Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Monday, October 20, 2014

Yom Kippur Sermon 5775 - Creative Midrash

Jonah: The Prequel
I was born a cursed man. I'm not famous. Not yet, at least. But soon, everyone is going to know my name: Jonah. Some people would eventually call me a prophet, but I never liked that term. It's always implied something special or good about me and I don't think I'm a particularly good person. No, I prefer the name Jonah. In Hebrew it means “dove” which I guess makes sense. I was always taking flight, ever since I could remember. Even as a baby, I was quick to walk, preferring not to crawl but to learn how to move as fast as I could, jetting from point A to point B, just to see how fast I could get there. Adults called me curious, but looking back I know it was a combination of mischief and movement that would shape my life. Curiosity is just a nice word for it. Later on, my speed and desire to flee served me well. I'd get into trouble and leave, just like that. I was always running, from my family, from my troubles, maybe even trying to run from myself. And for most of my early life, I was pretty good at flying away. Until it all eventually caught up with me. I couldn't run any longer – I had to face everything about who I was, what I knew, and what my job would eventually be. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. I don't want to tell you about how I got famous and what I did and that giant awful fish. Not really. I want to tell you about who I am and where it all began.
Even if I wasn't a great person, there was something undeniably different about me. Perhaps it's why I was always trying to escape, to leave, to get away from it all. Because I could never really figure out how to get away...from that voice. I always heard it. I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't hear that voice, speaking to me, like everyone else was speaking to me. But I remember the first time that I really became aware of it, and knew that I was different.
I was about 7 years old and my cousin and I were playing in the great big waters. Usually we just went down there to bathe but it was a particularly hot summer day. I never really liked being in the water, but I liked that it could move me faster than I could move on my own. So, I learned how to swim and let it move me along. I loved the feel of the reeds against my skin as I moved fast, darting in and out like the schools of fish we could see in the crystal clear depths. My cousin and I were playing a game to see how long we could stay underwater before we needed to get to the top and find some air. He was pretty good, but I knew that I could be better. So I took a deep breath, held my nose, and plunged underwater. As I sank lower and lower into the cool wetness, I knew I was going to win. I was just about ready to come up for air when I realized that I couldn't move my foot. It was trapped. It was as though something had a hold on it. It didn't hurt but I couldn't moved it and I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was running out of air. I panicked. I flailed my arms as fast as could be and heaved my body back and forth, trying to free myself from whatever was holding me down. And that's when I heard it. That voice. It wasn't unfamiliar to me. Like I said, I had always heard it, but I'd never really been aware of it. It was like background noise, most of the time. But suddenly my mind was razor sharp and focused on the only sound I could hear. “Relax....” it said. “Breathe....” I panicked all over again. Where was that voice coming from? There was no one down there with me, in the depths of those waters. But it came again, as clear as could be. “Relax...” I felt the voice wash over me and for the first time, I really listened to it. I stopped moving my arms and my legs and I let my whole little body relax. My foot must have been hooked on something because the second I let my body go limp, my foot released from its trap and I floated to the surface. It wasn't until I was above water, sputtering out liquid from my nose and mouth, that I realized what had happened. A voice, that was not me and not anyone else, had told me what to do. It had saved me. And I was terrified. What was this voice? Where did it come from? Why did I hear it all the time, now? What was happening to me? Why couldn't anyone else hear this voice, like I did? I didn't understand it. I knew I was cursed. So, I left.
I left my family early on, when I was still a boy, and not quite yet a man. . I left my family because they didn't understand me. They didn't feel my need to get away, all the time, to try new things and to have fun. I never liked being told what to do, from them or from anyone. They certainly didn't understand that voice I had once tried to explain to them. They just thought I was a freak. So, I left. Who needs them, anyway?
I didn't like the water, but I realized that the great big waters were a means to an end. There were a lot of people there traveling in and out, trying to sell things, trying to make a living. I found like-minded people who dwelled along the great big waters. They were always traveling back and forth, here and there, seeking what they wanted, meeting new people, doing as they pleased. I gravitated towards that lifestyle. That sense of freedom, of independence, of carefree days. I wanted that. I craved that. They weren't the best of people. In fact, they often lied, cheated, and stole to get what they needed. But, I didn't mind that. It kept me on my toes, always trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else. I didn't judge them or care what they did, as long as they didn't hurt me and stop me from making money. As long as I could run free and move when I wanted and where I wanted, I was happy.
