The Torah says to observe Passover/Pesach for seven days, and that’s what Jews still do in Israel. Since Passover began on Friday evening, April 15, Jews in Israel read the Torah portion Acharei Mot on Saturday morning, April 22.
So did I. And I stayed up late several nights last week writing a blog post about Acharei Mot,1 just as if I were in Israel.
But in the diaspora—the Jewish population outside what was our religion’s homeland thousands of years ago—Jews observe Passover for eight days. When I joined a Shabbat service by Zoom last Saturday, the eighth morning after Passover began, there was a Passover Torah reading and two special holiday prayer sections2. And I realized my mistake.
The diaspora includes places thick with Jews, like Brooklyn. But it also includes places where Jews are hard to find, like the small town on the Oregon coast where I live now.
At sunset on the first night of Passover, I was just getting home from a four-hour drive after a week of clearing out my mother’s house. (I succeeded in moving her to assisted living last month, but there is so much more to do!) That evening my husband and I went through the first page of the Passover ritual (with oregano3), then stumbled off to bed. We skipped the second seder because after two pandemic years, we couldn’t bear to watch it by Zoom for a third year. And for the first time in over 20 years, we forgot to start counting the omer.
Clearly my mind was not in Israel, but in Tarshish.
Tarshish is the most distant location mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Jonah begins when God tells Jonah to go prophesy in Nineveh, something he absolutely does not want to do. Nineveh is northeast of Jonah’s home, Gat-Hefer in the northern Kingdom of Israel.4 Jonah heads southeast, to the coast.
And Jonah got up to run away toward Tarshish, away from the presence of God. He went down to Jaffa and he found a ship going to Tarshish, and he paid its fare and he went down into it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of God. (Jonah 1:3)
Although we no longer know where Tarshish was, we know that Phoenicians from ports like Jaffa crossed the Mediterranean to trade with Tarshish. The bible includes Tarshish in lists of distant islands and far shores.5 Large ships suitable for long-distance travel are called ani tarshish(עָנִי תַרְשִׁשׁ) = Tarshish ships.6 Tarshish is the epitome of a faraway land.
Second Isaiah speaks of a future time when people from all nations will come to Jerusalem to worship God, even the most distant.
… Tarshish, Pul, and Lud … Tuval and Yavan: the far shores, the remote places that have not heard my name … (Isaiah 66:19)
So I was not in Israel last week; I was in Tarshish.
The Passover seder ends: “Next year in Jerusalem!” Next year (if the progression of Covid permits) I just want to be in Portland with some of my Jewish friends.
I am realizing what it means to be in exile from both of my Jewish communities in Portland. This small coastal town seemed like the perfect place to live when the pandemic began, but now it feels like Tarshish.
Tarshish may be one of the ends of the earth, but living here is not the end of the world. I am my own island of Torah study here. Every day I sing my morning prayers, and every day when I first see the ocean I say the blessing thanking God for making the “great sea”. I will pay more attention to the Jewish calendar. And someday I will sail home from Tarshish.
Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, is when Jews spend 25 hours trying to turn around and get back to God. It is the last of ten days of teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה), often translated as “repentance”, though teshuvah literally means “returning, turning around’. On Yom Kippur we acknowledge our collective as well as individual sins and misdeeds against the inner, or perhaps outer, force we call God. And we pray for forgiveness and a new start on a more righteous life.
Late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, Jews read one last passage from the bible. What could be uplifting and inspiring enough to help us finally turn around and enter the gates of heaven?
The book of Jonah.
Did the ancient rabbis play a joke on us? What is the story of this reluctant and ridiculous prophet good for besides comic relief?
The Meaning of Nineveh
The word of God happened to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying: “Kum! Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim about it, because the perversity of their wickedness [has come] before me.” (Jonah 1:1-2)
Kum (קוּם) = Get up! Stand up! Rise! Arise!
Jonah son of Amittai is not a new prophet; he appears earlier in the bible as a prophet from Gat-Hachefer in the northern kingdom of Israel.1 At that time, Jonah tells King Jereboam II that God wants him to conquer some Aramean territory from Lebo-Hamat to the Dead Sea. The king does so.
Jereboam II expanded the kingdom of Israel circa 790-750 B.C.E. About ten years after his death, the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Tiglath-Pileser III, began chipping away at Israel, capturing town after town and deporting its leading citizens. In 722 B.C.E. the Assyrian king Sargon II conquered its capital, Samaria, and the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist.
