Harvard University recently rejected a Ph.D. candidate in history despite impressive credentials. Michelle Jones’ case should move us to examine the biblical book of Jonah.
Jones, 45 and a child victim of abuse, served more than 20 years for murdering her four-year-old son. A horrible crime? Absolutely. Yet in prison, she earned a B.A. from Ball State and led an award-winning research project for the Indiana Historical Society. Harvard’s history program accepted her, but the school’s administration overturned the decision fearing backlash from rejected applicants. At least some Harvard administrators hold the concept of repentance at arm’s length.
With Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning next Friday evening, practicing Jews focus on repentance. During Rosh Hashanah (the New Year; it’s 5778) and the ten days following, we seek forgiveness—individually and communally—for sins committed against God. (For wrongs against people, only those hurt can grant forgiveness.) We pray for God’s mercy. But are we willing to forgive others who repent?
Note that Judaism doesn’t instruct victims to turn the other cheek and offer blanket forgiveness. That lets wrongdoers off the hook. Rather, a wrongdoer must ask for forgiveness. If after being asked three times the injured person refuses to forgive, the offender no longer remains obligated to make further petitions.
Understand, too, that it’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.” The philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) instructs that repentance involves three phases—understanding the wrong committed, vowing not to repeat it then not doing it. Words must lead to action.
Granted, it can be difficult to forgive those who have wronged us. This conundrum marks the biblical book of Jonah, a traditional Yom Kippur reading. I’ll teach the text at Congregation Sherith Israel on Yom Kippur afternoon (1:15).
In brief, God tells Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and tell the people to repent. There’s an irony here. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered its “ten lost tribes.” Despite God’s command, Jonah sails west in the opposite direction to escape performing this task. He doesn’t want God to give the Ninevites the opportunity to repent.
After three days in the stomach of a dag gadol (a big fish, not a whale), Jonah learns a lesson. God commands. You do. Jonah goes to Nineveh and announces that God is giving the city 40 days to repent or be overturned.
The Ninevites, from the king down, repent—and mean it! Jonah is unhappy. He wants Nineveh destroyed and always feared God would forgive. God, however, prefers that humans repent and live righteously. Terrible deeds cannot be undone, but people can refashion themselves.
Jonah and Yom Kippur assert that the human heart possesses considerable elasticity. Not all bad or evil people will turn towards righteousness. Like the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, some have gone too far gone. But for most of us, the opportunity to repent endures.
But we cannot proclaim our worthiness to be forgiven while refusing to give others when they prove their merit. New York University got it. They accepted Jones. In doing so, NYU (my father’s alma mater) affirmed that Jonah, a small book, offers a big a lesson for the ages. Now go and study.
For more on Jonah, see my recap and commentary in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible (Amazon). May you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.
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