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
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
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
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
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
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.