It was my grandmother who asked me, “Why do rabbis always talk about Jonah on Yom Kippur? Can’t they think of some other subject?” This year, I can’t help but think that my grandmother’s question will eerily parallel that asked by so many sitting in the sanctuaries of our Reform synagogues: Why is my rabbi always talking about racism? Can’t rabbis think of some other subject?
Jonah is ineluctable: he waits for us in the recesses of our afternoon liturgy, hiding in the plain sight of our assigned haftarah. We could no more escape talking about the reluctant prophet than could the selfsame prophet escape the Divine command to go to Nineveh. It makes no difference how majestic are our High Holy Day sermons, how compelling or complex are the main messages we fashion over months, how emotionally exhausted and spiritually spent we might be by minchah: we must confront the Son of Ammitai before the Gates of Repentance close. Weeping may tarry for the night, and joy arrive in the morning, but Jonah is always awaiting us in the afternoon.
Racism is as unavoidable in America as is Jonah in our High Holy Day experience. Hammering headlines assault us with brutal facts: the police killings of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa; a presidential candidate advocating nationwide adoption of stop-and-frisk tactics; the unabated gun violence in my city of Chicago. No engaged citizen can avoid the American truth that we do not live in a society of equal justice for all: the only way to continue the pretense of living in a colorblind culture is to bury one’s head in the sand. The lingering legacy of centuries of institutionalized injustice and systematic prejudice is laid bare before us each day in every news outlet in any city or suburb where we make our homes. No one with eyes open can avoid confronting America’s racial injustices.
Unfortunately, many rabbis think we can—or maybe should—avoid speaking of the plague of racism this High Holy Day season. We reason that the more we speak of a single subject, the less congregants are likely to listen. For those of us who addressed these issues last year, we fear being labeled a ‘one trick pony’, or accused of speaking to social issues at the expense of tending to our flock. Since racial justice—unlike Jonah—isn’t waiting for us in our fixed liturgy, we imagine we might be able to avoid this difficult subject. That Jews of Color are still the minority in our own houses of worship allows us to feel as if this is not really “our issue”, and we would be better served leaving it to others. The tragedy of the worldwide refugee situation, the uncivility of our presidential election, and the many issues connected to Israel provide us with a panoply of other topics about which to talk. Each and every one of us could make it through Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur without ever facing the difficulties attached to speaking about race.
Jonah, too, thinks he can avoid all difficulty. He runs from his Divine charge, and amidst a tempest salts himself away in slumber. The storm raged outside: everyone felt its wrath, but Jonah chose to ignore it. But burying himself below deck cannot last: How can you sleep! Our captain, our tradition, challenge Jonah: How can you sleep? Rashi takes these words to chastise, “This is no time for sleep!” Isaac Abarbanel deepens the astonishment at the blind eye Jonah turns to the raging sea, “Do you not understand the difficulty of this moment, and sense the great danger we all face?” The book that bears Jonah’s name summons Jonah to pay attention, to address the turbulent seas on which he sails. The haftarah we read in the tiring hours of Yom Kippur afternoon reminds us we cannot sleep soundly in our cabins and ignore the raging storms of society.
The message of Jonah is that we all need to be awakened. Or, as some might say today, we all need to be woke. This is a true for exhausted clergy in the twentieth hour of the fast as it is for a congregation worn out with continuing reminders of our responsibility to counter the raging storm of racism in America. As much as we are coerced to confront this challenging issue, let us take our direction in so doing from the story of our sailors. They move from asking Jonah, “What have you done?” to looking for concrete solutions: what can we do? This year, amid the tempestuous season of protests and outrage, may we be moved from delineating the origins of our situation to outlining solutions to end structural racism in America. May we continue to do so with the great partners of our Reform Movement, and may we continue to build relationships with partners across the lines of faith, class and color until the seas around us subside. May we, whether weary in our pulpits or in our pews, remain awake and attentive to racial injustice. May we, in moving from examination and understanding to solidarity and solutions, play our part in bringing calm to America’s shores.
Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation. He is also the Chair of the CCAR Justice, Peace & Civil Liberties Committee.