The Pillars of Justice, or Why a Whale? – a Yom Kippur Drash

By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

One of my favorite Yiddish stories is I.L. Peretz’s Ob Nisht Noch Hecher (“If Not Higher.”) It’s worth seeking out Peretz’s charming, evocative rendition, even in translation, but briefly: The Rebbe of Nemirov seems to disappear every morning at Sliches time and no one knows to where. The rumour is that he ascends to Heaven.

A Litvak, new to town, scoffs when he hears this and decides to find out where the Rebbe really goes to expose him as a charlatan. The Litvak hides under the Rebbe’s bed and in the morning, follows the Rebbe, now dressed as a Russian peasant, to the edge of the shtetl where the Rebbe chops firewood by hand. The Litvak watches with eyes wide as the Rebbe, still in disguise, enters the hut of a very poor old woman, lights her fireplace, bringing much-needed warmth and light, while secretly chanting the Selichot prayers. He then leaves, refusing to take money for his work.

From then on, the Litvak becomes one of the Rebbe’s disciples. And later, when anyone would wonder if the Rebbe was flying up to Heaven, the Litvak would answer quietly, “If not higher.”

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we will read the Book of Jonah. Most of us are familiar with the story. Kids love it, and a story with a whale is always a winner. But interestingly, the most valuable part comes after the whale releases Jonah, after Jonah warns the Ninevites to repent, and after they all immediately do so.

At this point, Jonah should be pleased. He’s not – he’s furious. Jonah tells G-d that he knew this would happen: What was the point of the whole whale thing if G-d was just going to have mercy on this terrible people? Jonah beseeches G-d to treat the Ninevites with severity. Instead, G-d forgives.

In response to Jonah’s anger in the face of this mercy, G-d sends a plant to protect Jonah from the sun and wind. This makes Jonah happy, but the very next day, G-d sends a worm to kill the plant, and Jonah grieves.

G-d does this to help Jonah understand mercy; to illustrate that if Jonah is going to grieve for a plant “which (Jonah) did not work for and which (he) did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight – Should G-d not care about Nineveh in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people…?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

How does Jonah respond? Does he learn his lesson the way the Litvak did? We never find out. The Book of Jonah ends here with the question.

In Kabbalah, there is a saying that justice has two pillars: mercy and severity. The pillar of mercy represents forgiveness for our wrongdoings. The severity pillar represents being responsible for our decisions and that we reap what we sow. In life, justice needs both pillars to exist in balance. The pillar of severity upholds accountability. The pillar of mercy considers the circumstances and makes exceptions.

With the state of the world now, finding this balance is challenging. We are tired and scared. We alternate between numbness and hypersensitivity. Our anxieties chatter, our nerves are shot. It is easy, in this situation, to tip the balance of justice to the side of severity: we long for somewhere to place blame. Like Jonah, mercy no longer seems fitting – we want retribution, vengeance, we want someone to pay.

As we approach Yom Kippur, our “Day of At-One-Ment,” let us work to balance our severity with mercy. Let us ensure that true justice: impartial, reasonable, righteous, is every bit as tuned to mercy as to discipline. This difficult time is exactly the time to hone compassion, understanding, and generosity. And when that friend/acquaintance/stranger comes to us to ask for forgiveness, consider offering it as a gift to them, but mostly as a gift to ourselves.

As we continue our spiritual curriculum in this school of life, we don’t always have to be better. Higher will do.

Shabbat Shalom, and G’mar Chatimah Tova.


Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish Educator and story-teller in Calgary. She is currently attending rabbinic school online through the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute in New York and will be ordained in December 2020.