Tales from the Tomb

On the afternoon of Yom Kippur last week, we read the Book of Jonah, which tells the tale of the titular prophet who was commanded to bring a prophecy of doom against the city of Nineveh in ancient Assyria, modern day Iraq. Rabbis have puzzled over Jonah’s inclusion in the Yom Kippur service, but one idea is that it is a model for teshuvah, repentance. We might find it difficult to change our ways, but in the book, the entire foreign city, from its elites to even its animals, decides to turn to God. If they can do it, so can we.

But there is an interesting postscript to the story of Nineveh. The later prophet Nahum also delivers a pronouncement against the city. According to the medieval commentator Rashi, quoting from Targum Jonathan, an ancient Aramaic translation of the Bible, “In early times, Jonah son of Amittai prophesied concerning it, and they repented of their sins, and when they continued to sin, Nahum of the house of Elkosh prophesied further concerning them.” So perhaps the city listened to Jonah, but quickly forgot his words, which is essentially what Jonah complains about to God. He was worried that God would forgive Nineveh without justification.

One of the rabbis’ favorite tricks in our liturgy is selective quotation. They pull out passages from the Bible that often give the words new meaning without their context. They might end a line in the siddur so that it reads that God cancels all punishment, when the phrase in the Torah actually informs us that God doesn’t cancel all punishment. With the Yom Kippur afternoon Haftarah, the rabbis imply that story of Nineveh had a happy ending, that the people there found God, but that is not the end of the story. In fact, they backslid, like many of us do after the High Holy Days. We make promises to do better, and we mean them, but we also often go back to our disappointing behavior.

The prophet Nahum, we are told in the Bible, is from Elkosh, and according to an ancient tradition his tomb is in the town of Alqosh Iraq, near the city of Mosul, built on the ruins of Nineveh. The tomb was maintained by the now non-existent Kurdish Jewish community. After the Jews of Iraq emigrated to Israel, the synagogue and tomb fell into disrepair, but it has recently been renovated. One pay a virtual visit to it on the website of the organization that managed the restoration.

American Jews are less familiar with pilgrimage sites since our community is relatively young by historical standards. We do have the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ohel (tomb) in Queens, visited by Hasidim, his followers. There are other graves of rabbis that are visited as well, including here in New Jersey. But liberal Jews are not used to the power of these places, perhaps best expressed in a story from the Forward related about Nahum’s tomb:

One elderly rabbi recalled how his mother once even tried to blackmail the prophet.

“His brother, who was six or so years old, had not spoken yet. The family went to the tomb trying to seek the prophets to help,” Benard said. “Their mother told the prophets that they were going to stay in the shrine. They were moving in, and they were going to stay there until their child spoke.”

According to the rabbi, her plan worked: his brother spoke and later became a successful dentist.

Ancient stones have power, not just in dusty tombs. This week, the US is returning tablets from the epic of Gilgamesh that were stolen from Iraq during the first Gulf War. They are finally returning to the place that created them, to rest in the cradle of civilization together with Nahum, Nineveh and the beautiful multifaceted culture created in that important but troubled land.

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