Soon after I left my family, I met an old man, named Amittai, who took me in. Like me, he understood the need to be free and to keep moving. He always made sure I had shelter and food. He taught me how to do business, too. He trained me to know how to sell and trade and barter for what we needed, in exchange for what other people wanted. We had fun, too. He loved hearing my stories from home and didn't seem to mind when I told him about that voice. In fact, he quite liked it – it often helped me understand people that we did business with and figure out what to do when we were in trouble. It was a good partnership, between me and Amittai – he had knowledge and experience, and I was young and had energy and....intuition. But it was more than that, what we had. He really was like a father to me. He looked after me and understood me and treated me like I was worthy of his time. In many ways, he was the only family that I ever had, even if it was of our own making. For the first time, I WAS happy...that is, until I was cursed, again.
We had been in a new city for about 2 moons. Ami had gotten comfortable with the local traders and merchants and sailors. And they were getting to know us, too. Until one night, things took a wrong turn. I was fast asleep, my back sore from carrying heavy loads all day, when suddenly I was being shaken awake. “Get up, Jonah.” Ami said. He looked serious but calm. “We have to make a deal, tonight.” “Right now?” I said. His eyes told me the answer. So I dragged myself up, threw on my clothes, and followed my friend out to the great big waters. I trusted Ami, and I didn't want to tell him that the voice was urging me not to go. I felt the voice envelop me like the thick fog that was piercing the cool night air. But, like I often did when I thought I knew better, I ignored it, shrugged it off my shoulders like an old blanket and followed after my friend. “Stay here” Ami told me. “Like all the guys we deal with, these guys are a little tough. But they're offering me a good deal for our stuff. I don't think they're dangerous, but I just want you to be safe. Watch and learn how to deal with these kind of guys.” I nodded, listening to my old friend, my business partner, my mentor, and crouched into a small space in a stone wall, so I could see him, but stay of sight. I watched him walk away, down towards the waters. As he left, I longed to go after him, to stop him, to bring him back. But, I didn't. I just stayed very still and kept my eyes open.
Three men approached Ami, down by the waters. I couldn't see their faces, only the outline of their bodies. One was short and wide and the other two were taller. Ami immediately produced our goods for the buyers to see. It only took a few seconds for what happened next. One of the tall men grabbed Ami while the others struck him. I couldn’t move. I was afraid. All I could hear was that voice saying, “Stay here. Stay safe. Stay here.” I watched Ami fall into the waters, as I was paralyzed by fear for my best friend. It was the first time in my life I couldn't move, as desperately as I wanted to. The three men took our goods and left. I rushed over to Ami and dragged him out of the waters onto the shore, but I knew it was too late for him. I held my friend as he left this world and I sobbed over him. “Why?” I cried out. “Why did I listen to that voice and stay?” I could have helped him. I could have stopped them. I could have done something. But, instead, I had nothing. All of our goods were gone, and I was alone – having lost the only person in the world who ever felt like my family. I shut the voice off and every time I heard it, I ignored it. It was just too painful. It wasn't just that I was cursed, it was that everything I touched, everyone I knew, they were cursed, too.
So, I moved along. As the years rolled by, I learned how to fend for myself, how to trade goods on my own, and how to survive. Ami had taught me well and my business was enough for me to live off of, and have a little extra too. I never forgot Ami, what he taught me, or what happened, but I was starting to feel good again – running my own life the way that I liked. People were starting to know me for me and knew they could trust me to do business with them. I felt like, with my loss of Ami, that I had seen the worst the world could offer. I knew pain and suffering. I was finally on the road to happiness and freedom. Until one day, I got cursed all over again. It was the most common way any person can be cursed. Maybe you've heard of it: The total and complete agony of LOVE.
I'll never forget that day that I first met her. It's as crystal clear in my memory, as if it happened yesterday. I was trading with the sailors on the shore of the great big waters when I looked up and there she was. Long, curly black flowing hair, beautiful smooth skin, and a confidence about her I cannot explain. My heart was beating fast and my mouth was suddenly dry. “I'm Jonah, son of Amittai,” I said. I was surprised that my throat could actually pull words from it. “I'm Neera,” she replied warmly, smiling at me with her eyes. My heart fluttered and I felt light-headed. But her warm eyes and her sweet smile steadied me. “I work with my father, over there, to help our family business.” I barely glanced over at the man she was pointing to, captivated by every motion she was making and every breath she took. “Oh” I said. STUPID. What kind of a line is that? But she just smiled at me, waved, and turned to leave. “I hope I'll see you around, for a while,” she said as she turned and ran towards her father. I exhaled. Yes, you certainly will see me around.
