The Universal Message of Yom Kippur

“You are gracious and compassionate to all Your handiwork.” (Yom Kippur Prayer – Repetition of the Musaf)


Dear Friends,


On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we engage in the process of “teshuvah - spiritual return. During this process, we regret and confess our various sins and weaknesses. We are not to despair, however, about our erring past, for teshuvah leads to atonement and new life. For example, during the era of the Prophet Ezekiel, when our people faced great danger, many cried out, “Since our sins and our iniquities are upon us and we are wasting away because of them, how can we live?” (Ezekiel 33:10). In response to this lament, the Prophet proclaimed the following message of the Living One:


“As I live - spoke the Master of All, the Compassionate and Just One - I do not desire the death of the wicked person, but rather the wicked person’s return from his way that he may live; return, return from your evil ways  - Why should you die, O Family of Israel?” (33:11)


The above verse expresses a life-giving message of hope, and it is chanted during the concluding service of Yom Kippur. Is this message of hope only relevant to the Family of Israel? The answer can be found in the Book of Jonah which we chant during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur. This book tells the story of how the Compassionate One sent the Prophet Jonah on a mission to the city of Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, which was guilty of a number of sins, especially theft. Jonah was told to give them a warning which would prompt them to do teshuvah. The story begins with the following passage:


“And the word of the Compassionate One came to Jonah son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise! Go to Nineveh, the great city, and call out against her, for their wickedness has ascended before Me.’ But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from before the Compassionate One.” (Jonah 1:1-3)


Why did this prophet of Israel want to flee from his mission to Nineveh?  The classical biblical commentators, Rashi and the Radak, cite the following explanation of our sages: Jonah sensed that the Gentiles were “close to doing teshuvah.” He was therefore afraid that his mission would succeed, and the people of Nineveh would indeed change their ways. If so, it would point an accusing finger at his own people, who failed to heed the call of their prophets to do teshuvah. Jonah therefore wanted to avoid a mission which could evoke Divine judgement against Israel.


Jonah’s love and concern for Israel caused him to flee from his mission. The Book of Jonah describes the unique way in which the Compassionate One caused Jonah to return to his mission; however, that part of the story is a topic for another discussion.


When Jonah finally arrived in Nineveh, he proclaimed the following Divine message: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned” (3:4). The Book of Jonah describes how the people and their king believed the warning; thus, they donned sackcloth and fasted. The king also proclaimed: “Everyone shall turn back from his evil way, and from the robbery that is in their hands” (3:8). Their teshuvah was accepted because they changed their behavior, as it states:


“And the Just One saw their deeds, that they returned from their evil way; and the Just One relented concerning the evil He had said He would bring upon them, and did not do it.” (3:10)


What was Jonah’s reaction to their teshuvah and the Divine forgiveness which resulted? It states:


“And it displeased Jonah greatly and angered him. He prayed to the Compassionate One and said, ‘Please O Compassionate One, was this not my contention when I was still on my own soil? Because of this I had hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abundant in lovingkindness, and relent from doing harm. So now, O Compassionate One, please take my soul from me, for better is my death than my life” (4:1-3).


Jonah was in anguish, for he felt that Israel would now be condemned for not doing teshuvah; thus, he prayed that he would not live to see the destruction that was awaiting Israel. (Commentaries of the Radak and Ibn Ezra)


Jonah left the city and sat down to watch what would happen. The Book of Jonah then describes how the Creator of all life taught Jonah a universal lesson:


“The Compassionate and Just One designated a kikayon (a leafy shady plant), which rose above Jonah to form a shade over his head, to relieve him from his discomfort. Jonah rejoiced over the kikayon, a great joy. Then the Just One designated a worm at the dawn of the next day, and it attacked the kikayon so that it withered. And it was when the sun shone that the Just One designated a stifling east wind; the sun beat upon Jonah’s head and he felt faint. He asked for his soul’s death, and said, ‘Better is my death than my life!’ And the Just One said to Jonah, ‘Are you so deeply grieved over the kikayon?’ And he said, ‘I am greatly grieved to death.’

The Compassionate One said, ‘You took pity on the kikayon for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow; it lived one night and perished after one night. And I – shall I not take pity upon Nineveh the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals, as well?’ ” (4:6-11).


Jonah, grieving over Israel and over his own misery, had prayed for death. The Compassionate One responded with a message of life! Jonah was reminded that the Divine compassion gives human beings the opportunity to renew life through the power of teshuvah. How did Jonah react to this message?  Midrash Yalkut Shimoni states:


“At that moment, he (Jonah) fell upon his face and said, ‘Conduct Your world according to the Attribute of Compassion.’ ”


In this spirit, the Radak explains that one of the reasons why the Book of Jonah was incorporated in our Sacred Scriptures is to teach us the following truth:


“The Blessed God has compassion on people from any nationality who do teshuvah; moreover, He forgives them.”


Yes, Jonah was concerned about the fate of Israel, but he needed to be reminded that Israel’s fate is connected to Israel’s mission. And the goal of this mission is expressed in the following words from a Yom Kippur prayer: “May all creatures bow before You and may they develop a unified society to do Your will wholeheartedly”(Shemoneh Esrei).


Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah that the fate of all human beings during the coming year is sealed on Yom Kippur (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:3). May the Forgiving One therefore seal all of us in the “Book of Life.”


May we be blessed with a Good Shabbos and a “Gmar Chasimah Tovah” – a Good Sealing!

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. We begin the observance of Yom Kippur shortly before sundown on Sunday, Oct. 1st. The Shabbos before Yom Kippur is known as “Shabbos Shuvah” – the Shabbos of Return. One of the reasons for the name of this Shabbos is because the portion from the Prophets that we chant on this Shabbos opens with the following message: “Return O Israel to the Compassionate One, your God” (Hosea 14:2).


2. During the Ten Days of Teshuvah – from Rosh Hashana until the end of Yom Kippur – the following verse is added to the daily Shemoneh Esrei prayer: “Who is like You, O Father of compassion, Who in compassion remembers His creatures for life.”


3. Any human being can get close to the Compassionate One, as it is written: “The Compassionate One is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely” (Psalm 145:18). The Radak explains that the words “all who call upon Him” apply to any human being regardless of nationality.  Any human being can therefore pray directly to the Compassionate One and engage in teshuvah without the need of an intermediary. There will be a universal teshuvah in the messianic age, as it is written: “All the ends of the earth will remember and return to the Compassionate One” (Psalm 22:28). In his commentary on the words “will remember,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:


“Defection from God was never an inborn trait with individuals or with humankind as a whole. The unspoiled hearts of children are close to God, and the same was true of humankind in its pristine state. Alienation from Him came much later. Therefore, through the stimulus emanating from Israel, they will all ‘remember’; their original consciousness of God will come alive again, and they will ‘return’ to Him.” (The Psalms - Translation and Commentary By Rabbi S.R. Hirsch)

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