What is a kikayon anyways?

Over the last few weeks I have been studying Sipur Yona (The Story of Jonah) in preparation for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) which is this Shabbat (Satuday). My Brother in Law, Abba, told me about a Rabbi called the Vilna Ga’on (genius from Vilna) that did an amazing study of Sipur Yona. Some people just refer to this guy as the Ga’on so you get the idea about how smart he was. He broke the story down into word by word metaphors and it is a really amazing ride to go on. I asked my Yeshiva student friend Moshe to study it with me and he has been so wonderful to work with on this. I go to the Yeshiva up the street from me once or twice a week and we have been covering Sipur Yona as deeply as possible… for us non geniuses that is. I really wanted to complete it for Yom Kippur, but it looks far away still. We have a chapter and a half to go. We shall see. Anyways, in the story, there is mention of a plant called a Kikayon, which grew over Yona and gave him some shade. I am not actually studying that part of the story yet but the word has been rolling around in my head… Kikayon, what is a kikayon anyways?

I asked the guys at work, first the Israelis at lunch, and got a lot of “lo yodea’s.” (don’t know’s) my friend Benny said that he knew something about the word. He said that it meant a weed that grows fast and dies and that it is an unimportant type of plant. Now that is really interesting because if you have ever read the Story of Jonah, you would find that the plant did actually grow fast and then it died over night when a worm or something ate it. Jonah was really bummed out about this and this is where it gets a little interesting. You see, Jonah was avoiding going to tell the people in the city of Nineveh (currently a place located somewhere in Iraq, I think) to change their ways or be wiped out by Hashem. He was just trying to sit out of the sun and enjoy himself when he should have been doing, not only the morally right thing to do but not doing specifically what G-D had asked him to do. Yikes! The Kikayon was really just something unimportant and temporary, just like what Benny said, but it had taken over Jonah’s mind and will. Now that is something that has to be interesting to find out about… something unimportant that can take over the mind of a Prophet like Jonah.

I left lunch early on a mission to do just that. I quickly went to my trusty milon (dictionary) and looked it up. Well, I didn’t know how to spell it. I looked under Koof and under Kaf, but to no avail. My friend and coworker Gideon showed up and we began to talk about it and lo and behold, he knew the word in German and was able to look it up on this program that my boss uses to find a word in English from German when we can’t find a way to communicate in Hebrew (oy, a mouth full). A Kikayon in English is a Castor Oil Plant. What? All I know about Castor Oil is that in the fifties in the States it was used by the ‘Old Wives’ (from the Old Wives Tales) to give to kids if they were sick and it supposedly tasted terrible. I always thought the idea really was to get the kids not to fake being sick or they would have to suffer through the terrible spoonful of the dreaded… Castor Oil! Aahhh! Well maybe there is something else there as well. If the plant is actually just unimportant, maybe it was the Old Wives way of addressing lethargy, you know, just like Jonah! Interesting… I did look up Castor Oil in the Milon and sure enough it said: שמן קיקיון (= shemen kikayon, or castor oil).

Well, I think that the moral of this little story is that we should be looking for our own Kikayon in our lives. What is it that keeps us from really being who we should be, who we want to be? Have we asked ourselves enough this year how can we be better at being who we are? When Jonah finally did move on to complete his journey through Niniveh to warn the people, the Vilna Ga’on taught us (the simple level of course) is that he was really doing Chuva (returning to G-D) and he was casting away his material and otherwise useless pursuits. He was choosing the moral high ground, the ground that we were all meant to ascend to and the reason that we are even here at all. We have a few more days to think about this before we meet our maker and the book of life closes with a thunderous and final clap. What is it going to be, Kikayon…. Or Chuva, Kikayon… Or Chuva…?

With that, Gamar Chatima Tova ve Tsom Tov! (May you be written in the book of life and have a good fast!)

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