It was a magical summer — spent, as always, with my family in the Rockaways. It was a full year before my bar mitzva, so I was spared the burden of preparing for that milestone. I spent the summer fishing with my friend Milton.
Milton was a year older. My parents were strictly Orthodox and sent me to a Jewish day school; Milton’s were not observant, and he attended public school. But we had a bond that transcended our different religious backgrounds.
We went fishing from the Cross Bay Bridge on Jamaica Bay every day, with the exception of Saturdays, when Milton, out of respect for my religious scruples, found other ways of entertaining himself. Our catch usually consisted of several fish known as porgies, which were bony and, my mother insisted, were not kosher. Occasionally, we caught a flounder or two, which we proudly brought home for dinner.
We spent most of the time talking philosophy in a speculative, but self-certain manner typical of boys our age. Because of our different backgrounds, we argued a lot about religion, God, the meaning of life, and how to know right from wrong.
In later years, I lost track of my childhood friend and forgot the specifics of those discussions. I remember that my family stayed in the Rockaways for the High Holy Days that year and I vaguely recall that just before Yom Kippur, I told Milton the story of Jonah and about a fish much bigger than our porgies and flounder.
This year, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, so instead of the regular Torah portion, we read sample passages from Leviticus and Isaiah. But in the Minha service we read the entire book of Jonah. I confess that the many times I read the Jonah story, I never connected it to that distant discussion with Milton.
That is, not until I met Milton again, several years ago, almost 50 years since our last meeting as boys. I was a guest lecturer at a Maryland synagogue. Afterward, a member of the audience approached me and asked if I was the Heshy Weinreb he knew back in the Rockaways. Milton and I were reunited.
After that evening we met several times to review the divergent paths our lives have taken. I hardly recalled our discussion about Jonah, but, for Milton the story of Jonah was what kept him connected to the Jewish tradition.
This is what he told me:
“I learned that just as the porgies and flounder in Jamaica Bay had their destiny — some to swim freely, others to the frying pan — so do we all have our destinies.
“I learned that God singles each of us out for an individualized mission — it may be a major prophetic one, as was Jonah’s, or it may be much less significant. But we each have our calling.
“I learned that one cannot escape his mission. Jonah tried to flee to the sea to avoid what he was meant to do. I have tried other ways but always found my way back, not in the belly of the great fish, but by remembering our amateur philosophizing while trying to catch little fish.
“I learned the most helpful lesson of all — that the Almighty has mercy upon all His creatures. He cares for all mankind, and sends His Jewish prophets to the aid of even their gentile enemies. He even cares for the kikayon, the strange plant under which Jonah found shade and shelter.
“And finally, I learned that God not only wants us to change, but expects us to change, and helps us change. ‘Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left’ (Jonah 4:11), may have been doomed for their sins. But they could improve their behavior, and they did, and they earned God’s own mercy.”
The lessons Milton learned are there for all of us to learn as we read Jonah this Shabbat.
As for me, I learned another lesson, one I have learned time and again. Sincere words never miss their mark. Teachings conveyed from the heart are heard much more frequently than we can imagine. In the words of Kohelet, the biblical book that we will read in the synagogue during Sukkot: “Cast thy bread upon the waters, for after many years you will find it.” (11:1)