The Prophet Jonah: leadership & responsibility

Biblical history, especially prophecy, is replete with images of leaders who fail to influence the people during their lifetime.

September 20, 2007 11:33
jonah whale 88 224

jonah whale 88 224. (photo credit: )


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We are currently in a crisis of leadership, having lost faith in our leaders. In the Minha service on Yom Kippur, we read the Book of Jonah. Jewish tradition seeks to conclude Yom Kippur with the universal story of the prophet whose response to the call to prophecy, to leadership, is: "And Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from before God" (1:3). Why did Jonah flee? And from what? The midrash in Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer (ninth century) stresses that Jonah was an extraordinarily successful prophet (10). Every time he brought the word of God to his audience - Jews and non-Jews alike - they were persuaded by his words of reproof and repented. Why then did he seek to hide? Did he, as is commonly interpreted, truly desire that the people of Nineveh be punished rather than repent? Biblical history, especially prophecy, is replete with images of leaders who fail to influence the people during their lifetime. This idea of the frustrated prophet, unable to deal with the depraved people who embitter his life, is a central biblical motif. Even God, the one true leader, declares through Jeremiah: "Oh that I were in a lodging place in the desert, that I would leave my people, and go from them, for they are all adulterers, an assembly of disloyal people" (Jeremiah 9:1). According to the midrash, Jonah's flight derived from his sensitivity to public opinion. Jonah understood that which modern statistics have shown us, that the chances of a leader being popular once he acts like a leader are about 8 percent. In other words, leadership almost always is met by disdain and ingratitude, and alienation from the people. The Book of Jonah, like the Book of Deuteronomy, which deals with the leadership struggles of Moses, reflects the leader's pain. In general, the Jewish sources set a high threshold for responsible leadership for the nation of Israel and for humanity to encourage us to assume positions of leadership despite the inevitable price exacted by these jobs. Many people desire leaders who will stir their souls and flatter them and enwrap them within their inflated egos. They transform the popular leader into a divine shadow that is plainly or mysteriously distant. Though pleasurable for the leaders, this is false prophecy. It does not lead society anywhere safe, good, useful or moral. According to the 18th-century luminary Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, in his book Mesilat Yesharim, Jonah's flight expressed his feeling that "I am not deserving of glory or honor, for I have many flaws." But precisely because of Jonah's reluctance to take on the job, God continues to seek him out and considers him indispensable to the task. Jonah is not unworthy, as we might think upon first reading; on the contrary, the self-effacement essential to leadership is what causes the prophet to flee. In the midst of a storm, speaking with the ship's sailors, Jonah bares his identity: "I am a Hebrew and I fear God, Lord of the heavens." Despite his awe of God, Jonah is still not prepared to assume the difficult leadership task intended for him. The bowel of the fish into which Jonah is swallowed for three days and nights symbolizes a stage in spiritual development: Removal from human contact prepared Jonah for the loneliness of prophetic leadership, ensuring that he would fulfill the task without being dragged after the herd. Moreover, it is within the fish that Jonah becomes close with God, on a deeper level than when he declared his faith, identity and nationality to the captain and sailors. "Out of my distress I called to God and He answered me" (2:3). "When my soul fainted within me, I remembered God" (2:8). In the course of the prophet's maturing and development he undergoes a religious reversal: from a cerebral recognition of God as the Lord of creation, "who made the sea and the land" (1:9), to an intimacy with God. From this mature stance, the result of a process of psychological and theological distillation, Jonah is prepared to face the residents of the big, brazen, corrupt city of Nineveh, and in full confidence to announce, "In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed." Jonah's mature personality causes the people to heed him. Why, then, does Jonah again sink into bitterness, withdrawing into the shade of the gourd? After all, if the people of Nineveh indeed "repented of their evil ways" (3:10), they apparently did not mock his reproof but respected him and his prophecy. Jonah's alienation from his public does not stem from the fact that they escaped punishment, but that their repentance was not absolute. True, the people of Nineveh left their evil ways, but not totally. Had their repentance been untarnished, Jonah would not have been troubled by the terrible prophecy going unfulfilled. He would then become a hero in the eyes of those who repented because of him. However, as it seems in this story, the mundane, everyday wickedness continued. The people of Nineveh may have ceased to murder, pillage and rape, but they persisted in the small injustices in everyday life that are due to the petty and weak nature of mankind. Jonah, having experienced God intimately, cannot resign himself to God's merciful tolerance of these human fallibilities. Jonah demands complete justice, without mercy. So when the intimate God, who dispatched Jonah on this successful mission, does not discharge the full measure of moral justice, Jonah is angry. Yet before Jonah sinks into anger and depression, he lays before us the prospect of a budding hope and reconciliation, which are the spiritual shore he has reached; the end of the long and painful, yet full and strong, process towards mature leadership. After all, the last lesson God teaches Jonah is: "Shouldn't I have pity on the city Nineveh?" (4:11). In other words, as long as society maintains a reasonable level of righteousness, mercy is preferred to strict justice. Leaders should learn about restraint from God's example, to forgive pettiness, to turn a blind eye to small sins, and in doing so uphold the value of life. What does Israel have to learn from Jonah? What does he add to the Torah of Moses concerning understanding God? Moses describes God as "compassionate and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth... who will not clear the guilty" - that is, a God of absolute justice and no compassion was a necessary model at that early stage of the Torah's formation, when the foundations of monotheism were being laid. Jonah changes the end of this verse, adding "who repents of evil." At the end of the process undergone by the maturing leader, the prophet Jonah discovers a God who repented of evil. Jonah reaches this realization after passing through the stages of loneliness, distance, intimacy, responsibility, disappointment and finally understanding the right combination of justice and compassion. Jonah, a leader wavering between seeking God and seeking solitude, called to his mission yet feeling unworthy to it, is a learning and autodidactic prophet. Through it all he becomes acquainted with aspects of man and of God, and succeeds in influencing people, returning them from evil and saving their lives. The writer is dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.

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