In Plain Language: Jonah and the whale: Escapism in Jewish life

But there is another theme at work in the story of Jonah that I would like to explore – the theme of Escapism.

People pray ahead of Yom Kippur on the roof of a seminary overlooking the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City in 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)
People pray ahead of Yom Kippur on the roof of a seminary overlooking the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City in 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 One of the most fascinating personalities in all of Jewish literature caps off the Ten Days of Repentance.
The final reading of Yom Kippur encapsulates the entire Book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet who flees from his Divine mission only to end up inside a giant fish (presumably a whale).
When he is finally spewed out onto dry land, he resumes his mission and successfully convinces the Assyrian city of Nineveh to repent.
Biblical commentators struggle over the connection between Jonah and Yom Kippur. Unlike the other characters on stage during the High Holy Days, Jonah has no apparent link to the holiday.
Abraham, of course, connects to Rosh Hashana by being the source of the shofar, the ram’s horn that substituted for Isaac at the Akeida. Hannah, the heroine of the Haftara, has her prayer for a child answered on Rosh Hashana. And the morning reading on Yom Kippur revolves around the High Priest and his elaborate service in the Temple’s Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.
But what is Jonah’s relevance to these Days of Awe? Several theories are proposed. For one thing, the rehabilitation of Nineveh is a sterling example of the ability of human beings to change, to effect repentance and repudiate the unsavory practices of their past. Specifically because this was a non-Jewish city – and a perennial antagonist of Israel, to boot – it amplifies the opportunity which the Jewish nation, favored by God, is given each year to reform.
In short, it is never too late for anyone, regardless of his past, to embark on a new course of action and behavior.
Furthermore, the story of Jonah demonstrates the penetrating power of prayer, the principal activity of the Ten Days of Repentance. If one’s pleas can be heard – and answered in the affirmative – from inside the belly of a fish at the bottom of an ocean, then God is receptive to sincere prayer anywhere and anytime.
Finally, the end of the story, whereby the Almighty upbraids Jonah for caring more about his personal comfort than the welfare of a city of 120,000 inhabitants, accentuates the universal nature of God. As the Creator of the entire world, He is the God of all people, and His message of morality and human decency is open to all, and not restricted to Israel alone. This echoes the oft-repeated phrase in the High Holy Day Mahzor: “And I will bring (the nations) to My holy mountain, for My house is a house of prayer for all peoples.”
But there is another theme at work in the story of Jonah that I would like to explore – the theme of escapism.
Three times, Jonah desperately seeks to escape. First, it is physical escape. Jonah travels to the ancient port of Jaffa to board a ship, bound for Tarshish (present-day Gibraltar?). He wants to get away – far, far away – and ship travel is the fastest way to do that, to become completely cut off from society. “Alone, alone, on a great wide sea,” Jonah is incognito and incommunicado.
Perhaps he even believes God cannot not find him beyond Israel’s territorial waters. He is wrong, of course.
This type of escapism is surely not unknown to us. Israelis travel more, it is said, than any other people on earth.
Our wanderlust is epic. At any given moment, 10 to 15 percent of the population can be found outside the country – including, sadly, at holiday times. Anyone who has ever traveled has experienced the sensation of finding Israelis in the most remote places on earth, as we catch snippets of Hebrew being spoken from Kenya to Kathmandu.
The most bizarre manifestation of this syndrome was the “Flight to Nowhere” program conducted by El Al some years ago.
Passengers came to the airport, shopped at duty-free, boarded a plane, flew over the Mediterranean just beyond Israel’s borders, had dinner, watched an in-flight movie and then... came back to the airport! Jonah then descends into the most secluded depths of the ship and falls into a deep, deep sleep. Even when a violent storm rocks the vessel, Jonah does not wake up. The most seasoned sailors on board are scared to death of the raging tempest, but Jonah is completely oblivious. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of being seasick knows that you cannot sleep, eat or even move, but our prophet is totally unconscious until the ship’s captain finally succeeds in waking him.
“Get up and cry out,” he tells Jonah.
“Maybe God will pay attention and we won’t be abandoned!” An apt appeal for Yom Kippur if ever there was one.
This is another form of escape that we see all around us, a self-induced loss of awareness where we “tune out” the world and everyone in it, retreating into our own claustrophobic cocoon. We might do this via drugs or alcohol, or by losing ourselves in our computer, TV or the ubiquitous iPhone or iPad (emphasis, of course, on the “I”). We sever communication with those around us, eager to “get away from it all.”
Now, while everyone needs a break once in a while to maintain our sanity and recharge our batteries, we in Israel don’t have the luxury of disappearing for too long. Our neighborhood is too volatile; even when our neighbors are massacring each other, we need to maintain constant vigilance and readiness in case the guns are turned our way. Just saying, “Yihye tov – it will all turn out fine” is not always sufficient, even for the eternal optimist.
Finally, as the storm intensifies and the ship is about to capsize, Jonah starts to take responsibility and tells the seamen that he is the cause of their trouble. He then implores them to throw him overboard to a certain watery death. The sailors don’t want to toss Jonah over the side – having undergone an amazing transformation, they relinquished their idols, asked God for mercy and now try valiantly not to take another’s life – but Jonah insists, and he plunges below the waves.
This, too, is an escape mechanism, immersing ourselves in various diversions so we may be distracted from facing life.
People throw themselves into business, sports, exercise, philanthropic causes.
Even activities that, in moderation, are highly commendable and healthy can be utterly destructive when done in excess. Couples who invite large numbers of guests to their Shabbat or holiday tables so they don’t have to converse with their children; men who spend inordinate amounts of time praying or studying Torah at the expense of their neglected families; even those who save their communities while ignoring their loved ones – all are running in the wrong direction.
The lasting lesson of the story of Jonah is that we can never escape ourselves, our responsibilities, our destinies. More often than not, even if we run away from it, it will somehow find us. And if it does not, we will then have squandered our potential, missed our mission in life – and have only regrets to look back upon.
We will, in short, have missed the boat.
■ The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]