The Book of Jonah, read on Yom Kippur afternoon, affirms both the power of repentance and the ever-present possibility of forgiveness. It’s a familiar story: Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is dispatched by God to the city of Nineveh to warn its inhabitants that unless they repent in another 40 days, the city will be overthrown. It was a stark and frightening message that alluded to the well-known catastrophe of the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The inhabitants of Nineveh, together with their king, donned sackcloth, fasted and engaged in a communitywide repentance. They voiced the hope that that God would relent, turn back from His wrath and spare them. Lo and behold God did acknowledge and accept their repentance “and renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them.” (Jonah 3:10)
Jonah, who believed the sinful city should have been destroyed, berated God for “being gracious and compassionate.” (ibid 4:2) To this, God responded that He rightfully accepted their repentance because He did “care about Nineveh, the great city, in which there were more than a hundred and twenty-thousand persons … and many beasts as well.” (ibid 4:11) He thus affirmed the Divine power of repentance and the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What of us? It is not uncommon to be rightfully furious with family and friends who may have not only disappointed us, but actually caused us great harm. Yet if and when they turn to us in true contrition, seeking to make amends and repair the relationship, are we capable and willing to emulate God, who embraced and forgave Nineveh’s truly repentant sinners? Will we reject Jonah’s adamant refusal to accept the possibility of reconciliation?
When, on the other hand, we have been the perpetrators of hurt and disappointment, will we strive to demonstrate the courage to reach out to ask for forgiveness and hopefully achieve reconciliation?
Will the account of Jonah sensitize us to the possibility and the willingness to turn a new leaf and respond to honest attempts to let bygones be bygones?
From Jerusalem, my best wishes for a Shanah Tovah u’Metukah, a good and sweet year. May we be blessed with good tidings, good health and the ever-present capacity to reach out to, and to be touched by, the healing power of forgiveness, both Divine and human.