Jonah’s Fear, Our Fear; Yom Kippur Sermon

by Rabbi Jill Maderer (delivered Yom Kippur morning, main sanctuary)

Picture an ocean.  Two waves approach the shoreline and share a conversation along the way.  The large wave reports to the smaller, “Trouble’s ahead!  I wish you could see what I see.  Then you would understand, that we have a problem!  Every time a wave reaches the shore, it crashes, and breaks apart.  The smaller wave replies, “There’s no trouble ahead!  I wish you could see what I see.  We do not have a problem.  You just need to understand:  We are not separate waves; we are all part of the same ocean.”  That smaller wave offered a life-altering perspective: “You and I are not waves, we’re water.”  

Of course, the small wave is not only speaking to the large wave, it’s speaking to you and to me.  As distinct as each of us is, Jewish tradition teaches that we are entirely connected to the other.   Already twice today we have recited the prayer most frequently on Jewish lips: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad, Hear O Israel Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.  Exactly what does it mean to state that God is One? Among the many interpretations is that of the Jewish mystic: When we proclaim that God is One, it is as if we are saying that God is all.  Everything in the world is a part of God’s oneness.  When we proclaim that God is one, we are witness to the oneness in this world, the connectedness of all people.  God is one; we are one.  When we open our hearts to the oneness in the world, we understand that we are not waves, we’re water.

To see ourselves as one body of water, as totally connected with the other waves that surround us, is a profoundly difficult demand.  How comfortable it can be, in our individualistic society, to distance ourselves from others, to don our blinders and to decide that the destiny of the other is irrelevant to our own. 

Yom Kippur brings us a warning against such separation, in the Book of Jonah which we will read later this afternoon.  On Yom Kippur, a day when we shine a light into the darkest corners of ourselves, a day when we uncover our vulnerabilities, we read about the Jewish anti-hero.  In the Book of Jonah, God dispatches the prophet to the city of Nineveh.  God charges him: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it.”  God is instructing Jonah to get involved.  Jonah’s response?  He attempts to escape.  He wants nothing to do with the people of Nineveh, so he flees.   A dramatic story about a sea, a ship, a great fish, and eventual arrival at Nineveh ensues.            

Why does Jonah attempt to escape from his obligation to get involved?  The people of Nineveh are separate from Jonah and their destiny has nothing to do with his own.  For Jonah, the world is black and white.  Us versus them.*  It’s a world of polar opposites: self verses other.  Jonah is too closed off to visit his perceived enemy; he refuses to participate in the redemption of another people.

The Jonah story comes to remind us of our potential downfalls—the fear, mistrust and distance that obstructs our open heart, our shared humanity, our oneness.  Each of us experiences some fear, fear of the other, fear of danger, fear of the unknown.  The question today is: what do we do with it?  Do we, like Jonah, allow fear to separate us from others, to say “that’s not my problem; I am not my brother’s keeper?”  Or do we allow fear to illumine our vulnerabilities and ultimately to inspire our shared humanity?  Martin Luther King, sitting in the Birmingham jail, wrote to his fellow pastors, pastors who cautioned him to stop his activism: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  All life is interrelated.”**

Fear can construct blinders and keep us from seeing the oneness in our world and the humanity in our neighbor.  But fear can also help us to understand the vulnerability in the other, to allow connection to exist, to look into the eyes of another person, and see ourselves.  There is a story is of a Jewish woman who was living in Munich, in Nazi Germany. One day, this Jewish woman, Sussie, was riding a city bus home from work, when SS storm troopers suddenly stopped the coach and began to examine the identification papers of the passengers.  Most were annoyed, but a few were terrified.  Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into a truck around the corner.  Sussie watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle.  She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. 

When the man next to her noticed she was crying, he politely asked her why.  “I do not have the papers you have. I am a Jew.  They are going to take me.”  The man exploded in disgust.  He began to curse and scream at her.  “You stupid cow,” he roared.  “I cannot stand being near you!”  The SS men asked what he was yelling about.  “Damn her,” the man shouted angrily.  “My wife has forgotten her papers again!  I am so fed up.  She always does this!”  The soldiers laughed and moved on.  Sussie never saw the man again.  She never even knew his name.***

That man on the bus must have been afraid, right?  The question that day was: would his fear separate him from what was around him?  Would it produce distance and otherness?  Or would his fear help him to access his vulnerability, and to perceive the oneness on that bus, the network of mutuality in our world.  Somehow, in that moment, the man understood that this woman’s destiny was not separate from his own.

What happens when the mutuality of humanity is forgotten, the interrelatedness, ignored?  When the fear does not inspire the courage to stand up for the next person, but instead instills distance and mistrust.  At the site of the tragic World Trade Center attack, 2 skyscrapers, a train station, a museum and a memorial with all the names of the victims of 9/11 and of the 1993 bombing, are now being constructed.  The elaborate plans for the 2 city blocks of hallowed ground will rightly and with utmost dignity honor the memories of the dead, and will include no Islamic center or institution of any particular group.   The Cordoba Islamic Cultural Center, now the center of much controversy, is planned not for Ground Zero, but 2 blocks away, at the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory. 