Some of its residents escaped deportation by fleeing to the southern kingdom of Judah, which the Assyrian armies had reduced to a small vassal state required to send annual tribute to Assyria.
The capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was Nineveh.2 When the book of Jonah was written down, probably in 3rd century B.C.E. Judah, any Israelite would think of “Nineveh” as an evil enemy.
Vayakam, Jonah, to run away to Tarshish, away from God. Vayeired to Yafo and found a ship going to Tarshish, and he paid [his] fare, vayeired into her to go with them to Tarshish, away from God. (Jonah 1:3)
vayakam (וַיָּקָם) = but he got up, and he rose. (Another form of the verb kum.)
vayeired (וַיֵּרֶד) = and he went down, and he descended. (A form of the verb yarad (יָרַד) = went down, descended.)
Jonah gets up, but then instead of heading northeast to Nineveh, he flees toward Tarshish, the westernmost city on the Mediterranean known to the ancient Israelites.
Does he think he can run away from God? Probably not. Jonah simply does not want to hear God’s call, either because he is afraid of prophesying in Nineveh or, as he says later, because he does not want God to forgive Nineveh for any reason. So he gets up—and then flees inside himself, going down into denial: down to the seaport and down into the ship. When a storm threatens to break up the ship, Jonah goes even farther down.
But Jonah yarad to the hold of the vessel, and he lay down, and he fell into a deep sleep. (Jonah 1:5)
Unconsciousness is the only way he can escape his feelings of fear and hatred regarding Nineveh, or his guilt over disobeying God.
The captain wakes up Jonah and says:
“How are you sleeping so soundly? Kum, call to your god! Maybe the god will take notice of us and we will not perish.” (Jonah 1:6)
The sailors cast lots to see whose god is responsible for the storm, and the lot falls on Jonah. Jonah admits he is running away from his god, and asks them to throw him overboard in order to end the storm. He would rather die than do teshuvah. But at least he is honest, and makes an effort to save the lives of innocent bystanders.
The men rowed hard lehashiv to dry land, but they could not, because the sea was going violently about them. (Jonah 1:13)
lehashiv (לְהָשִׁיב) = to return, to bring back or restore something. (From the same root as teshuvah.)
Only Jonah has turned away from God; only Jonah needs to do teshuvah. Finally the sailors give up and follow Jonah’s orders. The prophet begins to sink—but God will not let him descend any farther.
And God supplied a big fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. And Jonah prayed to God, his God, from the belly of the fish. (Jonah 2:1-2)
In the subsequent hymn Jonah even expresses thanks to God for saving his life.3 He appears to have turned around.
And God spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land. And the word of God happened to Jonah a second time, saying: “Kum! Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the appeal that I will be speaking to you!” Vayakum, Jonah, and he went to Nineveh, as God had spoken. (Jonah 2:11-3:3)
This time Jonah gets up and walks in the right direction. But we soon learn that despite his poetic prayer inside the fish, he has not really turned around inside his mind. He obeys God only minimally: he walks into the city, utters five words in Hebrew (“Another forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown”), and leaves with no explanation.
Hope for Ninevites
Today we do teshuvah by praying and searching our souls. Many Jews also fast during the day of Yom Kippur. In the Hebrew Bible people do teshuvah by fasting, wearing scratchy sackcloth, and lying in ashes.
That is exactly what the Ninevites do. Somehow they realize at once that God wants them to repent. They all fast and put on sackcloth, even the king, who decrees from his ash-heap:
“They shall cover themselves with sackcloth, human and beast, and they shall call out mightily to God. And every man yashuvu from his evil ways and from the violence in his palm. Who knows, God yashuv and have a change of heart, veshav from his wrath, and we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:8-9)
yashuvu (יָשֻׁבוּ) = they shall turn back, turn around. (From the same root as teshuvah.)
yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he shall turn back, turn around. (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)
veshav (וְשָׁב) = and he shall turn back. (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)
And God saw their deeds, that shavu from their evil ways, and God had a change of heart over the bad thing he [intended] to do to them, and did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)
shavu (שָׁבוּ) = they had turned away, repented. (Also from the same root as teshuvah.)
Someone listening to the book of Jonah at a Yom Kippur service might think: If even the Ninevites could do teshuvah, then so could anyone. And if God could forgive Nineveh, then I could forgive all those people I believe have harmed my people.
