Tell someone ‘you are a blessing’ to break moral emptiness preaches Rabbi Ed Feinstein

Rabbi Ed Feinstein unpacks the story of Jonah in his sermon “How Can You Sleep?” Sunday Aug. 20, 2023 in the Amphitheater. Dave Munch/Photo Editor

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

There is a Jewish tale that begins when God proposed to create humanity. God consulted the angels and they were divided into two groups. The angels of justice said yes — create humans and the humans will create justice. The angels of peace said no — the humans will create contention and chaos. The angels of righteousness said yes, create humans — arguing that they would bring loving-kindness to bear on the world. And the angels of truth said no, don’t create them; they will be deceitful. Ultimately, what did God decide to do? God threw truth into the ground and created the human being.

 “The ancient rabbis knew that there was a disconnect between human beings and the truth. We don’t want the truth,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein said. “As that great rabbi, Jack Nicholson said (in the movie ‘A Few Good Men’), ‘You can’t handle the truth.’ But our job is to dig the truth out of the ground.”

Feinstein preached at the 10:45 a.m. morning worship service Sunday in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “How Can You Sleep?” and the scripture reading was Jonah 1:1-6. 

This week begins a period of introspection for Jews leading up to Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur. “It is a time to look in the mirror to know who you are. And during the 25-hour fast on Yom Kippur, we read the most unusual book of Jonah,” he said.

Jonah, he said, is a story in three acts. In the first act, Jonah is told to go to Nineveh and appeal to the people there to repent. In the second act, Jonah is swallowed by a big fish, and in the third act Nineveh repents and Jonah sulks. 

When the word of God came to Jonah to go to Nineveh, he went to Tarshish. “Jonah was a man who lived divided by binaries: us and them, citizens and aliens. He is neatly bound, comfortable, set in his identity. He knows who he owes respect and duty to and who isn’t part of that group. He knows where his concerns end,” Feinstein said.

He continued, “God shatters binaries. Underneath these binaries is God’s wholeness and unity. There are no boundaries in God. In God, all are one. In God, the boundaries of the self include the other, the stranger, the refugee, the invisible one. I belong to you because you are me, and you belong to me because I am you.”

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the enemy who destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. 

Nineveh was the heart of darkness. Jonah thought, if God was really ready to repay Assyria for destroying the northern kingdom, he would go and cheer. God insisted that Jonah go and confront the humanity of his enemy.

“Go and find what separates you that can be repaired. See in the enemy your own reflection,’’ Feinstein said. “God’s world is not divided. But Jonah ran away because his identity was threatened. He thought, ‘If they are not them, who am I?’ ”

Jonah had to live with the splits: us from them, us here and them there, those who have always been here and those who are new. “The splitting left a universe of one, the egotistical, self-centered individual Jonah who thinks ‘life is all about me.’ ”

God said to go east and Jonah went west. God said to rise up and proclaim repentance, Jonah went down, down to the port, down to hide in the hold of a ship, into a dark, narrow world and went to sleep. “And God said, ‘OK, if you want down, I will show you down,’ ” Feinstein said. 

The captain came into the hold and asked Jonah, “How can you be sleeping?” There was a storm raging and the captain wanted Jonah; to pay attention.

Feinstein said, “When the Bible asks these questions, they are not for Jonah, they are for us. How can we be indifferent, idle, retreating into our privacy when the tempest of evil rages? So they cast Jonah overboard.”

Act Two begins when Jonah is swallowed by a big fish — “not a whale, that was Pinocchio,” Feinstein said. “Jonah sits in the dark, putrid inners. Welcome to God’s classroom. He wanted freedom from others and he found reality. How do you like the smell, Jonah?”

The Bible, said Feinstein, is not a collection of sweet fairy tales with easy morality. “It reflects light into the deep parts of the human soul and makes you see images you would rather ignore.”

