"There was a ship, quoth he," and the congregation sits up and takes notice. The Ancient Mariner could stop any wedding guest dead in his tracks with that opening. And the rabbi has the advantage of telling the original tale, "Jonah and the Whale", as the assigned prophetic reading of the liturgy. To this day, a sailor killing the albatross or suspected of bringing ill luck to the ship is called a Jonah. In the biblical story, Jonah flees from God; this causes the storm which abates once he is thrown overboard. A big fish swallows him - and the story as well. To this day, fundamentalists will try to prove that whales frequented the Mediterranean; but that really wasn't the point of the narration. A fish story may also keep the congregation awake, but the story of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur to show that repentance really works.
Jonah is the Savonarola of his day. He visits Nineveh, that evil city, and informs it that it will be destroyed in three days. Then he climbs a hill for a bird's eye view. But the people repent; the city is not destroyed. The prophet is mortified. What is the sense of proclaiming "Repent! The end is nigh!" when the end does not come? Hard-line prophets are more concerned with punishment and destruction than with a last-minute reprieve from on high. Yet a careful reading of the Bible shows a fine balance between condemnation and consolation in the prophetic texts. A righteous remnant will always remain, and apocalypse is beyond the horizon, preached only by the very few.
No one can deny the "sin couching at the door" of our society: Nineveh can be visited in any continent at any time, and child abuse, slavery, and the cold exploitation of human beings is the order of the day. The liturgy of Yom Kippur demands an alphabetic confession of sins, reminding worshippers of communal responsibilities: in any city, whether it is London or Bangkok, human beings die of hunger, neglect, and lack of shelter on any day. And we are guilty. But the prayer book is devoid of threats promising hell-fire and brimstone, eternal punishment for the sinner. The albatross is not hung around the neck of the sinner who is excluded from converse with the righteous. Everyone is responsible; but it is not the function of the rabbi to send all worshippers on a terminal guilt trip. The call of the pulpit is for righteous action, for caring and for compassion.
During this period, the rabbi combines the function of prophet, priest and pastor. Few of us can carry that heavy burden. We still mourn the untimely death of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, whose prophetic style was that of Jeremiah but never of Jonah. He never condemned, even when he was fierce in his battle against injustice. He reached out with love to everyone he encountered, and did not set himself up as judge and jury when he wandered through the moral mazes of our time. Where Jonah wanted to see blood, Hugo was ready to give it - and every aspect of his being - to those who needed help. On the Day of Atonement, his favourite text came from the liturgy: "Prayer, penitence, and charitable actions avert the evil decree."
Hugo had survived Auschwitz, but still believed in the basic goodness of humanity. He also enjoyed laughter as a healing balm, and often preached on the Book of Jonah. The last line of the book explains why God forgives Nineveh and its huge population "who can't distinguish between their right hand and their left; also, there is much cattle". As Hugo saw it, that last line also involved all household pets: dogs, cats, parrots, goldfish! The children loved this; and the prophetic text once again became a fish story.
It also returned Yom Kippur to the family who have to live with the reality of sins and omissions within the home. They do not expect forgiveness from the pulpit, but hope for new chances to make amends in daily life.