Hope for Jonah
Jonah is enraged at God’s forgiveness. He wants retribution, not compassion, when it comes to Israel’s worst enemy. He tells God:
“Isn’t this what I spoke of when I was in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish in the first place, because I know that you are a gracious and compassionate god4 … So now, God, please take my life from me, because better I die than I live.” And God said: “Is your anger good?” (Jonah 4:2-4)
With that question hanging in the air, Jonah builds himself a sukkah5 where he has a view of the city, and sits down to wait 40 days to see what happens. God supplies a vine to give Jonah shade; the next day God makes it wither and sends a hot east wind. This triggers Jonah’s anger and death-wish again.
The patience of God with his perverse prophet is remarkable. God keeps giving Jonah another chance—after he runs away toward Tarshish, after he utters a single half-hearted prophecy, after he is angry with God for forgiving Nineveh, and after he is angry about the death of the vine.
God even tries to teach Jonah to stay aware when he wants to be unconscious (during the storm at sea), to realize his anger is not good, and to be compassionate toward the innocent (especially children and animals):
And God said: “You were concerned about the vine, which you did not exert yourself over … And I, shall I not be concerned about Nineveh, the great city that has 120,000 humans in it who do not know the difference between their right and their left, and also many beasts?” (Jonah 4:10-11)
Someone at a Yom Kippur service might think: I keep screwing up, like Jonah, but maybe God will be patient and give me another chance, too. Maybe God will even teach me how to be less angry, more aware, and more compassionate.
Behind the humor of the story, the book of Jonah can indeed inspire listeners to complete the work of Yom Kippur, to finally do teshuvah and atone with God—whether we think of God as the ruler of the universe and creator of miracles (such as a fish a man can live inside for three days), or as a mysterious force inside ourselves.
Anyway, a little humor near the end of a long fast can only help.
(I published some of the material in this post in September 2010.)
2 Kings 14:25. From about 930 to 722 B.C.E., Israelites lived in two kingdoms, the more prosperous northern kingdom of Israel (capital: Samaria) and the poorer southern kingdom of Judah (capital: Jerusalem).
King Sargon II moved the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from Kalhu/Nimrud to the district of Nineveh circa 710 B.C.E., when he built a new city called Dur Sharrukin (Sargon’s City) close to the old walled city of Nineveh.
Jonah actually recites the first five of the 13 attributes of God, given in Exodus 34:6-7 and repeated during Yom Kippur.
Sukkah(סֻכָּה) hut, temporary shelter. It is a Jewish tradition to take meals in a sukkah during the week of Sukkot, which follows Yom Kippur.
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), and the haftarah is Amos 2:6-3:8.
The doom of other countries is easier to read about than the doom of your own. So the book of Amos opens with God’s proclamations against the kingdom of Israel’s neighbors Aram, Philistia, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah. In each prophecy, Amos mentions a wicked deed the state committed, followed by the war-related punishment that God will bring down upon it.
I can imagine Amos’s audience in the kingdom of Israel nodding at the well-deserved punishments predicted for other countries, many of which their own king, Jereboam II, attacked in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. Then Amos’s introductory formula for the next prophecy names Israel. This week’s haftarah begins:
Thus said God:
Because of three revolts of Israel,
And because of four, I will not accept it:
Because of selling the innocent for silver,
And the needy for the sake of a pair of sandals. (Amos 2:6)
The first revolt (or transgression) against God in Amos’s polemic against the Israelites is selling people into slavery merely out of greed. In the Bible parents are allowed to sell themselves or their children—but only to fellow Israelites, and only in order to pay off debts.1 Selling someone to an outsider, or for any reason other than debt, is unacceptable.
In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver, to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their only reason is that they hate him. Later they suffer for this bad deed.
The book of Amos goes on to list four other revolts against God by Israelites:
Mauling the head of the powerless in the dust of the ground,
They stretch the path of the needy.
A man and his father go to the [same] na-arah
For the sake of profaning My holy name.
And on garments taken as security [for debts]
They stretch out beside every altar.
And wine from fines they charged
They drink in the house of their god(s). (Amos 2:7-2:8)
na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = girl; a young woman old enough to marry who has not yet had a child; a female slave or servant.