Jonah was a self-satisfied, self-contained singular “me,” Feinstein said. He repeated The Beatles’ song lyrics: “He’s a real nowhere man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”

After three days and three nights, Act Three begins when the big fish spews Jonah onto shore. He went to Nineveh and proclaimed that the city would be destroyed in 40 days if they did not repent. The inhabitants of Nineveh, from the king down to the animals, believed God and repented. 

“Basically, in Hebrew, Jonah says five words, which translated are: ‘In 40 days, Nineveh toast.’ The king told everyone to repent of whatever evil they may be guilty of and God might spare them,” Feinstein said. 

He told the congregation, “There are 66 chapters in the book of Isaiah and no one repented. There are 56 chapters in the book of Jeremiah and no one repented. Only Jonah succeeds so well that even the animals repented. If this was Dickens, we would have plum pudding and Tiny Tim would bless us all.”

The Bible has for us to learn, he said. Jonah was angry. He said, “I know you are a compassionate God, but I would rather die than live.” God said, “Why are you so angry?”

Feinstein said, “God accepted the repentance and change in the people of Nineveh, but not Jonah. He would rather die than accept a loving, giving God.”

God was astonished that Jonah was so angry and could not understand why. “ ‘Where is your compassion?’ God asked,” Feinstein said. “And actually there is no ending to the book. God is exasperated and God is asking us why? God sees the refugees, those dying of hunger, sees the sickness, and asks, ‘Where is your compassion? Why can’t you love?’ ”

God looks at America and sees how divided we are, said Feinstein. “Where is the goodness, why is there so much anger? God asks God, ‘How can you create a creature so empty, so soulless?’ Jonah is God’s story of repentance and it ends without resolution; we provide the conclusion.” 

Feinstein said every biblical character has a shadow, an opposite. Jonah began in Canaan and was sent to Mesopotamia. Abraham was called from Mesopotamia and went to Canaan. “Abraham was sent to be a blessing,” Feinstein said.

He told the congregation, “We have to root out the Jonah in ourselves. Very few of us can become saints, but we can be a blessing to one another. I see what’s precious in you. I testify that we are connected, that I am incomplete without you. I testify that you matter to me and to God’s world.”

The homework Feinstein gave the congregation was to think of then call or get in touch with someone and let them know, “You are a blessing to me.” “Tell someone who helped you through a tough time or someone who has no idea how their life has touched yours,” he said.

He continued, “Say it, because every time you do, you displace a bit of Jonah, a bit of narcissism. Each blessing lifts you up. Each blessing makes God a little more satisfied with what God created, the answer to Jonah’s moral emptiness. Chautauqua, you are my blessing.” 

Before he began his sermon, Feinstein asked the congregation permission to savor the moment of being at a pulpit that had hosted some of the greatest preachers in Christendom and a handful of rabbis. His ancestors, who looked for a safe home for their children, would be astounded. 

“This is the fruit of democracy,” he said. “Tolerance leads to coexistence which leads to dialogue which leads to spiritual maturity. We learn and grow with each other. It is a testimony to the moral courage and generosity of Chautauqua and democracy.” Feinstein also acknowledged his teacher and mentor Rabbi Sam Stahl, as well as his wife Lynn Stahl, who were in the congregation. Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton also told the congregation that every Friday afternoon, Rabbi Feinstein bakes brownies from a recipe revealed to his ancestors at Mount Sinai.

The Rt. Rev. Eugene T. Sutton, senior pastor for Chautauqua Institution, presided. Renee Bergmann Andrews, former president of the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, read the scripture in Hebrew and English. Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, played “Prelude for the Opening of the New Synagogue in Beline,” by Hugo Schwantzer, on the Massey Memorial Organ. The Chautauqua Choir sang “He, watching over Israel,” music by Felix Mendelssohn and text from Psalm 121:4, 136:7. The choir was under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar. The offertory anthem, sung by the choir under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Stigall, was “They that go down to the sea in ships,” music by Herbert Sumison, text from Psalm 107:23-30. Stigall played “Toccata – The Acknowledgement,” by David Hurd, for the postlude. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Daney-Holden Chaplaincy Fund and the Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.