Walking Our Faith: We ask for forgiveness, but do we forgive? (column)
October 6, 2017
I attended Yom Kippur services at Synagogue of the Summit last Saturday. Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn of the High Holy days in the Jewish calendar. Many moments of the three-hour service were memorable, however one caused me to contemplate what forgiveness looks like and what God is trying to teach us as we consider an ancient text with fresh perspective.
During the second hour, Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb asked volunteers to sit at the front of the sanctuary, facing the congregation. Each person was assigned a part to read from the book of Jonah.
You are no doubt familiar with the story of Jonah and the whale. It is a favorite of Sunday School children and a sure sign of teenage angst when kids suddenly begin to question how a human could survive three days inside a very large fish. To be honest, that's probably the last time I considered Jonah. And I'm sure I'd forgotten how he ended up in the whale, or what happened afterward.
So, I was intrigued as to why this Biblical story was included in services for the Day of Atonement. Until Rabbi Gelfarb asked the congregation why Jonah had refused God's order to go to Nineveh, an action which led to Jonah spending three days in a whale? The genius in Rabbi Gelfarb's method was she didn't answer the question, so we received different answers, depending on our perspective of the story.
After being ignobly vomited onto the beach by the "whale," Jonah went to Nineveh, proclaimed God's message, and the citizens repented, even the king covered himself in sackcloth and ashes. Was Jonah happy with his part in saving an entire city from death and destruction?
Before I go further, allow me to share an interesting aspect of Yom Kippur: The atonement we receive is for our sins against God. For our sins against man, God requires us to go to the person and ask their forgiveness. God is gracious and merciful to forgive our sins; however, he also requires we take responsibility for the harm we have caused.
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With this in mind, let's return to Jonah. The repentance of the entire city of Nineveh is covered in a few verses of the four-chapter Book of Jonah. After God has spared the city of Nineveh, instead of rejoicing in God's mercy, Jonah is angry. "He prayed to the Lord, 'O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I know you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.' But the Lord replied, 'Have you any right to be angry?'"
Jonah feels his anger is justified and the people of Nineveh undeserving of God's last minute saving grace. Still disgruntled, Jonah sits on the outskirts of Nineveh to watch what will happen to the city. While he waits, God causes a vine to grow and provide cooling shade for Jonah. But then, God causes the vine to wither and die. Jonah, predictably blames the vine.
God responds, "What's this? How is it you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can't I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don't yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?" (Jonah 4:9-10, MSG)
The difference between God's approach to sin and repentance is rooted in his unconditional love for us. God is always ready and willing to accept our sincere desire for forgiveness and to separate us from our sins in his sight, as far as "the east is from the west." In effect, we are blinded by our sin, so God's objective is to clear away our sin so we can see and experience his love for us.
Jonah reflects our very human desire for conditional love. We are happy to accept God's love and forgiveness for us, but maybe not for our undeserving neighbor. Too often, we are unwilling to forgive those who have sinned against us. And we resent God's forgiveness of others whom we deem unworthy of the same mercy we claim for ourselves. I believe the story of Jonah demonstrates God's generous mercy and how we can apply his example in our lives.
I had never seen this hidden gem in the story of Jonah. But thanks to the wise presentation by Rabbi Gelfarb, I received a lesson in forgiveness which has deepened my appreciation for God's unconditional love, and humbled my own judgmental-ness. I've discovered that our need for atonement and confession is to remove the scales from our eyes (and hearts), so we can openly experience God's love.
I am so grateful for how Yom Kippur deepened my own faith, gave me an appreciation for the Jewish faith, and left me feeling closer to God. Thank you, Synagogue of the Summit and Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb for blessing me on my walk of faith.
Suzanne Anderson is the author of "Love in a Time of War" and other books. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/suzanneelizabeths.
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