Running away from ourselves

We can put ourselves in a place that is conducive to transformation.

‘Jonah and the Whale’ in the ‘Compendium of Chronicles’ (c. 1400), Metropolitan Museum of Art. In contrast to Hagar, Jonah ran away from God to a distinct and intentioned location. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Jonah and the Whale’ in the ‘Compendium of Chronicles’ (c. 1400), Metropolitan Museum of Art. In contrast to Hagar, Jonah ran away from God to a distinct and intentioned location.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The polymath John W. Gardner observed in his book Self Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society that “by middle life most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” During the Days of Awe, we might look at this statement curiously and ask ourselves the two most obvious questions that emerge from it. This year, what are we running from and what are we running toward?
When we consider the fugitive, the operative question is the first one. It doesn’t always matter where we’re going. We will go “anywhere but here,” the title of a Mona Simpson novel. It is a matter of escape. We find both fugitives – those who are running away and those who are running toward – in the sacred texts of our holiday season: We encounter Hagar on Rosh Hashana and Jonah, who makes a spectacular appearance on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
We read Genesis 21 on the first day of Rosh Hashana but meet Hagar earlier, in Genesis 16. Sarah brought Hagar to Abraham as a wife, a wordplay in the text and a terrible idea in retrospect. She wanted to be “built up by her,” as indicated in the Hebrew. When Hagar conceived and belittled her mistress, Sarah treated Hagar unkindly. Hagar ran away until an angel confronted her with two questions: “‘Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ ‘I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,’ she answered” (ibid. 16:8). Of the two questions, she answered only the former. Presumably, she cared little about her destination and a great deal about her escape.
As it happens, she was running toward Shur, an ancient transit route between Canaan and Egypt, her native home. “The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur” (ibid. 16:7). Perhaps when any of us feel lost and vulnerable, we find ourselves heading, intentionally or unintentionally, toward home, to the place that is most familiar for its modicum of safety and security.
Jonah, however, ran away from God to a distinct and intentioned location. When God tasked the prophet to serve Nineveh, he rose and fled to somewhere else entirely: Tarshish.
I’m not sure why, in all the years of studying and teaching this book, it never dawned on me that Jonah wanted to go to Tarshish. He wasn’t only escaping his prophetic calling. He desired something to be found somewhere.
Only when writing a commentary on the book did I notice what is blatantly apparent in the first verses of the narrative. “Go at once to Nineveh.... Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s service. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish and paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the Lord” (Jonah 1:2-3).
Jonah selected one location over another, Tarshish over Nineveh. He specifically identified a ship going to that location. Had he merely wanted to flee, he would have taken the first ship out of Jaffa going anywhere. He didn’t.
These two ancient cities recall a much earlier biblical chapter where they both appear: Genesis 10. Tarshish was a descendant of Noah’s son Japheth, and Nineveh was a descendant of Noah’s son Ham.
Recalling the circumstances of a small, postdiluvian narrative tells us a good deal about this origin story and those who peopled it. When Noah left his ark he planted a vineyard, drank from the wine the vineyard produced and got drunk. His son Ham found Noah naked in his tent. He ridiculed and shamed his father, yet his two brothers covered him with a garment, to restore their father’s dignity. Noah praised Japheth, suggesting, in a play on words, that he would in the future become enlarged, a blessing for material wealth. Ham, on the other hand, would be cursed as a servant to others for his immoral conduct.
Nineveh, as it turns out, grew to become a powerful and immoral city in great need of a prophet’s ministrations. Tarshish, on the other hand, developed into an extremely wealthy city, as we find from many verses about its economic might in the ancient Mediterranean Basin. “All King Solomon’s drinking cups were of gold, and all the utensils of the Lebanon Forest House were of pure gold: silver did not count for anything in Solomon’s days. For one the king had a Tarshish fleet on the sea, along with Hiram’s fleet. Once every three years, the Tarshish fleet came in, bearing gold and silver, ivory, apes and peacocks” (I Kings 10:21-22). It was a place that brought tribute and goods to be used in magnificent building projects (Psalms 72:10, Jeremiah 10:9, Ezekiel 27:12).
Because it produced desired, high-end exports, it needed an extremely resilient shipping fleet. A way to suggest God’s power over the natural world was to intimate that even the ships of Tarshish were shattered: “You destroyed them like ships of Tarshish shattered by an east wind” (Psalms 48:7) and this from Isaiah: “A prophecy against Tyre: Wail, you ships of Tarshish! For Tyre is destroyed and left without house or harbor” (Isaiah 23:1). Ships from Tarshish on the horizon signaled an abundance of luxury items on board: “...the ships of Tarshish, bringing your children from afar, with their silver and gold, to the honor of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor” (ibid. 60:9).
Suddenly we understand that for Jonah the ultimate insult to God was not to go to a city of sin but to go to a city of shallowness, a place where its residents, steeped in material goods, were far from a spiritual center. This is a place that did not and could not know God, mired as it was in the self-absorption of luxury. Isaiah suggests as much: “I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations – to Tarshish... and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory” (ibid. 66:19). Tarshish was known as a place that had no acquaintance with God but an over-acquaintance with money.
To distance yourself from a spiritual life, it’s not sinners you want to join but shoppers. Sinners are often deeply spiritual people, aware of wrongdoing but lacking the self-restraint to change. The very fact that they see themselves as sinners suggests a relationship to goodness unachieved. If you want to run away from a life of service, get thee to a mall, not to a casino. Surely God can dissipate in both locations, but Tarshish reminds us that one of the greatest challenges to repentance is location.
We can put ourselves in a place that is conducive to transformation. Alternatively, we can run toward or stay in locations that present profound hurdles to change. So where are you running from this season of teshuva, and where are you running to?
The writer’s new book is Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Maggid/OU). She is an associate professor at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.