We are accustomed to think of Yom Kippur as a day on which we seek atonement for ourselves: we fast, we pray, we seek to avert the harsh decree. But the book of Jonah also describes a very different kind of teshuvah: a whole community, Nineveh, in mourning. This is a kind of communal grief, a national changing of ways, which is basically inconceivable to us. On Yom Kippur we are commanded to afflict ourselves. But Nineveh does this en masse in a way which London never could. Why? If we were convinced that we were going wrong, what could make our society change tack?
We have a very different relationship to pain to our biblical forebears. They believed that suffering had a purpose – it was divinely intended to teach us something. We tend to believe that pain is random and basically meaningless. One thing Yom Kippur tries to do is give us some measure of physical discomfort to remind us that suffering and pain are universals which are, ultimately, unavoidable; and sometimes, should even be sought out. What we do with pain is a puzzle left for us to solve.
And so we read Jonah: this story of a person and a society righting themselves by means of just the right sort of discomfort. For our Teshuvah, we too would need to learn that each of us has a responsibility to shoulder some discomfort for the collective good; to learn that when one person does good, or indeed when one person simply endures rather than taking a shortcut, the ramifications of that act are felt beyond its local confines. This awareness would be the counterbalance to environmental indulgences, international isolationism, and general tax evasion. We all need to balance our own discomfort with the common weal.
The Rabbis insist that Jonah’s repentance happened inside a fish which was really a synagogue: Jonah entered the fish’s mouth like a man who entered a great synagogue and his two eyes were like windows [Midrash Pirkei Eliezer]. This is the story of a guy who went into a fish that was really a synagogue and learned that there’s such a thing as personal responsibility. May your ventures into our synagogues this season prove so transformative. May our fasting be not only to improve ourselves; and may change come to our damaged world.