On June 11, 2021, Michael Packàrd was diving in the waters off of Provincetown, Massachusetts, doing his job as a commercial lobster diver. Packàrd had no idea that his second dive of the day, rather than resulting in another 100-pound haul of lobsters, would make global news.
When Packàrd was about 45 feet deep, near the bottom, he felt something huge push him and then surround him. He said It felt like “a truck hit me and everything just went dark.” At first, he thought that it was a shark attack. “I felt around,” he said, “and I realized there was no teeth, and I had felt, really, no great pain.… I realized, 'Oh my God, I'm in a whale’s mouth. I’m in a whale’s mouth, and he’s trying to swallow me.”
Fortunately for Packàrd, that humpback whale really did not have any interest in swallowing him. Despite their massive size, humpbacks can’t eat anything larger than fish the size of sardines. The whale shook its head a few times, rose to the surface, and spat Packàrd back out.
But in those moments Packàrd spent in the whale's mouth – which, by his own reckoning was only 30 or 40 seconds – he had all the thoughts you might image come in the face of death. "I’m like, ‘This is how you’re gonna go, Michael.” he thought to himself. “This is how you’re going to die. In the mouth of a whale.”
What does that sound like to you? Resignation? Acceptance of the inevitable? Regret? Willingness to let go of life? I’m not sure that even Packàrd himself could describe all the feelings he had in that moment.
I’m happy to report that Michael Packàrd was almost entirely unhurt in his adventure with the whale. He was taken to a local hospital, treated for bruises and a dislocated knee, and went home the same day. But maybe something within his mind and soul were changed by the experience. The encounter with the whale and with death may have taught him something about life.
By now, many of you probably have guessed why, on Yom Kippur, I’m talking about a man who was in the mouth of a whale. It sounds just like the story of Jonah, doesn’t it? It sounds like the book we will read tomorrow afternoon and, by tradition, on every Yom Kippur afternoon.
Tonight, I want to talk about Michael Packàrd. And about Jonah. And about all of us, too. There is something about the story of being swallowed up, ready to give up on life, even embracing death, that points to the hidden message of Yom Kippur – the day on which we pretend to die so we can learn how to live.
The biblical book of Jonah is, of course, the story of the reluctant prophet who tried to run away from God. Jonah boarded a ship heading in the direction opposite that which God had commanded him to go. God sent a storm to toss the ship and Jonah confessed to his shipmates that he was the cause. Jonah explained to the sailors that God was angry at him for his defiance. He told them to throw him overboard to save their lives. When they did, a “great fish” swallowed Jonah and he lived inside it for three days.
Now, that’s what most people remember about the book of Jonah. It’s a good yarn and the image of the man swallowed by a whale has kept the book popular through the ages. But, to understand why we read this fish story on Yom Kippur, we have to delve a bit deeper into the waters of the book of Jonah.
Tonight I would like to offer five lessons from this story – five lessons from the story of a man who thought he was going to die.
Lesson Number One. What did God want from Jonah, anyway? God commanded Jonah, “Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to them, for their wickedness has arisen before Me.” Why Nineveh? Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the enemy of the Jews that had vanquished the Northern Kingdom of Israel and scattered the ten northern tribes. When God commanded the Jewish prophet to go to Nineveh, it was like asking a mouse to go to preach to the cats. Maybe that’s why Jonah didn’t want to go. Maybe that’s why he went aboard a ship heading in the opposite direction. God had put him on an impossible mission, and he was not too keen on it.
So, our first lesson from the book of Jonah is that doing the impossible is exactly what God wants from us. God wants us to face the things that we believe we cannot face – to face our deepest fears. God wants us to learn that the challenges we consider impossible are not as daunting as we imagine.
Lesson Number Two. What did Jonah do for the three days he was in the whale? About the last thing you would expect. Jonah sang out in praise of God. In fact, Jonah’s time in the whale appears to be his happiest moments in the entire story. Jonah recited a psalm to God, proclaiming his joy as he was cut off from the world, alone in his own private sanctuary in the belly of the whale.
This is our first big clue about what is wrong with Jonah. Jonah loved being in the whale. He loved being isolated in a dark place where he was rendered motionless and powerless like death. It’s what he wanted more than anything. And maybe that is why God made the whale spit him out.
Did you ever wonder why Judaism has no monks or monasteries? All the other monotheistic religions love the idea of people shutting themselves off from the world to contemplate God away from the cares of the everyday. Judaism detests this idea. The highest form of worship we offer God is in the way we live in the world. Judaism cannot exist on a lonely mountaintop, or in the belly of a whale.
Lesson Number Three. What did Jonah do after the whale spit him out? God again told Jonah to go to Nineveh, and this time, Jonah did as he was told. For three days Jonah walked from one end of Nineveh to the other declaring that God would wipe out the city.
This is what prophets in the Bible are supposed to do. They declare God’s will to the people and try to persuade them to change their ways. The thing is, though, of all the prophets in the Bible, Jonah is the only one who ever succeeded in convincing anyone to change. The Ninevites – the evil, sworn enemies of Israel – heard Jonah’s words. They declared a public fast and their king led them in pleading to God for forgiveness. Jonah is not just the most successful prophet in the Bible – he is the only successful prophet in the Bible. He is the only prophet who spoke the will of God … and people actually listened and changed because of it. And he did it by preaching – not to the Jews – but to the enemies of Israel.
