28 Sep 2017

Haftara for Yom Kippur (Afternoon) 5778: Optical Delusions

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Please click HERE to listen to this week’s audio recording read by Rabbi Joseph Dweck. 

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

— Albert Einstein


The Book of Jonah


From 1987 to 1991 a biosphere was built in Oracle, Arizona. The artificial, closed ecological system, named Biosphere 2[1] was built to mimic the conditions of planet Earth and its capacity to maintain life through meticulously balanced ecosystems. The biosphere sits on 3.14-acres (1.27-hectare) of land. It remains the largest closed system ever created. For two years four men and four women had to grow their own food, live off their own recycled water and live off the air that was sustained by their own small rainforest, savannah, ocean and farm.

Careful planning had to go into the engineering of the biosphere because life on Earth is a vast web of interconnected and interdependent elements that affect each other’s existence and survival. Everything is connected.

The biosphere was overwhelmingly successful, yet, there were significant complications. The most serious was the unanticipated loss of oxygen. Over seven tonnes of oxygen were lost within the biosphere. A great deal of CO2 that was meant to be absorbed by the plant life and converted to oxygen was instead unexpectedly absorbed at high levels into the concrete, which caused severe oxygen depletion. It affected the blood chemistry of the inhabitants and they began waking at night gasping for air, suffering from sleep apnea. This in turn, had negative effects on their creativity, moods, problem solving skills and interpersonal behaviour.

The web of existence on this planet is so complex and interdependent that any aspect that is altered has an effect on the totality. Because of the earth’s size however, we do not always experience the effects of such changes immediately and we lose sense of the level of our interconnectedness with the rest of the planet.

Becoming more aware of our place and interrelationships is an essential aspect of character refinement. In order to genuinely address our attributes and integrity and live our fullest lives we must endeavour to understand as best we can how we fit into the system within and by which we live. We aim to achieve integration not only within ourselves and the aspects of our character but also with our world and the components of our environment. In doing so we achieve atonement.

Atonement is a powerful English word which denotes the action of making amends and reparation. Yet, in seeking atonement we not only look to repair misdeeds, but also to reintegrate and rehabilitate one’s relationship with others, the world and God. Atonement is at-one-ment. It comes from the obsolete English verb one ‘to unite’. It was influenced as well by the Medieval Latin andunamentum ‘unity’.

This concept is brought out in synagogue services throughout the Jewish world on the afternoon of Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement. It is presented in the form of a story about Yonah, a reluctant prophet and his Divine calling to discover the full nature of atonement.


He is an unlikely messenger of God in that he is certainly the least obedient prophet we find in the Bible. He attempts to avoid God’s explicit mission to warn a gentile nation, the people of the great city of Nineveh, that if they fail to repent from their iniquities they will meet their doom in three days’ time. In the end, as we would expect, God’s will prevails and Yonah carries out the mission. The people promptly repent but the disgruntled prophet’s story does not end there. He has more to learn.

Yonah finds himself alone and suffering in the debilitating heat of the day with little shelter. God causes a kikayon – a castor tree – to grow and provide him shade.

Yonah rejoices over this only to find that overnight it has gone having been eaten away by worms. Yonah is deeply angered and God speaks to Him in what is probably the most rhetorical sarcasm in all the Bible.

Then God said to Yonah, “Are you good and angry about the plant?”

“Yes,” he replied, “so deeply that I want to die.” 

Then God said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow,  which appeared overnight and perished overnight. 

And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left?!

What is it that has Yonah so bothered? What does God aim at teaching him with this mission and troubling ordeal?

Yonah’s attention is frequently drawn towards the world around him. He is to care for a nation of gentiles even though he is a prophet of Israel. He is to bond deeply with a plant, and he is asked about caring for a large population of people and their animals.

Yonah, whose name literally means ‘dove’, sought to hover above the world in holiness. He felt that to be concerned with a heathen nation’s repentance would be counterproductive[2]. But God insists that they are nonetheless constituents of planet Earth and thus quite relevant to him. He must learn that he cannot live on the planet and serve as a prophet to a nation that is meant to be its custodians[3] if he is not sensitive and attentive to the Earth’s population and the elements that contribute to the planet’s equilibrium.

After all, we were all pagans once.

At the start our fathers worshipped foreign gods. (Hagadda for Pesah) and we all came from the earth

And Lord God formed the human of dust from the soil….(Gen. 2:7)

We all interact within a global ecosystem and we are all participants within that system. To lose sight of this opens us up to what Einstein called an optical delusion — a false sense of being autonomous. It is in this state of mind that we grow in selfishness and take from the world more than we give to it. We seek to be at its centre rather than a harmonious part of its entirety. We live in hubris and inevitably become impious and solipsistic.

While Yonah is sulking in his dismay at not having his comforts, God points out to him that just as the tree had grown from the earth as he did and provided him shade, all elements of the earth have their part in balancing the fertile environment in which life could thrive. God thus insists without leaving an opportunity for an answer, that the animals were reason enough to save Nineveh.

And should I not care about Nineveh…in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons…and many animals as well!

A central aspect of return to truth and clarity — which is the essence of teshuba — is to come to greater awareness of the true nature of our existence and acknowledge the interrelationships that not only occur in our lives, but that provide the very possibility for our being. It is the only way we can fully exist and find real connection with God, the Source of Existence.

Yonah wanted to keep to Israel and its business. He did not want to be bothered with the issues of other nations. Yet he is taught, that Israel must never be confined to a self-defined, artificial system. To do so is to be doomed to being locked away within our perceptions and to sever our roots with the world and the earth from which we emerged.

Organic[4] growth is the most stable and viable path towards development. As we grow, we must always remain cognisant of our origins and developing relationships. No matter how far beyond them we might emerge, knowing that they are ingredients of our being is critical.

On Yom Kippur, as on Rosh HaShana, we call to God to ‘remember us for life!’ We do so on Yom Kippur knowing that teshuba, our return to reality, is for our own good it enables our ability to live our best lives and thrive.

Torah teaches us that on Yom Kippur we must reexamine the nature of our involvement with the world and seek to repair the areas in which we have become cognitively disengaged. On the Day of Atonement we aim to free ourselves from the optical delusion of disconnection and emerge from the prison of the self into a wide world of possibility. We step out into life and live it.

Tizku leShanim Rabot

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Earth itself is Biosphere 1.

[2] Cf. Pesikta DeRibbi Eliezer, 10; Rashi, 1:3.

[3] Ex., 19:6. Cf. Isaiah, 42:6.

[4] Denoting a harmonious relationship between the elements of a whole; characterized by gradual or natural development. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/organic