The Israelites who revolt against God are the ones who victimize the innocent, the needy, the powerless, servants, and debtors. They disregard God’s instructions about the poor in order to accumulate silver and live in selfish luxury, indulging in dubious sex and lolling about drinking beside religious altars. (Either they are worshiping an alien god, as Amos discovers in Bethel, or they are using a shrine built for making libations and animal sacrifices to God as if it were a private drinking hall.)
The wealthier Israelites ignore God despite everything God has done for them: bringing them up from Egypt (where the Israelites were the slaves), guiding them through the wilderness, and destroying their Amorite (i.e. Canaanite) enemies. Furthermore,
I raised up some of your children for neviyim,
And some of your youths for nezirim.
Is this also nothing, children of Israel?
neviyim (נְבִיאִים) = prophets (singular= navi, נָבִיא). From the root verb niba (נִבָּא) = behave like a prophet, either by having ecstatic experiences of the divine, or by serving as a mouthpiece and translator for God.
nezirim (נְזִרִים) = nazirites; men and women who dedicate themselves to a period of sanctity during which they abstain from grooming their hair and from drinking wine and other alcohol. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.)
The neviyim transmit God’s messages to the people. The nezirim set an example of inner strength, even in their youth, by holding themselves to a different standard for the sake of sanctity. God’s rhetorical question—Is this also nothing?—is designed to make the listeners agree that neviyim and nezirim are assets to the community.
But the Israelites have rejected these human assets, making the nezirim break their vows and forbidding the neviyim to speak for God.
But you made the nezirim drink wine,
And you ordered the neviyim, saying: Lotinavu! (Amos 2:11-12)
Lo tinavu (לֹא תִּנָּבְאוּ) = You shall not prophesy! Lo(לֹאּ) = not; tinavu is a form of the verb niba(נִבָּא).
Naturally the immoral, disobedient Israelites do not want anyone reminding them of their own wickedness.
Since the Israelites have rejected God’s gifts, God threatens to make Israel’s army unnaturally slow and weak. The obvious, though unstated, conclusion is that if an enemy army (such as the Assyrians) attacks, the kingdom will be unable to defend itself.
Amos continues God’s prophecy with a list of rhetorical questions, including:
If misfortune happens in a town,
Did not God make it? (Amos 3:6)
This expresses the common Biblical belief that God controls everything that happens to human beings. Individuals are responsible for their own behavior, but nothing else; when bad things happen to them it is always a punishment from God for misbehaving. (The Hebrew Bible questions this ancient belief only in the book of Job.) Biblical writers applied a similar principle to collective behavior: if a whole country is vanquished, the reason is not that the enemy has superior military might, technology, or strategy, but rather that God is using the enemy’s army to punish people who have done wrong.
By sending a prophet, God gives a country a chance to reform and avoid the divine punishment. In the book of Jonah, once the reluctant prophet finally prophesies in Nineveh, the people repent and the city is saved—even though Nineveh is the capital of the evil Neo-Assyrian Empire. Amos pauses in his list of rhetorical questions to remind his audience:
Indeed, my lord God does not do a thing
Unless He has revealed His confidential plan to His servants, the neviyim. (Amos 3:7)
Then Amos finishes his list:
A lion has roared;
Who will not be afraid?
My lord God has spoken;
Who will not prophesy? (Amos 3:8)
God’s voice is as frightening as a lion’s roar. When God speaks to the prophet, he cannot help but obey God by transmitting the message. Amos may be implying that God’s word, spoken by a true prophet, should be just as frightening. Then the Israelites could not help but repent and reform.
Yet the wealthy and powerful of Israel are so resistant to change that they order the neviyim to keep their mouths shut and go away.2 They would rather continue doing wrong and stay in denial than admit their wrongdoing and change their ways in time to avoid the conquest and destruction of their country.
Today, when we face the degradation of the whole world due to climate change, including a high toll on human life, few people consider it a punishment from God. Why blame an anthropomorphic deity, when it is so easy so see how human actions are causing our collective suffering?
Nevertheless, it is hard to change our actions. Many people today offer information about what is happening, and call for reducing air pollution and preparing for rising waters. Some individuals are responding by using less gasoline to travel—and no doubt when Amos prophesied, a few individuals responded by treating the poor and their own families with more justice, and their religion with more respect.
Yet when a whole kingdom, or the whole world, is threatened, the disaster can only be avoided or ameliorated by commitment and action on the part of the leaders at the top. In the book of Jonah, Nineveh would not have repented if its king had not put on sackcloth and issued his decree. In the book of Amos, King Jereboam II never reforms, and neither do his people. By 720 B.C.E. the Assyrian army had captured Israel and its capital, Samaria.
