Dvar by Tamara Kramer – Yom Kippur 2021

Hi, I hope everyone is feeling like they are on the verge of something great. A year full of successes and love, salvation, a meal?  Marilyn suggested I speak about Jonah today since this is the book we read in full on Yom Kippur. And I said I would do it. SO, here goes.

Imagine you are asked to do something that you feel you are not good at.

That makes you uncomfortable. That scares you.

Maybe it’s taking a job where you feel like a fraud. Or throwing your kid a birthday party. Starting school. Or making small talk. Maybe supporting a friend through an illness. Or making dinner every night. Doing the taxes? Showing up for a tinder hook-up? Or perhaps making a Dvar Torah on Yom Kippur when everyone is desperately hoping that the powers that be will make something livable of their lives. As an example. 

And you feel with so much of who you are, like you just don’t want to do it. 

And you have no right pretending that you can do it. 

But you also don’t want to say no. 

And the pressure is so unbearable, that you decide to kill yourself. Fini. Take the last train to deadsville and voila problem solved. 

You feel bad about the decision, a little tortured.

But you also feel this is best for everyone. You are doing everyone a favour. The community, the world, will be better off without you. 

And you jump. Into a sea of deep despair or denial or a tub of numbing juice, to avoid doing this thing. To avoid being called to live up to what is being asked of you. And you sink. And you’re wavering between here, and the party six feet below. And it feels good to be saying goodbye to all the crap. And all the worry. And all the people wanting you to live up. To step up. To stand out. To BE somebody. To take care of somebody.

And then, you get swallowed by a whale.

That in a nutshell is what I have been asked to do. I mean to talk about today.  The story of Jonah and the whale, read each year on Yom Kippur. A nice unassuming guy. Your average Jo. Being called upon to do something absolutely unreal. 

“Hey Jo!  Get up and tell everyone here that what they are doing and how they are living is very very bad and if they continue, God will destroy everyone who paid their membership fees to the Mile End Chavurah. Even the children. Like, who really wants to do that? Nobody. 

But that’s what God asks of Jonah. A man who does not want to be a prophet. He’d rather just stick to the regular grind. Maybe chill with coffee at the Social Club. He doesn’t want to have to come up with a whole mass communications plan, just to let people know that God has a message she wants to disseminate. 

So as the story goes, When God asks Jonah to do the prophet thing and tell all the people of Nineveh that they are in serious shit – he runs away. He gets on the first cruise to Crete and hopes he never has to set foot in Adultville again. 

The bottom line, he felt he wasn’t able to rise up to the challenge being thrown his way. He was stuck. And when he got on the ship and set sail, things didn’t get easier. Legend has it that God was so pissed with Jonah, she practically turned the ocean upside down. Now Jonah’s fellow cruise mates were a kind gang and they wanted to help him out.  But they were shaken up by God’s wrath, so when Jonah offered to jump ship in order to save them all, they finally said, “OK, just do it already!” (Clearly having missed the session on active listening at the suicide hotline.)

And truth is, when Jonah threw it all away and let go of life … the seas calmed and the ship was saved. 

I can admit that I myself have been swallowed a few times by a whale. I imagine others here have as well.  That’s the normal part of the story. Sitting like a pair of underwear in the washing machine, being shaken up. Splattering around in a dark cave of ribs. I don’t care how beautiful it is in Tadoussac, this is why I don’t go whale watching. Especially in September. It’s not safe.

But for Jonah, it was his first time. And he got bloody scared. What was worse? Being a fraud at work, or marinating in a dark fish gut? Standing in front of a community of people to talk about salvation -public speaking we’re talking about here -or, starving in a dark dank belly with no way out? 

The story of Jonah has a few nuances to it about the gentile community and how Jonah felt about them, but I’m not going to address that right now. I’m going to stick with the “man freaked out by life; runs away” theme.   Because I feel like that’s my beat. And in fact, that’s why Marilyn suggested I talk about Jonah. Not because she thinks I’m a prophet of the almighty, but because I think she sees in me something that many of us feel.

A reticence to pay our membership fees. A reticence to be part of a community when it is so much easier to watch the Queen’s Gambit or Fleabag or Queer Eye or Schitt’s Creek or The Great Canadian Baking Show.  

Stepping up and stepping out and stepping in front of, is no easy task. 

Why do we run away in our own lives? Where do we run? And what gets us to beg to be vomited out of the whale? 

There are many people who say they don’t want to talk about vomit on Yom Kippur. The holiest day of the year. But puke is a legitimate part of the story. 

When I was swallowed by a whale last time, I didn’t think I would beg to get out. It was probably my 6th or 7th time on the inside.  

If any of you have ever done a sweat lodge, being swallowed by a whale is very similar. 

It is so desperately hot in there. And you actually chose to be “ingested” by this steamy tent. And the only way to get through is by chanting and praying and calling up to some part of yourself that is mostly asleep all your life. And grasping on to the strength of your fellow sweat lodge dwellers. And like life – it’s fucking unbearable- but somehow you want to be there. And you sweat and pray and chant and you torture yourself until the point that it dawns on you that you must really want to be part of this ritual to be going through this. Like in life, you are suffering, but you are also working every day to find ways to feel alive and to remind yourself that for some reason all this ‘being here” is worth it.

When I stepped away from body and saw myself buying tickets for the high holidays with the Chavurah, sending an e-transfer with my membership fees, sending my vaccine proof to Peter….I saw that a part of me was dying.  I said Kaddish when I paid the membership fees. Kaddish for that ambivalent person who loves to wander and to be non-committal, and be whimsical. To my younger self. To the me, that liked being part of the Chavurah because I could be here when I wanted and stay away for anything with chanting. I could meander into the high holidays service at the last minute if I really felt like I needed to be there. And I do hope this community remains a place for people like that -like me. But I have paid the membership fee, and the price for membership, is belonging. It’s saying, OK, I’ll fricking go to Nineveh and bloody tell them that they are doomed. If that’s what I have to do, then for Christ’s sake I’ll do it. Because I do want to be part of this life.

I have no idea if what I’m saying is coherent, or meaningful, but I’ve been in the whale’s belly all year. And now I want out. And so I’m begging you all to take me as I am – all covered in vomit. And I’ll take you as you are. I will do my best to show up for you all however I can.