By Rabbi Jonathan Biatch
As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I think about a question, relevant to our times, that we can find in the book of Jonah, which many of us will read together on Yom Kippur.
Jonah, a most reluctant prophet, is commanded by God to prophesy against the sins of the people of Nineveh. As the story goes, a storm throws him off the ship on which he travels, and he is subsequently swallowed whole by a “big fish.” His troubles – he reasons – must be worth it: the Ninevites need to repent their enormous sinfulness, and he is just the prophet to make this happen.
When he arrives, journey-worn and smelling like the inside of a whale, he finds that the Ninevites repent the instant he prophesizes against them. Even the ruler of the kingdom is so moved by Jonah’s brief reprimand that he commands the citizens to put on sackcloth and ashes, and ‘repent before it’s too late.’
Jonah complains to God in anger. “You knew they would repent easily. Why did you send me here through the storm, the shipwreck, and the insides of the whale – this whole, tortuous journey – only to make it so easy? Why didn’t you just send a second-stringer? I have more important things to do!”
God chides Jonah. “Jonah, is anger a better emotion for you than anything else? Can’t you be happy that they followed your advice?”
I think about the question of holding on to anger, especially in relation to what we experience in, and considering the condition of, the world today. The horrific events that happen in our world can produce anger, hurt, disappointment, and dismay. And anger is a natural response. But is it better for us to carry around and dwell upon all this anger, or can we turn our anger into something more productive?
On these High Holy Days, God helps us to see our human capacity to break through the frustrations and to break down the anger, and rather to bring forth joy and optimism despite our setbacks. In this new year, let us strive to turn our sorrows into celebrations, and search for positive reasons and ways to heal our world.
Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, DD, MAHL earned a BA from California State University, Northridge, in radio-television broadcast management and then participated in a Jewish students’ institute and worked as a television production assistant in Israel. He earned a master’s degree in Jewish communal service from Brandeis University and worked for seven years at Jewish Federations in Buffalo, St. Louis, and Houston. He then entered the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, receiving his master’s degree in Hebrew letters in 1991 and rabbinic ordination in 1992. Rabbi Biatch served pulpits in Staunton, Harrisonburg, and Alexandria, Virginia, and in Glendale, California, before joining Temple Beth El in 2005.