May a divine spirit open all of our ears and hearts today, and may all the leaders and influential people of the world become more like the repentant king of Nineveh than like the leaders of Israel in the time of Amos.
1See my postHaftarat Vayeira—2 Kings: Dance of Pride. Even when someone acquired a slave as a payment of debt, the debtor’s kinsman was obligated to buy back his relative as soon as he could afford it, and after six years a master had to liberate an Israelite slave even without financial recompense. In fact, the Torah says: And when you send him out emancipated from you, do not send him out with nothing. You must certainly provide him [with goods] from your flock or from your threshing-floor or from your wine-vat, which are blessings that God has given you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:13-14)
2 An example is given later in the book: Amatzyah, the priest of Bethel, sent to Jereboam, the king of Israel, saying: Amos conspires against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land cannot endure everything he speaks! (Amos 7:10) … And Amatzyah said to Amos: Seer, go with your spirit to the land of Judah, and eat your bread there, and prophesy there! But do not ever prophesy again at Bethel, because it is a sanctuary for the king and a royal palace. (Amos 7:12-13)
In this season of Jewish holy days, we once again have three haftarot (readings from the Prophets) in one week. On Yom Kippur we read Isaiah 57:14-58:14 and the whole book of Jonah. Then on Saturday we read 2 Samuel 22:1-51, the haftarah for Ha-azinu, the second to last Torah portion in Deuteronomy.
The English word “atone” was first used in the 16th century as a contraction of “at one”. Atonement is the process of making amends for wrongdoing in order to restore unity—especially unity with God.
In Biblical Hebrew, the word for atonement is kippurim (כִּפֻּרִים). It comes from the verb kipper (כִּפֶּר), which means cover, appease, make amends, reconcile.
The first Torah reading on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is a selection from the Torah portion Acharey Mot in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. The portion describes an annual ritual of atonement in which the high priest places lots on two goats. He sacrifices one goat to reunite the sanctuary with God, and places the sins of the Israelites on the head of the other goat before sending it off into the wilderness. (See my post Metzorah & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)
Today on Yom Kippur, Jews read this Torah portion about the ancient technology for atonement, but we also confess misdeeds, beg for forgiveness, and pray for atonement with the divine.
All three haftarot this week assume that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked—but if those who have been wicked repent and make amends, God welcomes them back.
First Haftarah on Yom Kippur: Isaiah 57:14-58:14
In this passage from second Isaiah, God promises to revive and heal the humble, but:
There is no shalom, said my God, for the wicked. (Isaiah 57:21)
I believe this is true even without an all-seeing god who directly interferes in the lives of individuals. Everyone who acts immorally eventually suffers because most of the humans around them come to distrust and reject them.
People who have a moral sense and know they are doing wrong also suffer from nagging uneasiness. They can distract themselves and/or go into denial, but peaceful well-being is not an option for them. They cannot become “at one” with the still, small voice within themselves.
The haftarah from Isaiah goes on to say that fasting and bowing, sackcloth and ashes—the 6th-century B.C.E. formula for Yom Kippur—are useless for atonement unless one also frees the oppressed, feeds the hungry, shelters the poor, clothes the naked, and refrains from violence and evil speech. The way to be heard by God is to do good for your fellow human beings.
That is when you will call and God will answer;
You will cry for help and [God] will say: Here I am. (Isaiah 58:9)
Good deeds create atonement.
Second Haftarah on Yom Kippur: Jonah
When the prophet Jonah finally submits to doing the mission God gave him, he walks into Nineveh, the capitol of the Assyria, oppressor of the Israelites, and calls out:
“Another forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the men of Nineveh believed in God, and they proclaimed a fast and they put on sackcloth, from the great to the small. And the word was told to the king of Nineveh, and he rose from his throne and he took off his robe and he put on sackcloth and he sat on the ashes. (Jonah 3:5-6)
The king issues a proclamation that all the human residents, and even the livestock, must fast, wear sackcloth, cry out to God, and repent of doing violence.
And God saw what they did, that they turned away from the evil path; and God had a change of heart about the bad thing [God] spoke about doing to them, and [God] did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)
God forgives the whole Assyrian capitol city of Nineveh even before its people do any good deeds. It is enough for them to admit their bad behavior and sincerely intend to reform.
