Edgar Cahn: My sermon on Jonah

The Jonah passage is a story about the education of Jonah. Jonah received a three part crash course in ethics in the belly of the whale. He had to learn (1) there is an obligation to speak out and to act when you have knowledge of potential disaster. (2) that you can’t run from that ethical obligation and (3) Being righteous is not enough. An ethical code requires more than punishment for wrongdoing. Compassion is also obligatory. Righteousness without compassion is not righteous.

We have all just read the passage of Jonah. So I can’t surprise you with the ending. You may think you have heard the ending. But you don’t know the ending because the story did not end.

Today we are each Jonah. And we will spend four years in the belly of the whale, the Trump whale, the whale of the Trump administration. Before we are (to quote the Bible)“vomited out on dry land”, we need to learn what Jonah learned. And because Jonah needed to hear those admonitions more than once, you will hear me repeat them.

Proposition I. We have a non-negotiable obligation to speak out, to confront evil in all its forms: injustice and malevolence. That is both the burden and legacy of Yom Kippur.

Proposition II. Refusing God’s mandate by doing nothing (which was Jonah’s initial response to God’s mandate) is not acceptable. There are consequences to non-compliance, to inaction. On Yom Kippur we specifically ask “forgiveness for ignoring the problems in our society.” We may feel weary. There are so many causes. All of us may be feeling a kind of Ethical Fatigue. But surrendering to that Ethical Fatigue is a sin.

Proposition III. If we try to run from that obligation, we will have to spend some time in the belly of the whale to go through the transformation needed. Stop doing evil is only step one. What about step two? What transformation does it take to do good? That’s where compassion comes in, compassion in action.

That three part lesson from Jonah is our Yom Kippur birthright. Let’s examine these one at a time.

First, the obligation: Go to Nineveh. What does that mean? Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It is situated in the heart of enemy territory known for violence, terror, torture and killing conquered peoples. At the very least, go to Nineveh means reaching out beyond any comfort zone, reaching out to a rival and threatening power, to other peoples, beyond ones own community, ethnic group or nation.

Go to Nineveh also required speaking out. For us it should mean taking a stand on evil– on growing inequality, on seemingly intractable poverty, on hunger that we have the power and resources to eliminate, on racism, on intolerance and all the other “isms” that we must confront.

Fulfilling that obligation takes believing that significant change is possible. Nineveh actually changed. The change spanned “from the greatest to the smallest.” Nineveh was a “great city in God’s sight. “ It took three days to walk across it.” Jonah did not have social media; we do.

The obligation comes with deadlines. To delay is to default. Nineveh had only forty days to change. As of today, September 19, we have only forty eight days before mid-term elections.

Finally, there are no guarantees. The king of Nineveh, in mandating changes noted: “Who knows whether God will turn back and relent, turning from His wrath, so that we shall not perish?” Consider global warming. Consider pandemics. Consider democracy’s vulnerability to the hacking of our voting systems. There are no guarantees.

Second, we can’t run from that obligation. Jonah found that fleeing to Tarshish did not work. On the ship, Jonah told the sailors they had no choice but to throw him overboard. And from the belly of the whale, Jonah prayed and made an offering that he vowed to complete. The Trump administration is our whale. We are imprisoned in the belly of the Trump whale. Do we accept being disempowered to stop our nation’s retreat from human rights? Do we accept the undermining of alliances seeking to preserve world peace. Do we remain silent as doorways to nuclear proliferation are opened? Do we mobilize to prevent withdrawal from international networks needed to stop global warming and preserve planetary sustainability?

We are destined to spend four years in the belly of the Trump administration. Jonah learned “not to heed the vaporous falsehood of idols.” Will we learn what Jonah learned? Moral abdication is not an option.

Third, Jonah had to learn that righteousness is not righteousness without compassion. Jonah was angry that God had renounced the punishment planned for Nineveh. Jonah needed to learn about compassion. To teach that lesson, Adonai designated a gourd to provide shade and then appointed a worm to destroy it. Jonah said he was angry enough to die. And Adonai responded: “You had compassion for the gourd, which you did not work to raise; one night it was there, the next it was gone. Should I not have compassion upon the great city Nineveh, with 120,000 people who don’t know right from left, not to mention all the cattle?”

Jonah had to learn the need for compassion. As a nation, we do too. Compassion is not passive. It takes activism. What about compassion for the children who have been separated from their parents. What about compassion for the families seeking asylum who “did not know right from left” in our politics. What about compassion for the cattle who symbolize the animal life deprived of habitat by fires, floods, earthquakes, and global warming that threaten the capacity of this planet to sustain life? What about compassion to preserve plant and animal biodiversity as species go extinct?

What transformation on the grassroots level can be generated during the remaining years of our journey in the belly of the Trump whale? The Kahila Makhzor declares: The first sin for which we ask forgiveness is “for the wrong we did by hardening our hearts.” We must ask forgiveness for the sin of giving up, for trying to stop feeling, for becoming numb because we are on overload. We must not shut down our capacity to feel, to empathize. We must remember: Every day of a person’s life is a Day of Atonement.”

I submit that the transformation needed is nothing less than an engaged, sustainable continuing partnership between the world of money and the world of non-money, between the world of market and the world of family, of community, of congregations, of social networks, of civic society.

In the latest issue of Tikkun, I have contended that we needed another medium of exchange, a currency that could reward activity that money did not reward and that valued people the market did not value. Money can’t get us where we need to be because money defines value by price. It something is scarce, price is high. If it is more abundant, price goes down. If it is widely available, it is dirt cheap or worthless. But that means being a human being is worthless because we are not scarce. And that mean that our monetary system devalues every universal capacity that enabled our species to survive and evolve: our ability to listen to each other, to care for each other, to come to each other’s rescue, to stand up for what’s right, to object to what is wrong.

That is why, years ago, I created a medium of exchange based on time. As a currency, time credits are used by TimeBanks to value two things: time spent on types of engagement and contribution that the market does not value, and people whose time the market does not value: women, the elderly, teenagers, families, grandparents, the undocumented, the invisible and those whose labor we take for granted.

TimeBanking uses time as the ultimate measure of value. Each hour given is priceless. To give time is to give our slice of eternity. TimeBanking has generated and continues to generate thousands upon thousands of hours. Priceless. TimeBanking is compassion in action.

We now have decades of documentation of TimeBanking utilizing time as our measure of value. TimeBanking has now spread to thirty eight countries where it is used in creative ways to renew a sense of community and enlist the community as partners in advancing social initiatives. In New York City, the Arch Diocese of New York has embraced TimeBanking as an integral part of its health care delivery system. Over two thousand subscribers have generated more than 58,000 hours of mutual support.

No Jewish congregation has chosen to use TimeBanking. But I should acknowledge that the person heading the Archcare TimeBank is Mashi Blech. Mashi is Jewish; she started her work with timebanking in Brooklyn over 30 years ago. But I would like to see this congregation be the first to use Timebanking.

Abraham Heschel observed that “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time…..There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” (ix) So I invite you in the coming months to explore with me its potential here in DC to counter the hardening of the heart.

There are many ways to advance these values. Our own Kehila Chaddasha practices a kind of timebanking through a system of informal exchange, giving and receiving. Regardless of whether we in this congregation choose to use Time Banking as one of many possible ways to manifest compassion and advance social justice, on this Yom Kippur we must all undertake the work of tikkun olum – healing the world.

Life, lived ethically, is not a spectator sport. Let us make this a special year so that in the future, historians will say: 5779 was a turning point -- for our nation and for the world.

L’Shonah Tovah.
Edgar Cahn