Yom Kippur: In the belly of a fish



To wipe the slate clean of transgressions, Jews fast on Yom Kippur, like this Saturday, and, beating ourselves softly on the chest, incessantly recite the Vidui, the liturgy of confession: “Chatati, Aviti, Pashati.” (I have sinned, I have acted wrongly, I have transgressed) Sins must be expiated!

On a personal level, I always try to use a little chalk during the year and wipe the slate daily. This way, I need not wait the entire year until the last day, when the gates of prayer are about to close in heaven, to ask God to accept my sincere repentance.

I have learned to amend my wrongdoings at the moment I detect them and, because I believe in a nonpunishing God, I am convinced that He will inscribe my name on the Book of Life. Just the same, I will fast, go to synagogue and recite the Vidui, because a last-minute push is useful and hopeful.

One of the most enthralling readings with which I identify (and who doesn’t?) comes during the afternoon Mincha service, when my stomach rumbles loudest because some 20 hours have gone by without food or water. During the reading of the biblical Book of Jonah, however, hunger suddenly disappears as I imagine that I am in the foul-smelling entrails of a gigantic fish that has just swallowed me.

That was the fate of the Hebrew prophet who received the divine mission to urge the people in the pagan city of Nineveh to repent, and fled from the presence of God by sailing toward Tarshish.

During the voyage, God unleashes a heavy storm. The sailors plead to their own gods and jettison the ship’s cargo to lighten the load. Then they cast lots to find out who caused the storm and the lot falls on Jonah, who then confesses to them his rebellion against God. After they throw him overboard, the angry sea calms down and Jonah ends up in the belly of a great fish.

His narrative contains a message that is pertinent to repentance and prayer, precisely the essence of the Day of Atonement in the Hebrew calendar. During the three days and three nights that Jonah remains inside the fish, he prays to God and vows that “I shall again look upon thy holy temple.” God then orders the fish to vomit Jonah onto the dry land.

Although the public readings in synagogues are done in ancient Hebrew, some liturgical books (machzor) for Yom Kippur contain translations into modern languages. In the translation of the machzor of the reform movement, the largest branch in the United States, Jonah’s prayer in captivity is omitted and replaced by ellipses.

“It’s as if the editors told you, ‘Jonah’s prayer was good for Jonah but not good for you, because you have to create your own prayer,’ ” explains Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz. “Each one of us has a different purpose in life. What you need is the clarity of that purpose.”

That unwritten prayer can be in any language or in no language at all. It can be framed by the concepts of any religion or dogma, or by no religion or dogma at all. It’s useful for those who believe in the God of the patriarch of monotheism, Abraham, in his various manifestations, as well as polytheists and atheists.

Despite their shortcomings, our Biblical heroes are archetypes of the universal challenges that rise before us in every era, because they also strive to overcome their flaws and therefore are able to move toward meaningful goals.

Jonah reflects a person’s internal struggle to materialize his divine mission and solve the dilemma posed by understanding the will of God. Sometimes we sail in the opposite direction, toward Tarshish. Eventually, we regret that decision, if the GPS of our conscience warns us, and we turn to the Creator for help so He may illuminate the darkness of doubt and despair, enabling us to return to Nineveh.

The return, according to rabbinical Judaism, is the concept of Teshuvah, the opportunity we have to redirect our lives, every day, regardless of where we are — even in the belly of a fish.

If prayer and repentance could make a sea animal deposit Jonah on dry land and return him to life, we can overcome any adversity with the same spiritual tools.

In this New Year 5,774, I’m eager to give up control to allow “The Great GPS” to guide me, and pray that the year ahead will be filled with meaning, purpose and direction for all of mankind.

Daniel Shoer Roth, El Nuevo Herald Metro columnist, writes a monthly column about spirituality and values.

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