The Ninevites pleaded for God’s forgiveness and God forgave them. God saw them turn from evil and renounced the punishment of destroying the city. The irony is overwhelming. It takes a prophet who does not want to preach, and it takes an audience that does not know God, in order for God’s will to be obeyed in this world.
Think about what that means in our day when the people who claim to speak for God often seem the most godless, and, often, the people who do God’s work of love and justice are the people who have the least interest in organized religion. It certainly makes you think, doesn't it?
Lesson Number Four. How did Jonah respond to God forgiving the Ninevites? How did he feel about his success as a prophet?
Well, he was furious.
Jonah cried out to God, “This is exactly what I knew you were going to do, God! This is why I didn’t want to come here! I knew that you would be compassionate to these people and forgive them!”
Why does God’s forgiveness make Jonah so upset? It’s possible that he was so partisan toward his own people that he was ashamed to see the enemies of Israel repent and receive God’s forgiveness – while the Israelites, God’s own people, refused to listen to God or change their ways.
But maybe it was something even deeper than that. Maybe Jonah just did not like the idea of forgiveness to begin with. After all, why should someone who does something wrong be forgiven just because they say, “I’m sorry.” Maybe Jonah thought – people who do what’s right should be rewarded and people who do what’s wrong should be punished. Just saying words shouldn’t change that.
I think all of us have thought that way at one time or another.
But this is where the book of Jonah, in my mind, has its greatest insight. Jonah is not just angry about God forgiving other people’s sins, his greatest anger is directed at himself – his own failings and sins, his disobedience toward God, his failure to embrace the role of prophet.
And, isn’t this true of us, too? I’ve noticed that when I get angry at someone, it’s usually because they’ve done something that reminds me of something I don’t like about myself. Don’t most of us reserve our greatest condemnation and our greatest anger for ourselves? That’s what Jonah did. He hated himself for his failings and he thought he deserved to die. He even told God he wants to die. He said, “Now, Adonai, take my life from me. My death is better than my life.”
Here is the book’s connection to Yom Kippur. The purpose of Yom Kippur is to convince us to live. We may not think that we yearn for death like Jonah did, but our actions say otherwise. Every day that we fritter our lives away in vanity and emptiness, we drain ourselves of purpose and fulfillment. Every moment we spend stewing in resentment, self-criticism and wallowing in guilt, we embrace death. Yom Kippur comes to us and says, “Your life is worth too much to be wasted like that. Embrace life. Change your ways and live.” So, what do we do? We spend 24 hours fasting and praying – just like Jonah in the whale – until we have had enough of death and are ready to live again.
That is the paradox of Yom Kippur. We need to go through a day of pretend death – pretending that we don’t need food, pretending that we should feel terrible about past mistakes, and pretending that our lives are dust and ashes – in order to reawaken to our true selves, to awaken to the self that God wants for us, the self that desires a life of meaning, joy, and living life with love and kindness toward others and ourselves.
Lesson Number Five. After the Ninevites repented for their sins, Jonah left Nineveh in disgust, and what did he do then? He set up a tent on the outskirts of the city to see what would happen. Would God forgive the Ninevites, or would God destroy the city as he had been told to prophesy?
While Jonah watched the city, God watched Jonah. God caused a kikayon plant to grow over Jonah’s head to give him shade from the hot sun. What is a kikayon? It is the vine of the castor bean plant. While castor oil has medicinal uses, the plant is also the source of ricin, often called the most powerful poison in nature. A few drops are enough to kill an adult human being.
So there was Jonah, sitting in the shade of a poisonous plant enjoying his poisonous thoughts about Nineveh, about God, and about himself. But, the next day, God brought a worm to destroy the kikayon, exposing Jonah to the sun, and Jonah again pleaded with God to let him die.
God’s response, and the enigmatic ending of the book of Jonah, is this:
God says, “You cared about the kikayon, that you did not work for, that you did not grow. It appeared overnight and was gone overnight. So, how can I not care about Nineveh, a great city of more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left and all their animals?”
It is the book’s most important lesson and it is the lesson of Yom Kippur. After a day of rehearsing for death, we should learn how to love living the way that God loves us, all living things, and even the animals. God is patient. God would rather sustain the lives of people who are so amoral that they don’t know the first thing about right and wrong. And God is patient also with Jonah’s proud, bitter, and resentful yearning for death, but God also wants Jonah to know how toxic that bitterness is. God wants Jonah – and us – to live and to learn to love the world and humanity despite all the deep imperfections and flaws, despite the resentments we have accumulated from suffering life’s cruelties.
These are our lessons on Yom Kippur. Learn to try to do what seems impossible. Learn to live with other people, even when they seem impossible. Learn to seek and accept forgiveness. Learn to embrace life. Learn to let go of resentment and pain.
The clock has started, we have just under 24 hours now to meet the challenge. During this day, we will confess our shortcomings and errors and we will make promises to do better, but we will get nothing out of the exercise if our acts of atonement are nothing more than expressions of despair, self-abasement, isolation, and wallowing in guilt. We need to move from that darkness into the light of living with purpose, joy and kindness to others and ourselves.
Life is short and it is fragile, but Yom Kippur teaches us to live the time we have with honesty, integrity, and with effort always to do better. That is the task of this day – to face the inevitability of death and choose to embrace life. Each of us, figuratively, spends this day in the whale’s mouth. Like Michael Packàrd, we may go through a million different emotions along the way, but we can know ahead of time that we will do the impossible if we make the effort. We will live. We will live with release from our pain and confinement. We will live with joy.
G’mar chatimah tovah.
May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.