary so

[And now we’ll skip ahead to the Yom Kippur verse.  Oh you didn’t know there is a Yom Kippur verse?  Well….]

Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
That man made his home in that fish’s abdomen
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale

[And one more time for Jonah]

Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
That man made his home in that fish’s abdomen
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale

Yes, the Book of Jonah, which Linda Eason and Kathy Levine will present for us this afternoon [as the haftarah for the Yom Kippur mincha service], does have its fanciful elements.  Living inside a big fish for three days? Uh, I don’t think so…

And yet Jonah is a powerful book because it teaches stark and profound lessons even in the midst of its folktale-like elements.

For me, the first of these is the lesson we learn from God’s charge to Jonah.

God tells Jonah to go preach teshuvah (repentance) to the inhabitants of Nineveh.  And what does Jonah do?

Jonah hightails it in the opposite direction. 

To be sure, after he has had a chance to think and pray during those three days he spends in the belly of the fish, Jonah does realize that God is not really giving him a choice in the matter.  So, when God renews the call to Jonah to go to Nineveh and to call on them to mend their ways – this time Jonah does answer the call.

But Jonah’s first inclination had been to think to himself – “Nineveh, shminiveh – This is not my problem.  This is not my job. Those people are not my people.  What do I have to do with them?”

What I mean to say, is that one way of looking at the Book of Jonah is to see it as teaching the opposite message. The message, as I see it, is that if there is a crisis in another part of the world, even if it’s not a part of the world that we personally have much connection with, sometimes God will command us (or, if you prefer, our conscience will compel us) to concern ourselves with it.

There are a number of areas in the world today in crisis, but I think modern Syria is our contemporary analog to Biblical Nineveh.  (And, indeed, though Biblical Nineveh was located near present day Mosul, Iraq --- back in Jonah’s day it was the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire which included most of modern day Syria.)

When we gathered here a year ago on Yom Kippur morning, I also used my sermon to talk about Syria.  At that time, there were already hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions displaced and widespread destruction.

Last summer, the world responded emotionally to a photo of the dead body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned as his family tried to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece in their search for a safe new home.[1] 

This summer, our hearts have been pierced by the image of the shocked and bloody visage of five-year-old Omran Dagneesh, besieged in a rebel-occupied East Aleppo under attack by Syrian and Russian bombing raids.[2] 

Last year the situation was horrific. 

This year it’s worse.

Let me share with you some excerpts from a September 2016 fact sheet[3] published by the European Commission: 


The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in Syria with intensified fighting, high levels of violence, widespread disregard for the rules of international law and the obligation to protect civilians, and major human rights abuses committed by all parties. The open conflict is increasingly hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid especially in Northern Syria: supply roads are often disrupted or closed and humanitarian organisations have been forced to downscale or suspend operations in several areas due to insecurity.

The situation in and around Aleppo city and Idleb governorate is dramatic: heavy bombing and intense fighting caused countless civilian casualties and damages to critical infrastructures, leaving more than 2 million people without water and electricity and in fear of besiegement. Aid delivery to the eastern part of Aleppo remains extremely difficult due to ongoing airstrikes. The targeting of health facilities continues unabated, hindering the access to healthcare for all citizens.

The Syrian population is highly vulnerable and 13.5 million of people are in need of humanitarian assistance: 6.6 million are internally displaced, 4.6 million people in hard-to-reach areas, including over 480 000 besieged. Civilians continue to be the primary victims of the conflict. Rape and sexual violence, enforced disappearances, forcible displacement, recruitment of child soldiers, summary executions and deliberate shelling of civilian targets have become commonplace. 

The magnitude of humanitarian needs is overwhelming in all parts of Syria. The main priorities are treating and evacuating the wounded, providing food aid, water, sanitation and hygiene, health, and shelter. Prices of basic commodities continue to rise and the availability of food stocks in many parts of Syria is at risk. With over 11 million people having fled their homes both inside Syria and to the neighbouring countries, shelter needs are high. Children, women and the elderly are most at risk. 


Refugees from Syria are now the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation with over 4.8 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and the wider region. Countries bordering Syria are reaching dangerous saturation points, particularly Lebanon, which hosts around 1.1 million Syria refugees and has, along with Jordan, the largest per capita refugee population in the world. Turkey is currently hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees, the largest number of Syrian refugees in one country in the world.  


