Tradition today: Jonah’s journey

It does not require a great deal of learning to understand why the Sages picked this book for Yom Kippur's Haftara.

An artistic rendition of ‘Jonah and the Whale’ as part of the Jami’ al-tawarikh, the 14th-century Persian literary compilation of history and culture. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
An artistic rendition of ‘Jonah and the Whale’ as part of the Jami’ al-tawarikh, the 14th-century Persian literary compilation of history and culture.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the afternoon of Yom Kippur, when we are fairly exhausted and famished, we settle back at Minha and listen to the reading of an entire book of the Bible, Jonah.
It does not require a great deal of learning to understand why the Sages picked this book for the afternoon’s Haftara. Chapter three contains an account of the actions of the people of Nineveh, a city whose wickedness had come before God (1:2), just as the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah had come before Him earlier (Genesis 18:21-22). When they hear God’s message threatening destruction, “They called a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5).
When their king heard this, he went even further and issued a decree that every person and every beast should fast and “call mightily to God. Let every person turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice which is in his hand” (Jonah 3:7-9).
They do so and therefore, God does not destroy them (Jonah 3:10).
There is no better and more concise description of what we are required to do in order to attain forgiveness and atonement. In case we have forgotten this, Jonah reminds us – and even if it is already Minha time, it is not too late.
The story told in Jonah, however, is more complicated than that.
It may be, as someone once said, “a whale of a tale,” but it is not a story for children. It tells the story of a prophet who rebelled against God and refused to prophesy; an anti-hero, if you will, who had to be taught a lesson. In some ways Jonah is indeed less righteous than the others depicted in this story, all of whom are not Jews. Whereas Abraham argued with God asking that the innocent be spared, Jonah remains silent and runs away.
To understand the book and its message, it is necessary to determine the cause of Jonah’s rebellion and the lesson God wishes to teach him.
Ever since Moses, there have been reluctant prophets. Moses did not want to accept the task God gave him (Exodus 3:11); neither did Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:6). But they did not rebel against God; they engaged in a dialogue with Him and, in the end, agreed to become His messengers and do His work. Jonah does not argue, he does not open his mouth. Instead he runs away, fleeing “from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).
He begins a descent, going down to Jaffa where he will find a boat taking him to Tarshish in Spain, the exact opposite direction from the place God told him to go, Nineveh in the east (Jonah 1:3). His descent will continue, into the hold of the boat, then down into the sea and finally into the belly of the whale, where he will at last break his silence and give up his rebellion, praying to God.
When he does so, he ascends from the depths of the whale and the sea to the dry land, where God repeats His command to him and, “in accordance with the word of the Lord” (Jonah 3:3), he finally goes to Nineveh and delivers God’s message. But that is not the end of the story.
We still do not know why he rebelled. The answer lies in Chapter 4, when Jonah renews his rebellion. When God forgives the people of Nineveh after their acts of repentance, Jonah is very angry. He prays to God, asking to die. “That is why I hastened to flee to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil” (Jonah 4:2). He has quoted part of the description of God’s qualities revealed to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7, words we recite over and over again in our High Holy Day prayers, since we depend on God’s merciful nature for forgiveness and atonement.
To Jonah, they are anathema. He finally had been coerced into doing what God wanted him to do, but he did not believe in it.
Jonah wanted justice, and justice, he believes, requires punishment for wrongdoing – but that is not God’s way. God prefers repentance, which includes making up for past misdeeds and turning away from evil. He would rather see people repent and live than be punished and die. Why? Because God cares for the creation that is the work of His hand.
God tried to demonstrate the need for pity and mercy through the story of the gourd. He tells Jonah that if he felt bad about the destruction of a mere plant in which he had no personal investment, should He not care about a great city where there are thousands of people who “do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?” (Jonah 4:11). Human beings do wrong. If all are to be destroyed because of that, there will be no world.
Does Jonah finally admit that God is right and he is wrong? The book does not say. Uriel Simon, in his superb commentary, believes Jonah’s silence at the end indicates he does acquiesce and that “his return [to God] is manifested by humble silence.” I am not certain, and often wonder if the book ends with God’s question to Jonah rather than with Jonah’s answer, not only so that God should have the last word – but because the author wants to leave the matter up in the air.
In the last analysis, it is not important to know if Jonah learned the lesson, but it is important that we learn it for two reasons: so that we will know we can change and be forgiven, and so that we will share in God’s concern for humanity and His willingness to be merciful and forgive others.
It is not inconsequential that those who set this example, as well as the sailors who try to save Jonah (Jonah 1:13-14), are all non-Jews – for the message of the book is a universal message and God’s concern is for all humans, not just for the people of Israel.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a twotime winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).