Tuesday, October 03, 2006


there's a whale on my tail! does forced repentance really count?

without further ado, here's my my take on the book of Jonah, from yesterday, written before any of our current political scandals came to light:
Why don’t I like Jonah? Every time I read the story, I have a negative gut reaction to his character. He shirks his responsibilities, he hides from God, he endangers the lives of those poor sailors, who were just trying to irk out a living on the high seas – the poor guy just doesn’t have that many redeeming qualities. And when Jonah eventually “changes his ways” and does the right thing, it’s only done at the end of the proverbial loaded gun - which in this case was a big hungry fish.

But, is my criticism of Jonah legitimate? Am I being adequately fair and balanced in my considerations?

Now, in both Jewish law, and in American law, if I forced you to sign a contract with a loaded gun pointed at your head, and you later proved it to the court that you had been under duress, the contract would be nullified. I’m not sure though, if Teshuvah works the same way.

Is it fair for me, to criticize Jonah, for only eventually deciding to do the right thing, because he legitimately feared, that an even bigger fish -- with a less-than-hospitable stomach environment -- might be coming after him next?

When Jonah eventually does decide to go to Ninevah -- and preach the doom and gloom that God had commanded -- he was grumpy, cranky and irritable. Without a doubt, he would have much rather been at home, asleep in his bed, talking on his cell phone, IMing with his friends, watching a South Park rerun on TV, but yet, he did eventually come, and perform his prophetic duty.

If, like Jonah, you do Teshuvah - if you make atonement and change your ways – if you eventually say that you’re sorry - because you have to - because you have no choice - because someone is pointing a gun at your head - because the implications of your not doing Teshuvah, and taking this kind of radical first step, are far worse, and far more horrific than if you didn’t - does your Teshuvah still count?

Is change under duress any less pure, and less worthy, than change done without ulterior motive?

In fact, I’m not even so sure that there even exists such a thing as pure Teshuvah - such as someone who repents just because they feel like repenting. I’m not sure if those people really exist.

Take a look at the Bible. Biblical theology, especially Deuteronomy, relies very heavily on both the carrot and the stick. If you follow God’s commandments – great - blessings, rain, produce – all together good times. If you don’t – you’ve got some problems - boils, inflammation, drought, fire, brimstone – the angry wrath of vengeful deity – definitely not things that you’d want to take lightly.

Surprisingly lacking in the Bible are phrases like, “follow my commandments, because, it’s the right thing to do.” Maybe that’s because we know, based on our own human experience, that a message like that wouldn’t sell very well.

Rabbi Hillel famously said …. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself what am I?” Our challenge remains to balance acting on behalf of our own self interests, versus acting in self sacrifice on behalf of others. Neither one exists in a vacuum; each needs the other.

Self interest is not necessarily the same thing as selfishness. Ed Chambers wrote that “… Self interest is the natural concern of a creature for its survival and well being. It’s the fundamental priority underlying the choices that we make. It’s based on nature’s mandate that we secure the basic needs and necessities of life, and develops further to include more complex desires and requirements. Healthy self interest is one of the marks of integrity or wholeness in a person. It is the source of the initiative, creativity and drive of human beings who are fully alive.”

Now, I still don’t know whether Jonah was selfish or not. But his behavior does become more understandable when looked at from his own particular point of view. He was scared, his prophetic reputation was at risk, God had sent him into the heart of Assyria, one of Israel’s mortal enemies. He may not have understood why his God would be caring about them?

Ultimately, as I struggle with Jonah each year, I contemplate whether what we do, is more important than why we do it.

Our intentionality, our kavanah, is definitely important - doing the right thing for the right reasons gets us an A+. But, if we end up doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons, or for our own reasons, maybe Judaism gives us a C-, not as good as an A, but we still get to pass the class. And sometimes in life, that can be the most important thing.

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