Over the next several moons, I saw Neera every single day. I learned about her life and tried to understand who she really was. Her mother had died giving birth to her and her brothers were out on the seas, fishing for their family business. So, that left her on shore to work with her father and sell and trade their goods and fare. She was very close with her father and loved him very much. So, I did what any love-struck man does, and I helped them out, showing up every day to work with them. Lucky for me, her father seemed to take a liking to me, as well. He often invited me to join them for evening bread. Neera and her family were Hebrews, worshiping one God, whom they considered to be the Source of everything – good, bad, and even all the things we can't explain. I had never really given much thought to it all, before, but the more I learned about it from them, the more it made sense. God doesn't exist in things, in small little statues or pictures that we make, but rather in what is made around us, in what already exists, in moments and experiences. God was the one who made the waters and the land and everything in it. I liked it. It fit what I had always thought, but never really understood. “I am a Hebrew too,” I announced one day to Neera and her father. “I believe in one God, both wrathful and loving.” They looked up at me, pleased, and quietly returned to their work. I saw Neera look back up at me, and give a quick wink and a smile. I felt triumphant. I felt as though things finally felt right. Being with Neera was easy – she was warm and kind and taught me about her land and I told her stories of my world and who I was. Every day with her was new and interesting and I could feel myself growing, actually changing, because of someone else. It both excited me and terrified me, beyond belief.
After one full turn of the sun, I realized that I had to leave. My business was slowing down, I could no longer support myself and I knew it was time for me to keep moving, to find new sellers to trade with. My business, and my life, thrived when I was on the move. I had been running my whole life, but this time, I wanted someone to run with me. “Come with me, Neera,” I urged. “Your father can come too. I love you both and it's time for me to move on....but, I want you to move with me. Will you be my wife?” Neera looked at me as though I had asked her to transform into a giant big fish. “I can't,” she said. “My life is here. My home is here. My brothers will return to us from the seas and if we're not here, how would they find us? I love you, Jonah, but I can't go with you. Why can't you just stay here, with us? We love having you.” The tears welled up in my eyes, but I blinked them away. “I thought you understood me. I thought you knew who I was, after all this time. I can never stay. There is too much to see and do and run towards.” And then, I heard that voice, the one I shut away for so many years, and it spoke through me. “It's my destiny to go. It's my future to leave here. I just don't want to leave you....” “I can't,” she repeated. And her shoulders began to heave as her sobs unleashed like a mighty torrent. My heart ripped in two. I kissed her cheek softly. “I'll always love you,” I said, realizing the weight of my words. The finality in them. “Me too,” she answered softly. “Me too.”
So, I left. The first person I ever loved was taken from me. The second person I ever loved, well....I guess that was my doing. That's the thing about being cursed. You can feel joy and love and alive, but there's still pain and confusion and doubt. After Ami's death, I had resigned myself to loneliness and emptiness, and Neera changed that for me. She taught me it was possible to love and feel happiness, again. She helped me to understand that there were forces in this world beyond my control. No matter how far I run, I can never escape that love, or all of my heart-break, or everything I learned. The difference is, that I know who I am, now. I know why I run and I know what I believe in and what I've seen and what my life can hold. I don't always like it, and I will always prefer to run away from it, rather than towards it. I guess that's part of knowing who I am. I am not a particularly good person – in fact, I'm quite flawed. I am just a human, a human who senses and hears and feels and who needs to keep moving. Maybe that voice is some kind of special gift, but it doesn't change who I am, deep down inside. Not really.
I know I am a cursed man. And my story is not yet done. I know that whatever comes next, it will continue to be built upon the sum of all of my experiences. Every decision I make might not be the best one, but it's mine to make and it's mine to stand by. After all, whether you're cursed or not, whether you hear that voice too or not, we are all humans, living and learning and I guess that’s what we're all trying to do – just live our lives and move forward, as best we can.
So that’s me, Jonah. There’s a lot more, but it will all unfold, over time. Like the rest of us, all we can do is live and learn and keep on moving.