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Wednesday, October 21, 2020 - 3 Cheshvan 5781
 
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The Mission

The holiest day in the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur, a day dedicated mainly to prayer. The evening begins with the solemn prayer of Kol Nidrei, in which we "permit ourselves to pray with the sinners."

Most of the prayers of the day center on the themes of repentance and supplication; regret over the misdeeds we have committed over the past year, and supplications to G-d to forgive us and inscribe us for a good and sweet year. However, some prayers have a different theme entirely. For example, the Mussaf prayer consists of a lengthy rendition of the service of the High Priest in the Holy Temple. The Haftorah of the day, read at the Minchah prayer, is the famous story of Jonah the Prophet, who was swallowed by a fish.

The synopsis of the story is that Jonah was given a mission by G-d, to travel to the city of Ninveh and awaken the people to do teshuvah, to escape from a decree of destruction. Jonah, however, feared that if the people of Ninveh, a non-Jewish town, would repent, this would reflect negatively on his own people, the Jews, who had not similarly hearkened to his warnings. Therefore, he attempted to escape his mission by going to sea. However, after a series of miraculous events, Jonah was forced to carry out his divine mission.

The main message of the story is that there is no way to escape from G-d. At any time, any place, it is incumbent upon us to fulfill the divine commandments.

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However, there is another lesson to be learned from the story of Jonah. The prophet knew that if the people of Ninveh would not repent, the city would be destroyed. Yet he remained indifferent to their plight and attempted to evade his mission. His motivations may have been well-intentioned, yet G-d did not accept his excuses and reproved him severely. How could Jonah turn his back on a city of 120,000 people that G-d created and sustains? If one has the power and ability to influence so many people for the better and save them from destruction, it is absolutely forbidden to turn away from this obligation.

This is also the theme with which we open the Yom Kippur prayers. As a congregation, we allow the sinners to pray with us. G-d does not close the door before anyone, Jew or non-Jew, if they are prepared to return to Him in teshuvah and correct their misdeeds.

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The story of Jonah reminds us all not to seclude ourselves in our own environs and worry only about our own fate. We must concern ourselves for all of society. It is incumbent upon the Jewish people to be a "light unto the nations" and serve as an example of how to conduct our lives according to the divine will. We must teach them that the world has a Creator who guides us through the Torah in the way of life expected of every individual.

In particular, we must publicize to all mankind the seven Noachide laws: Do not be cruel to animals, do not blaspheme, do not steal, set up courts of justice, do not kill, do not commit adultery and do not worship idols. When all people of the world will observe these seven laws, the world will be filled with righteousness and justice, and will be a fitting place for Moshiach to reveal himself, to usher in the era of Redemption.

 

 


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