Yom Kippur continues to inch upon us, and for some, it is going to be a difficult day emotionally. We go through the same routine every year, inflicting ourselves by fasting, acknowledging our sinful nature and promising to at least try and do better in the coming year. And of course, thanking G-d for his redemption no matter how undeserving we are. Sometimes it’s a fairly smooth process. Other times it is raw and tough.
For many individuals in my life at the moment, this is going to be a particularly difficult day that forces us to reflect on pain and trauma we are still trying to navigate. Some years Yom Kippur is a reinvigorating recognition of what G-d has done for us, while other years (such as this one), it is the tender spot a doctor touches in order to diagnose the core disease.
Wanting to make this day as reflective, personal, and intentional as I possibly can, there have been a lot of emotional preparations on my end. However, as with most times and seasons, there are traditions that have stood the test of time which offer guidance on how to make the most of our experience.
This year, for me, it is the story of Jonah.
Traditionally, the book of Jonah is read and analyzed on Yom Kippur. I’ve overheard many people speculate why that is, and theories tend to vary from person to person. But it’s a tradition taking place all over the world on this sacred day, year in and year out. And somehow, in a variety of ways, it is relevant.
This year, in particular, Jonah’s story is a punch in my gut. I’ve heard it since childhood. It’s a story that can be found even in the most watered down (no pun intended) storybook Bibles. It’s one of the popular ones we memorize as children and recall easily into adulthood. And yet somewhere, somehow, I forget the grit of a major message in the story.
Jonah demonstrates an important reality. Yes, we learn that running away from G-d is pointless. But we don’t always find ourselves purposely running from G-d. That aspect isn’t always relatable. Sometimes we’ve been following Him all along, and confusingly find ourselves lost and seemingly without direction. Sometimes we find ourselves in a panic because no matter how hard we tried, something pushed us off course. Sometimes we expect the thunder and lightning when G-d is working through the whispers of a still small voice we’re struggling to hear.
But in that confusion, we can still gain from Jonah’s experience. He thought he could hide from G-d. He hopped a ship heading in the opposite direction of where he was commanded to go and snuck his way to the very bottom of the hold. And in response, G-d did him one better. Jonah was tossed into the sea and swallowed by a whale.
Jonah found himself in the deepest darkest place physically possible.
And yet, that was not too far for G-d.
In Jonah, we find a comforting example. Each of us experiences a deep dark place at some point. Some have been there in the past, some continue to waver in and out, and others are there now. We don’t necessarily find ourselves there because of a decision to run from G-d. Some of us find ourselves stumbling into that area in the middle of our journey, feeling confident that we’ve been going in the right direction but suddenly wondering what went wrong.
Regardless of how we get there, wherever “there” is, Jonah’s story demonstrates that G-d knows exactly where we are. No matter how deep we find ourselves, He can still hear every word in our hearts. There is no place we can go that isn’t within His reach, and it is impossible to be outside of G-d’s watch.
G-d never ever loses track of us.
And that is a message to absorb during Yom Kippur. Whether we’re struggling through correcting what we’ve done wrong, or we are bruised and battered by something pushing us into an unpleasant or even scary circumstance, or (more likely) we’re dealing with a little bit of both, we are in good company along the way. Of that, we can be absolutely certain.
And if He knows where we are, He also knows the way out.
Yom Kippur, in essence, is a time to stop our thrashing from fear of drowning. It’s a time to admit that yes, we’ve done things we weren’t supposed to. And yes, things were done to us that were unjust.
It is a time to acknowledge just how desperately we need G-d to save us and surrender to that need. Insightful to the fact that we sometimes need prompting, G-d has given us Yom Kippur to cry out for His help while knowing that He can hear our wails from wherever we are.
But even when we’re swallowed into what seems like unreachable depths, we’re never abandoned. Sometimes sin is reactionary to fear. Sometimes it is a symptom of our confusion. But at some point, it is time to refocus from that distraction and realize that no matter how deep and dark things seem…G-d has already saved us from the deepest and darkest place possible. And now that it’s been done, He most certainly isn’t going to leave us behind now.
For those fasting from sundown on Tuesday to sundown on Wednesday: May your fast be safe, intentional, effective, and meaningful.