Yom Kippur: Kings in Sackcloth

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yom Kippur

And the word reached the king of Nineveh, whereupon he rose from his throne, took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes. (Jonah/ Yonah 3:6)

Of all the characters who show up in the Torah readings and haftarot of the Days of Awe, one of my favorites is a supporting actor who turns out to be more important than we might think. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the book of Yonah, and meet the king of Nineveh, “that great city,” who, upon hearing Yonah’s prophecy of doom, instantly rose from his throne and sat in sackcloth and ashes, presumably as a way of showing his humility and repentance. Not only that, but the story goes on: the king made a proclamation that the entire city should do t’shuvah, everybody fasting and sitting low, from the noblemen right down to the cattle and herds!

This almost comical example of communal t’shuvah is obviously part of the reason that the book of Yonah is chosen for Yom Kippur afternoon- it seems to gently make light of our difficulties achieving return and reconciliation in our own lives. To put it another way: don’t be so proud of praying and fasting and taking your inventory all day- even the goats of Nineveh did t’shuvah more completely than we do ! Sometimes, laughing at ourselves a little bit helps us be introspective without shame or fear, and this, too, is a central concern of Yom Kippur.

Not only that- but neither the Ninevites (nor, certainly, their flocks and herds) were Jewish: t’shuvah, return, is a path open to any and all human beings who sincerely renew their spiritual core of decency and kindness. That’s a rather startling message on the most Jewish off all days, when our individual and communal looking-inward is linked to Biblical rituals of atonement and purification practiced in Temple days.

The ancient rabbis illustrate this with a truly amazing midrash, which identifies the king of Nineveh with none other than Pharaoh in the day of Moshe. Based on a nuanced reading of the Exodus story, the ancient text called Pirke D’rabbi Eliezer imagines that Pharaoh did not die at the Sea of Reeds but instead lived and was transported by an angel to Nineveh and became its king (sort of an heavenly placement service for deposed tyrants.) It’s really an outrageous claim: that the king who is the very example of t’shuvah on Yom Kippur is none other than the murderous villain whose heart was hardened throughout plagues and disasters in the days of the Exodus!

To me, this midrash sums up the radical message of Yom Kippur: that t’shuvah really is a possibility for anybody, and it’s our ongoing responsibility to deny it neither to ourselves nor others. After all- who could be less deserving of a second chance (make that an 11th chance, after ten plagues) than Pharaoh? And if even Pharaoh got his 11th chance. . . . what’s holding us back from offering a second or third chance for return and reconciliation to ourselves and others? To imagine that Pharaoh is our model of t’shuvah (this time he got it right when the prophet showed up ! ) is to force the question: do we truly recognize that all human beings- including you-  are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image, and thus have the capacity for reflection, change and growth?

Our midrash imagines that Pharaoh got another chance to get it right: it’s a not-too-subtle hint that maybe we should give ourselves and others some second (and third. . . .) chances, too. Like many of the most important things in life, it’s simple, but not easy.

with warmest wishes for a meaningful fast,


1 Comment »

  1. […] (I assume that’s all of you!) will remember that I used themidrash about Pharaoh in 2010, but this year I go in a slightly different direction with […]

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