“From Teshuvah to Justice: Jonah’s Call to Change” by Ivy Helman
(I offer here an abridged version of the sermon I gave on Yom Kippur (5773) at Temple Emanuel in Lowell, MA. The full version will be available on their website soon. The book of Jonah is always read on Yom Kippur in the afternoon service as the Haftorah. It is rather traditional that someone (usually the Rabbi) offer an interpretation of it. Temple Emanuel asked me this year. I thank the congregation for the honor and I hope my words offered them, and now you, food for thought.)
Scholars believe the Greek philosopher Plato lived between 428 BCE and 348 BCE. The Allegory of the Cave is one of Plato’s most famous stories. It illustrates the effects of a change in knowledge, education and experiences on the human being. Some of you may know it or have read it at some point but for those of you who don’t, let me offer a very brief summary.
There are human beings shackled to a cave in a way that they can only see the wall directly in front of them. Behind them is a large fire with a raised platform where other humans play with puppets which cast shadows on that same wall. According to the story, the only knowledge, the only truth, these human beings have about the world and life comes from the shadows.
In this hypothetical situation, Plato describes a day when one of the shackled human beings is freed and eventually forced out of the cave. Initially, she is blinded by the light. After some agonizing moments in pain, the prisoner’s eyes adjust and she can see. Yet she cannot really make sense out of what she sees. Her only frame of reference was her previous life, education and experience. Soon though she learns to see the shadows for what they are: reflections of real things, and she begins to understand how the world works through her careful observation of it. Because her knowledge and experience have changed so too has her world, forever.
Plato then asks: what should she do with her new knowledge, her new life? Should she go back into the cave and tell her friends? Would they understand her? Maybe. Would they kill her? Maybe. Yet, he resolves that this person would be acting unjustly if she did use her new knowledge to educate those whose lives are still, quite literally, tied up in shadows. Plato says, “Education is the craft concerned with…turning around of the soul to the good and how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight in the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately” (518d). Education for Plato is helping an individual turn toward the good. In other words, true education is bringing about an awareness in someone that they are looking in the wrong direction. Education brings about a fundamental transformation or change.
The book of Jonah offers us many windows into education, or conversion toward the good, mirroring the freed human being in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In the belly of a large fish, Jonah’s sight is turned to the realization of G-d’s power, permanence and omnipresence. With teshuvah and a change of behavior, the people of Nineveh are able to turn toward the good thereby escaping the wrath of G-d and save themselves.
The book of Jonah illustrates that we need to accept change and change ourselves. It teaches us that human beings can change, and the Ninevites are the example par excellence. In this book, there is an optimistic perspective towards the human capacity for transformation, a point driven home by Jonah’s disgruntled attitude toward G-d’s change of heart to spare the Ninevites and the Ninevites modified behavior.
Yet, changing ourselves is not easy because we often do not know what we do wrong or what we need to change. The same is true of the Ninevites. They needed Jonah to tell them. Once they made aware of their wickedness and violence, they acknowledged what they had done wrong, showed G-d their sincere teshuvah with ashes and sackcloth and then changed their behavior.
But, what was their wickedness? The book of Jonah does not say but we do know that it is corporate or communal, a sin for which the entire community, even the animals are considered responsible.
We have sins like that too. Let me list some suggestions as to how we perpetuate wickedness and violence today: We are causing the polar ice caps to melt. We grow enough food to feed the world, but we do not have a system of transportation and international cooperation in place to feed all of the hungry. We continue to pay women less than men for the same job. We prioritize our medical research for curing disease based not on which disease affects the most people, but on which population will be able to pay handsomely for their medication. Our society has sexist policies, racist ideologies, homophobic institutions, insurmountable disparities between rich and poor.
Needless to say, we sin as a society and we participate in societies that sin. According to Jonah, personal teshuvah is only one aspect of the type of teshuvah the world needs. Just like Nineveh we are called by G-d to transform our wicked institutions and violent societal structures toward the good, into ones of justice, compassion, love and righteousness.
But, how do we do this? Nineveh didn’t change of its own accord. It could not recognize what it did wrong. It could not see its own violence and sin. It needed someone to redirect its gaze towards truth. Who does this? For the Ninevites it was Jonah. For our world, filled with sexism, homophobia, inequality and greed, it is us.
But, where do we start? I want to suggest we start with freedom. Plato’s shackled human being needed to be freed to see the light and change her perspective on the world. It was only after this change in sight and therefore in knowledge that Plato considers her to behave unjustly if she will not go back and share her new perspective with her friends.
We, as Jews, have been freed as well. We were once slaves. Freedom gave us the Torah, knowledge of G-d and the foundations for good, just community life. As we hear so often, with freedom comes great responsibility. It is our job, like Jonah did with the Nineveh-of-old, to redirect the sight of the world towards justice, compassion, love and G-d at the same time we must alter our sight towards these goods.
Today, we come to services because we want to show G-d our teshuvah, our atonement and repentance. But, true repentance calls us to modify, transform, alter and convert our behavior in profound ways – individually and communally. We need to inspire the world to teshuvah just as Jonah did with Nineveh. Think of the world we can birth into existence when we dedicate ourselves to the mission G-d has laid out for us: “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with G-d (Micah 6:8).”
Yom Kippur is the best day to look toward the future and see what might be because we have spent so much time thinking about what was and atoning for our misdirection. We are freed people whose sight has been renewed toward the good: first through freedom and now by teshuvah. At this moment, we see the world from a different point of view. It would be quite unjust of us to fail to return to the cave and guide its inhabitants toward justice.