I do not believe that the opposition to the Cordoba Islamic Cultural Center primarily comes from a respect for hallowed ground; I believe the opposition is rooted in fear of the other.  The argument that many make, that an Islamic Center should not be established near Ground Zero, is not an argument against a mosque on the graves of those who tragically died, it’s an argument about establishing a mosque, period. 

There are those of you who may disagree.  The pain, loss and shock of 9/11 traumatized Americans.  A new face of sheer evil shook us to our core, and challenged much of what we believed to be true and safe.  Such emotional wounds understandably lead to different perspectives on the issues we face today.  I certainly respect the diversity of opinions in this sacred community and I welcome the chance to discuss this with you; I will post this sermon on the RS Blog and invite you to join me, and one another  in the conversation.  For now, I share my perspective.

I believe that much of the hostility about the Cordoba Initiative demonstrates an anxiety that no amount of military intelligence or security could satisfy.  Across the country, the construction or expansion of mosques is routinely met with resistance and Islamic Centers have often been targeted by violence.  The overwhelming majority of Muslims are not terrorists.  As much as politicians in this election season might try to stoke our suspicion, Muslims are not the enemy; terrorism is.  Islam is not the enemy; religious and ethnic intolerance is.  How often when we hear of an extremist threat or of a terrorist attack, do we say that we want to hear the voice of the moderate Muslim.  Here it is.  The Cordoba Islamic Cultural Center can serve as an influential voice for the mainstream Muslim community.

The many, moderate, mainstream Muslim citizens with whom we share this country, are our partners in ensuring and enjoying freedom of religion. The expressed purpose of the Cordoba Initiative– led by the Lower Manhattan Muslim community which has existed there for 25 years and whose members were included among the victims of 9/11—the expressed purpose is to cultivate multi-cultural and multi-faith understanding across minds and borders by working collaboratively to bridge and heal the divide among groups; it seeks to reverse the trend of extremism.  Indeed, the Cordoba Initiative is named for the medieval city in Spain where Jews, Christians, and Muslims for centuries co-existed in tolerance, harmony and cultural enrichment.  This peaceful vision of harmony serves as the inspiration for the work of the Cordoba center. 

The Jewish community knows intimately and tragically well, that suspicion of the other can distort, dehumanize and demonize.  We’ve been there.  And we are not alone.  Many groups in our country—Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese and more– have suffered painful journeys on the path to religious and ethnic pluralism, especially during times of economic distress, as we are experiencing now.  NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff puts the current American alarm into context.  He points out that attitudes against Catholics from the 19th century sounded just like the invective today against the Not-at-Ground-Zero Mosque.  The starting point is fear, an alarm against patriots that newcomers don’t share their values, don’t believe in democracy, and may harm innocent Americans.   Kristoff reminds that “Anti-Asian racism led to the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War 2.  Anti-semitic discourse regularly warned that Jews were plotting to destroy the United States.****  Kristoff’s message, like Jonah’s message, is a warning for today.  Too many times throughout history, fear has driven Americans away from religious pluralism. 

The Jewish community has not been of one voice on the issue of the Cordoba Initiative.  The Anti-Defamation League, a longtime pillar in the effort to combat discrimination, distressed many of us with their statement that they oppose the location of the Cordoba Center because it would be insensitive to the families of victims.  But I believe the more enlightened view is consistent with our Jewish history of building bridges.  Our Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center Director, Rabbi David Saperstein, insists that we protect not only our own religious freedom, but that of our neighbor: “It is incumbent on mainstream religious groups to portray this community center for what it really is: a home for those who seek insight, solace and peace. It is a symbol to the radicals within Islam that they will not be allowed to dictate the policies or values of America.” 

Soon, this Cordoba issue will be old news.  Yet, the issue of fear and intolerance will not end with the question of Ground Zero or with the polarizing election season.  Simply put, this is not a sermon about a mosque and it’s not a sermon about Muslims.  It’s a sermon about you and me

In our Yom Kippur Short Confession, our Ashamnu prayer, when we confess to the sin xenophobia, fear of the other, we should understand that to fear is to be human.  The question today is: what will we do with that fear?   Will we be like Jonah—a man who thinks that someone else’s problem is not his own?  Or will we respond with the words of Shema, of oneness, and perceive fear as shared vulnerability, empathy, understanding? 

Just imagine, if on his escape on the ship or in the fish, Jonah had looked at the waves around him and understood. They are not waves, they are water.  Imagine if he could re-write the book, Jonah looking into the eyes of the people of Nineveh, proclaiming, Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad, Hear O Israel the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.  God is One.  We are one.

On this Day of Atonement, we shine a light into the darkest corners of ourselves.  As we uncover our vulnerabilities: May Jonah’s closed heart open our hearts; May his distance remind us to draw near to others.  Today, may we be witness to the oneness of our world, ready to say, we’re not waves, we’re water.  Amen.


*“A Yom Kippur Carol,” sermon by Rabbi Ed Feinstein

** ibid.

*** “Civility: Be Not Easy to Anger,” sermon by Rabbi Richard Plavin

****NY Times Sep. 5, 2010 “America’s History of Fear” column by Nicholas Kristof