Repentance creates atonement.
Third Haftarah: Reading from 2 Samuel for Saturday
The haftarah for the Torah portion Ha-azinu is read on either the Saturday before Yom Kippur or the Saturday afterward, depending on that year’s Hebrew calendar. This year it comes after Yom Kippur.
This haftarah is a psalm attributed to King David, looking back on his life. (The long poem reappears with only a few minor word changes as Psalm 18.) Most commentary praises David for attributing all his narrow escapes and military successes to God rather than to his own cleverness.
Yet after praising and thanking God for rescuing him from his enemies, David explains:
He rescues me ki He is pleased with me.
God treats me according to my righteousness,
According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me.
Ki I have kept the ways of God,
And I have not done evil before my God.
Ki all His laws are in front of me
And from His decrees I do not swerve.
And I am without blame or blemish for Him,
And I have kept myself from wrongdoing. (2 Samuel 22:20-24)
ki (כִּי) = because, when, if.
How can David describe himself as a paragon? Earlier in the second book of Samuel, he clearly violates two of the Ten Commandments:
You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13)
Earlier in the second book of Samuel, David sees a beautiful woman bathing, and finds out that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who is one of David’s soldiers. Nevertheless, he summons her to his palace and lies down with her.
When she informs the king that she is pregnant, he sends a message to the battlefront for Uriah to come back to Jerusalem. King David urges Uriah to go home and spend the night with his wife. But Uriah insists on sleeping with the king’s officers, so David cannot claim he got his own wife pregnant.
David sends Uriah back to the front with a letter for his general, Joab, instructing him to place Uriah in the most dangerous part of the battlefield, then fall back so Uriah will be killed. General Joab carries out the king’s orders.
As soon as Bathsheba has finished the mourning period for Uriah, King David takes her as his eighth wife. But he has already committed both adultery and murder. The prophet Nathan tells David a parable illustrating why his actions were despicable, and informs him that God said:
Why then did you hold the word of God in contempt, doing what is evil in My eyes? (2 Samuel 12:9)
God then states the consequences: “the sword will not swerve from your household”, and someone from David’s household will lie with the king’s women.
And David said to Nathan: “I did wrong before God.” Then Nathan said to David: “God will even let your wrongdoing pass; you will not die. Nevertheless …the son, the one [about to be] born to you, he will die.” (2 Samuel 12:13-14)
So how can David say, in this Saturday’s haftarah: “I have not done evil before my God” and “From His decrees I do not swerve”?
Maybe David is living in a narcissist’s fantasy world, guilty of grandiosity and denial. Yet he did admit wrongdoing when Nathan pointed it out to him. Maybe David believed that God only rescues people who are perfectly good, so David painted himself that way.
But I think David knows he did wrong in the eyes of God when he took Uriah’s wife and had Uriah killed. His confession saved his own life, but he was thoroughly punished. Bathsheba’s first son sickened and died soon after birth. Later, one of David’s older sons, Absalom, killed his half-brother Amnon, overthrew his father, and lay with his father’s concubines. In the ensuing war between father and son, Absalom was killed despite David’s orders to spare his life.
By the time King David writes the psalm comprising this Saturday’s haftarah, he probably considers that God had punished him enough for his heinous crimes, and his slate has been wiped clean. Since those terrible times, his behavior has been righteous.
When David says:
He rescues me ki He is pleased with me. (2 Samuel 22:20)
he might mean that God rescues him when God is pleased with him, not because. And when David writes:
God treats me according to my righteousness,
According to the cleanness of my hands He requites me. (2 Samuel 22:21)
he might mean that when he is righteous and keeps his hands clean, God rewards him, but when he fails to do the right things, God makes him suffer. He knows that God’s response varies according to his behavior, and that he was not always such a paragon. Realizing this, David says,
I became without blame or blemish for Him,
And I kept myself from wrongdoing. (2 Samuel 22: 24)
According to this reading, David’s message is that a human being can change. We suffer when we do evil, but we still have the ability to keep ourselves from doing wrong again. We can still become good and righteous, without blame or blemish.
The two haftarot we read on Yom Kippur show that both good deeds and repentance create atonement with God. The haftarah for Ha-azinu this Saturday shows that even a murderer can repent and change himself into a righteous human being. The conscientious effort to return to the right path and stay on it creates atonement.
May we all be blessed with the ability to return to oneness with God, and may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.