In Avinu Malkeinu, we ask God --- Avinu Malkeinu, kaley dever vecherev vera’av ushevi umashchit mibnei veritekha. / "Our Parent, Our Sovereign – remove from all the children of your covenant disease, war, famine, exile and destruction."

Perhaps Jonah interpreted that covenant narrowly -----  that our concern should be only for Israelites whose covenant was with God at Sinai --- rather than concern for all humanity who are part of the Rainbow covenant with God from the time of Noah. 

His interpretation envisions Jonah as viewing the fate of Nineveh as, so to speak, "Not my problem.  Not my fault.  Not my job.  Not my concern."

However, there’s also a line of classical Jewish commentary on Jonah that says that Jonah’s disobedience was not out of apathy.  Rather, according to this alternate interpretation, Jonah initially fled God’s call out of concern for his own people.

The key thing to note here is that the Book of Jonah was probably written centuries after the time period in which it is ostensibly set, namely mid-8th century B.C.E. 

The Portuguese Jewish commentator Isaac Abarbanel experienced the expulsion of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490’s and ended up in exile in Italy.  In Abarbanel’s commentary on Jonah, he notes that Assyria was the enemy of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  And, as he well knew, in 722 B.C.E. (just a few decades after the time period in which the Book of Jonah is set), the Assyrian Empire would conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel and disperse its Ten Tribes who would be lost to Jewish history.

So Abarbanel asserted that God, using Jonah as God’s messenger, wanted to cause Assyria to turn from its sinful ways so that God wouldn’t destroy Assyria.  Thus, Assyria would subsequently be able to fulfill its own role as God’s instrument to destroy Israel for Israel’s sinfulness….[4]

That’s why Jonah, according to Abarbanel and other commentatories who followed him, initially fled and was even willing to drown in the sea.  He was doing so in order to protect his fellow Israelites from future danger at the hands of the Assyrians.   And yet, despite all the future danger that might await Israel --- the Book of Jonah concludes with God chiding Jonah for not caring enough about Nineveh.

I find a parallel here to contemporary politicians who want the United States to turn its back on Syrian refugees out of fear that some of them might be terrorists who would harm Americans. 

Jonah, thinking of his fellow Israelites, was afraid of Assyrians later attacking his own country.  And we, thinking of our fellow Americans, today are afraid of ISIS infiltrating the refugee population and attacking us.

Of course it’s a complex situation.

However, as we learn from a blog entry posted just this week on the website of HIAS (the refugee relief organization originally known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society):

The truth is, the U.S. Refugee Program includes extensive security vetting from five government agencies. Refugees are screened at higher levels than any other entrants to the country, including students and tourists. More importantly, refugees, by definition, are the victims of violence, not its perpetrators. A recent study by the Cato Institute calculated that “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”[5]

Near the conclusion of my Yom Kippur morning service last year I wrote: 

"The Syrian refugee crisis is, of course, not identical to the plight of the Jews who were attempting to flee Hitler.  But the images coming out of Syria and Europe today are close enough to be chilling.

"Our Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading […] includes the imperative “Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha” / “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  (Lev. 19:16) The Torah’s message resonates in the face of the current crisis.

"The tangled mess of opposing forces in Syria today are challenging to sort out.  […]

"But meanwhile, the simple humanitarian need should rise to the fore."

So – now it’s a year later.

Let us hope and pray there will be relief and safety for many in Syria and many who are trying to escape it by the time we gather here same time next year.

Let’s back up our hopes by donating to organizations like HIAS or Unicef.

And let us support efforts to provide sanctuary for those in need and assistance to those in harm’s way.

And let us back up our hopes by electing leaders who will have the wisdom and judgment to play a positive force on the international scene to untangle the mess that exists in Syria today.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah/ May we all have a good sealing in the Book of Life on this Yom Kippur as we pray for all who are in distress and for ourselves as well.


© Rabbi David Steinberg October 2016/ Yom Kippur 5777




[4] See Rabbi Steven Bob, Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives (Jewish Publication Society, 2016), p. 6



Posted on October 18, 2016 .