“Jonah in the Middle”: My Yom Kippur 2017 sermon (Synagogue Emanu-El, Charleston, SC)

Of my achievements from the past year, the one that surprised me the most also is one familiar to a lot of you: I finally binge-watched a television series from beginning to end on Netflix. That’s right, all five seasons of House of Cards. I did it! My parents, by the way, are very proud that I’ve finally done something with my life.

All kidding aside, binge-watching is a fairly common practice nowadays. At first glance, it might seem strange that we think of spending long hours in front of the television as new behavior; for as long as I can remember, the phrase “too much TV” was an angry refrain parents would level at their children. But now, this idea is almost embraced by many people.

And there are good reasons for this. One is that, in the view of most critics, there are more quality television shows than ever, accessible on more platforms than ever. According to Elizabeth Cohen, a Communications professor at West Virginia University, “We are in the midst of a golden age of television, with a variety of shows that provide a steady diet of novel premises, long-running, elaborate plots and morally complicated characters. Far from dulling the intellect, these shows create more suspense, interest and opportunities for critical engagement.” In an article published on The Conversation US Inc., Cohen cites journalist and media theorist Steven Johnson, who said that watching these shows may even make you smarter, that because television narratives have become increasingly complex, they require viewers to follow more storyline threads and juggle more characters and their relationships. All of this makes the audience more cognitively sophisticated.

Another reason is that streaming services like Netflix and Hulu typically offer every episode in a show’s history; it used to be that, if your friends told you about a great new show they were watching, you’d hope to catch up by watching re-runs during the summer, ideally with a friend next to you to help put that episode in the context of others. But now, all the episodes are available, on demand, and for many people, the idea of rattling off four episodes in one sitting feels almost normal, since it’s all the same show, just in one lengthy sequence.

And of course, woe to the person who doesn’t give spoiler alerts, who offers details of a popular show when someone hasn’t watched it, or at least hasn’t watched as much as you have. If you just finished Season 7 of Game of Thrones, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the perils of discussing recent episodes within earshot of someone who is “only” on Season 4. If you’re not careful, you’ll be greeted with something like, “Don’t say anything, I haven’t gotten that far yet!”

I’m not trying to argue whether binge-watching is good or bad for our emotional or physical health. Rather, I wish to consider how we approach stories in this modern age, both imaginary and real. Now that we’re so reluctant to start following a story other than at its beginning, it’s all too easy to ignore the story altogether. On one level, that’s a reasonable reaction; you wouldn’t start reading a novel in the middle of the book, so why would you do so with a TV series? But I wonder about how we approach other stories.

To explain this concern, it’s worthwhile to talk about the prophet Jonah, whose story we read about in synagogue this afternoon. Jonah is best known as the reluctant prophet who tries to run away from God, and instead is swallowed by a big fish. But he is perhaps bothered the most by the idea that he always seem to be caught in the middle — in the middle of someone else’s story.

You can see that in the book’s opening chapter, when he boards a ship in the opposite direction of the place God wants him to go. Jonah immediately heads to lowest level of the boat so he can fall asleep. But when the other sailors awaken him in the midst of a horrible storm, Jonah realizes he is the one standing between God and the sailors’ lives. He volunteers to be cast into the sea, where he finds himself, once again, in the middle — the middle of a fish’s belly, to be exact. After he repents and the fish releases him, Jonah finally carries out the task God asks of him, and places himself in the middle of the city of Nineveh, a community rife with wrongdoing. When Jonah warns the Ninevites of their impending doom, the townspeople repent, and God forgives them. To Jonah, this is the last straw, and he repeats the same behavior he shows in the initial chapter: he removes himself from the situation, and sits alone on the outskirts of town, bemoaning his fate.

That fate, in Jonah’s mind, is that of a pawn. He sees himself as someone God uses to accomplish something God could have done without any help. “O Lord!,” he exclaims. “Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.” In other words, Jonah is saying, “God, why did you need to bother me? You didn’t need a prophet in order to forgive the city of Nineveh. Why did You have to drag me into this?”

Part of what makes this passage so compelling is that Jonah actually makes a fair point. God could have chosen anyone else to deliver the message to the Ninevites, or any other method of communication, for that matter. Jonah isn’t upset that the Ninevites are forgiven; he’s mad that he has anything to with it. Jonah feels powerless, unable to write his own story, stuck as a supporting actor in a drama about God, nature, and entire nations. If this were a Netflix show, Jonah would be the third or fourth person listed in the opening credits, and probably would be killed off at the end of Season One — or, at least, he’d want to be. He senses that there’s no point in living a life that doesn’t feel like his own, and now that his task is complete, he feels that it’s all been a waste.

But Jonah’s attitude at the end of the book is the one that frustrates God most. God produces a plant to provide him with cool shade, and at first, Jonah rejoices. Yet, ever the teacher, God kills the plant within a day, disappointing Jonah once more. God responds that if Jonah cares so much for a plant, God has a responsibility to care for all creatures. But there’s also another message I believe God tries to teach as well: the idea that rebirth and new beginnings always are possible, even when we’re in the midst of a life already in progress. God realizes that Jonah thinks that just because he isn’t especially active in crafting his story, his life is a failure. Jonah refuses to realize that there is always another chance to start again.

I can’t help but think that Jonah looks at his own life the way we look at a television series we can’t see from the beginning — if we aren’t able to control our experience and to understand the narrative from the very first episode, the journey isn’t worth it. But what would happen if we picked up a story from the middle instead of the beginning?

What if we began watching, let’s say, Breaking Bad in the middle of its third season? Sure, we’d be a little lost, and might benefit from some background information. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t appreciate the artistry of what we were watching at that moment. We would still get a lot out of that episode. And thanks to DVDs and streaming services, we would have the chance to watch from the beginning at another time.

Likewise, what would happen if Jonah, in the days following the liberation of Nineveh, were to look at that moment as the first step in a new path in his life? Sure, he’s disappointed that his prior experiences were not what he had hoped. Certainly, he wishes he could go back to Episode 1 of his life and rewrite his every episode and chapter exactly to his liking. But maybe he’d also come to understand that life is not a Netflix subscription, and the only episodes that matter are the ones in front of him. He can choose to only lament the episodes he missed, or misunderstood, or focus instead on making his upcoming seasons rich and rewarding.

From where we stand, it’s easy to recommend the latter path for Jonah, to make the most of episodes ahead of us. It’s harder to follow that advice ourselves. It’s tougher to realize that, at every moment, we are in the middle of our own life’s narrative.

This is important to remember in the beginning of a new year, which, when you think about it, is a rather arbitrary point in time. After all, the Talmud teaches us that there are four different New Years every year — four different ways we start counting time each calendar year. We speak on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur about new beginnings, but depending on who you ask, it’s up to us to decide when we can make a new beginning. Perhaps, instead of focusing on beginnings, it’s simply worthwhile to make the middles of our stories better. It might not sound as appealing as a new beginning, but we cannot forget that the middle of the story is the very heart of the story.