Yom Kippur: The waters of life

‘And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness’ (Leviticus 16:22)

Yom Kippur painting (photo credit: Maurycy Gottlieb)
Yom Kippur painting
(photo credit: Maurycy Gottlieb)
One of the highlights of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the reading of the Book of Jonah – a small book which contains a world of philosophy. The major message of the Book of Jonah is likewise the major message of Yom Kippur, so that the proper understanding of the former will most certainly illuminate the latter.
God comes to Jonah, son of Amitai, sending him to call the people of Nineveh to repentance. Jonah refuses to do so, and believes he can escape the God of the heavens and earth by putting to sea. Why did the prophet find a mission to Nineveh so objectionable? Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the archenemy of Israel. Indeed, in the eighth century BCE, Assyria defeated the Ten Tribes and banished them into exile. Jonah cannot understand why God is interested in Assyria’s repentance. After all, as long as the Jews have more merits than the Assyrians, the chances of an Israeli victory in battle are far greater. Hence Jonah seeks to escape God by boarding a ship bound for Tarshish. A raging storm develops at sea, and a drawing of lots demonstrates that Jonah is responsible for the storm, and he is cast overboard.
It is fascinating to note that water is the major symbol of both the Book of Jonah and the Tishrei period of festivals; Water is both a symbol of both life and destruction.
The Bible opens with the spirit of God hovering “over the face of the waters,” and no life can exist without water. At the same time, the Bible tells us right before its description of the life-giving waters that “there was darkness on the face of the tehom,” usually translated as “the deep”; the depth of the cavernous waters of the netherworld. It was, after all, the waters of the flood which threatened to destroy the world. The Mishna tells us that on the Festival of Succot (Tabernacles), God judges our merit for the life-sustaining rain.
Rain is therefore a symbol of God’s gracious bounty, His purification of His children on the Day of Forgiveness.
As the prophet Ezekiel says in words which we repeat again and again during the Yom Kippur prayers, “And I shall sprinkle upon you the waters of purification and you shall become pure.” (Ezekiel 36:25) Jonah, who is cast overboard into the raging waters, has challenged God; he has endeavored to escape his Divine mission and is therefore deserving of death.
God, however, in His infinite compassion provides a great fish – a creature of the water – to follow Jonah and bring him back to life. In Jonah’s own words, “I called, in my distress, to God and He answered me. From the belly of the grave I cried out; You heard my voice. You cast me into the depth of the heart of the sea... your waves passed over me... yet You lifted my life from the pit, O Lord my God” (Jonah 2:3-7).
The waters almost destroyed Jonah, and the waters – in the form of a water-creature sent by God – saved his life. God is teaching the crucial lesson that Assyria, which has been so evil and destructive, can and must make a complete turnaround if the world is to be redeemed. God is also teaching that He is willing to overlook the evil Assyria has committed if she will indeed repent.
Jonah refuses to accept this. He is after all the son of Amitai, a name which is derived from emet, truth. Truth, as Jonah understands it, demands that evil never be overlooked; evil must be punished. This is how Jonah explains why he refused God’s mission: “...This is why I hastened to flee to Tarshish; I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abundant in loving- kindness and forgiving of evil” (Jonah 4:2). This is not the God in whom I want to believe, the God who described Himself earlier to Moses as the God who is “abundant in loving kindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6).
Jonah has forgotten that his first name means dove, and that just as the dove was saved from the flood so was he, Jonah, undeservedly saved from the raging waters. God is teaching him that the God of compassion will bestow His life-giving purity even upon those who have sinned.
On Yom Kippur, each of us descends into the “waters of death.” We wear white, reminiscent of shrouds, we remove ourselves from all physical necessities and pleasures such as food, drink and sex, and we wear the non-leather shoes of the mourner. For whom are we mourning? We’re mourning for ourselves, for our own deaths due to our sins.
However, God in his compassion returns us to life on Yom Kippur, reborn and purified. God sprinkles upon us His life-giving waters “because on this day you shall be forgiven of all your sins; before God shall you stand pure.”
All of us experience the death and the rebirth of Jonah. As the final Mishna in Tractate Yoma says, “How fortunate are you O Israel! Before whom are you purified, and who purifies you? Our Father in Heaven.”
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.