On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, right around hour 21 of a 25 hour fast, just as the deckhand of my body would like to crawl down below and nap until the stars come out, I hear the Captain crying, “How can you sleep in this raging storm! Get up and cry out to your God!!” And then, somehow, usually, God-willing, somehow, there is a slight waking up and my fasting self begins to shed its slightly gummy skin of annoyed grumpiness and creep itself into the soft-shelled-crab-like fragility of a funnily strange new reality. Just then we turn our attention to the Book of Jonah.
I love Jonah first because he is such a human prophet: who among us hasn’t “gone Tarshisha” just when we heard the clearest call to claim our truer destiny. (Click play to hear what I mean about “Gone Tarshisha.”)
But I also love the book of Jonah because it brings together my love of Torah and my love of the sea — both loves which are deep enough to also contain thick strands of awe and aversion and unending unknowing.
With both Torah and the sea, one sip contains the whole but the whole can never be swallowed.
With these twin loves twined in me, I was over the moon to learn that “The Sermon” — the ninth chapter of Moby Dick — was released in audio form as part of a wonderful project called The Moby-Dick Big Read. The chapter, beautifully read by Simon Callow, recounts a sermon on the book of Jonah given by a New Bedford preacher (a “pilot of the Living God”) who calls to his congregation as “Shipmates!” and preaches from a pulpit that resembles the prow a ship. In addition to the message of his sermon, I love the way Melville makes Jonah a 100% contemporary character (that is, 100% an 1850’s stowaway).
The way Father Mapple brings the sea and its sailors under the same roof as Torah feels to me like knitting together two seemingly disparate parts of myself. As if long-lost cousins find they have more to talk about than they ever imagined and sit down for a long exchange. I highly recommend having a listen.
For another wonderful set of Jonah resources, check out the latest issue of Sh’ma (which also includes two of my songs).