Yonah’s Nigun

© Alexander Massey 9 Oct 2008

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I wrote this originally as a musical meditation to prepare for leading Mincha (the afternoon service) at Yom Kippur 5769 (2008) with the London Ruach Chavurah community (Jewish Renewal).

Some commentators on the Book of Jonah have said that the story begins with Jonah in the Temple, in devekut (‘cleaved’ to God), and that God requires him to leave this rarified environment and to fulfil a task in the world. Jonah is not entirely happy to be ordered away from his heightened, prayerful state. In the story, we feel Jonah’s indecision as he alternates between drawing away from or turning back towards God, physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. This is part of the drama of High Holy Days, as we wrestle with our conscience and conflicting feelings, drawing towards God for forgiveness and nourishment, and away in fear of judgment or even (dare we admit?) through disappointment with God.

But Jonah is caught in a false dilemma. To leave the Temple, and conclude a time of prayer does not mean to leave God. Our task is not to pull away from the world in favour of union with the Divine; to disengage from the world is to disengage from the immanent God who is in the world; God calls on us to enjoy the world, and to help in its repair to bring it to wholeness. Ancient commentaries teach us this. Shimon ben Gamliel warned that “Study (midrash) is not the primary thing but the doing.” (Pirkei Avot 1:17) Rabbi Huna said: “He who only occupies himself with the study of the Torah is as if he had no God.” (Avodah Zarah 17b) There is a story told of Rabbi Schneur of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe), who was studying Torah on the second storey of the house of his son (the Mitteler Rebbe). Below him, on the ground floor, the Mitteler Rebbe was also studying, with his own son lying in a cradle nearby. The infant started crying, and the Alter Rebbe immediately went downstairs to comfort his grandson. The Alter Rebbe asked his son why he had not comforted his own child. The MItteler Rebbe explained that he had been absorbed in study. The Alter Rebbe replied that one should never study so hard as not to be able to hear a child’s cry.

We have to find a mindful pace for this nigun that enables us to feel the emotional undercurrents in the music and identify with them – time and spaciousness are integral to this process. The slightest increase in pace can quicken our pulse, and excite our minds and sensibilities, but threaten to cut the delicate thread that joins our awareness with God’s. As we continue to sing (especially with the overlapping voices), the music begins to feel like it is moving in waves – of the sea where Jonah is plunged? Or the ebb and flow of Jonah’s enthusiasm for his task, for God? This nigun may take us into an altered state, but we must bring something back from that to inform and fortify us for right action in the world. We can learn from the debate between Rabbis Tarfon and Akiba, who were asked, “Which is greater, study (talmud) or action (ma’aseh)?” The conclusion was, “Study is greater, for it leads to action” (Kiddushin 40b).

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