This a text version of my sermon from first day Sukkot 5777 –
If you’ll permit me for a few minutes this morning I would like to go back with you to Yom Kippur afternoon, and our reading of the Book of Jonah. Jonah is one of our strangest biblical books. The simple fact that it contains an extended passage where the prophet prays to God while in the belly of a great fish in and of itself makes the book unusual. Then you add to that the fact that Jonah is a failed prophet – because after all the message he delivers to the people of Nineveh does not come true. And then there is the story of the plant that grows and then dies in a single day at the end of the book, a story no one fully understands. But in my mind the strangest feature of Jonah is the way it deals with gentiles, with non Jews.
That is a feature of the book that is often over looked. The mission God asks Jonah to undertake is to travel a great distance to preach to people who are not Jewish. Nineveh is a city of gentiles, people who are outside of the covenant between God and Israel, people who probably are pagan in terms of their religious views. Jonah is the only prophet in the Bible who is given this kind of mission. This may be one explanation as to why Jonah tries to flee from his assignment. Perhaps he feels that God’s word should only be proclaimed to Jews. But God clearly does not feel this way, in fact God is so invested in Jonah carrying out his mission that God chases him down, creates a storm while he is at sea so the sailors will have to throw him overboard, provides a fish to swallow him up. God wants the message to get to Nineveh whether Jonah does or not.
And on top of that, the book of Jonah in general portrays gentiles in a very positive light. In fact I would argue the gentiles in the book come off looking much better than the prophet himself. Jonah seems selfish, self absorbed, even a bit petulant. In technical terms he is a major qvetch. Throughout the book, Jonah seems to want to get away from God as quickly as he possibly can. But the gentiles in the book are open to God’s word. As soon as the people of Nineveh hear that they’ve sinned, they immediately repent and begin to pray to God. Instantaneously. From the king on his throne to the commoner. These people may not be Jewish, but the book sees them as God-fearing people.
And then you have the sailors. Remember at the beginning of the book, when God first asks Jonah to go, and Jonah tries to run away. He books passage on a ship, and takes to sea, but there is a terrible storm. You might remember that Jonah sleeps soundly in the hold of the ship, but while he sleeps, the sailors begin to pray. Then when they finally realize the storm is because of Jonah, and Jonah even tells them they should throw him overboard, they do everything in their power to save him. When they finally realize they have no choice but to throw Jonah into the sea they again pray to God, asking for forgiveness, and offering sacrifices to God.
The Book of Jonah is not alone in its positive portrayal of gentiles in the Hebrew Bible. Remember Moses’ father in law, Jethro? Jethro is a Medianite, in fact the Torah tells us he is a priest of Median, and he is seen as a wise figure, clearly loved by Moses, and also a person who helps to set up the Israelite governance structure. You also have Pharaoh’s daughter, who saves Moses in the first place and by doing so ensures the survival and freedom of the Jewish people. And in Genesis 14 you have King Melchizedek who is friendly to Abraham, blesses him, and offers praise to God.
Judaism has always understood that there are two covenants that God makes with humanity. One is the covenant with Abraham, and later with Moses and the Israelites, a particular covenant with particular responsibilities that exists between God and the Jewish people. But there is a more universal covenant that God makes with all people, in the rabbinic tradition called the Noahide covenant. This shows that God cares about all people, not only the Jewish people, and that God is in relationship with all people. We do have a special relationship with God, but we do not have God all to ourselves.
That is actually a major theme of the Sukkoth festival. The Talmud teaches that it is during Sukkoth that God judges the world for water, in other words will their be enough rain for the crops to grow properly, enough water in the year to nourish and sustain people. Not just Jewish people – all people. And the sacrifices that were offered in ancient times during this festival were intended to extend God’s blessing to the entire world. In the course of the holiday 70 bulls were sacrificed, the number 70 symbolically representing the nations of the world. And tradition understands that these 70 bulls will protect the nations of the world from suffering, enable them to seek atonement for their sins, and help them to create a world of peace. So in a way Sukkoth is as much about the non-Jewish world as it is about the Jewish world.
I think that message challenges us in two ways. First of all, it reminds those of us who spend a lot of our time with Jews and in the Jewish community that there is a big world out there, and that God is concerned about the larger world and the people in it just as God is concerned about the Jewish world and Jews. That may be a particularly important message coming out of the High Holy Days when the Jewish community is almost entirely inwardly focused. It may also be one of the reasons why on this holiday we are asked to leave our synagogues, even to leave our homes, and to dwell in the Sukkah. It is outside, in the world, visible, and you can’t hide from the world in a Sukkah, and the world can’t hide from you.
But it also challenges us to examine our own belief, and to reaffirm our dedication to the ancient covenant between God and Israel. After all, are we going to let our covenantal relationship with God fade away while the non Jews of the world cling more tightly to their covenant? I would argue that a Jewish identity based only on ethnicity – bagels and locks, national pride, even Israel and remembering the Holocaust – that that kind of ethnic identity will not ultimately be sufficient to maintain a sense of Jewish continuity. Religious faith is a necessary component if we want to keep Jewish life vital and meaningful.
And that is one of the other things that is wonderful about Sukkoth. We don’t shake the lulav and etrog because it makes sense! This is not something that can be explained rationally. It is instead an expression of faith, both in God, and in the ancient covenant between God and Israel. May both of those faiths grow stronger in the new year, in our own lives, and in the life of the Jewish people.