“A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
— Herman Melville
Every Yom Kippur we read the story of the prophet Jonah. His tale is simply told — the book is only forty-seven verses long — and yet the word “big” is mentioned fourteen times. A little story for a big (perhaps the biggest) holiday of the year. Let us examine what this story means and discover why it is told each year on our Day of Repentance.
Jonah’s times were stormy times. During this period of the first Temple the Jewish people were trapped in a pattern of spiritual decline that ended with the conquest and expulsion of the Ten Tribes by the Assyrians in 607 BCE which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem followed by seventy years of exile.
Jonah’s first assignment was to anoint Jehu as king in the year 705 BCE. After the failure of his second mission — to rebuke Jehu's successor, Jeroboam the second — he was given his final mission.
The final mission that G-d gave Jonah was one that he could not accept. He was directed to go to the capital of Assyria, Nineveh, to urge its population to repent. This directive boggled the mind! While his own people were in spiritual free-fall he was sent to save others — the enemies of Israel no less.
Jonah dreaded the success of this mission much more than he dreaded failure. He could not bear to witness (much less assist) the Assyrians returning to G-d while the Jewish people stubbornly resisted any chance for self-preservation. And so he attempted to escape his destiny.
Jonah fled from Israel by ship but a storm at sea forced him to realize that while he could run he could not run away from G-d. In the midst of calm waters, only his boat was tossed in a tempest that was on the verge of breaking.
The sailors prayed to their gods. Jonah went to sleep. He knew the truth. It was he who had cut himself off from G-d. There was nothing more to say and nothing more to pray for.
This apathetic behavior aroused the curiosity of the sailors and so he told them his story, that though he believed in G-d he was running away from Him.
Knowing he was the cause of the storm, he implored the sailors to toss him overboard so they could save themselves. As decent people, the sailors scoffed at this suggestion until it became abundantly clear that within mere moments they would all die. Finally, they threw Jonah into the raging depths of the sea. The storm abated immediately and Jonah thought his story, and life, had ended.
Confrontation With Self
But Jonah’s story had only just begun. He was swallowed by a whale and miraculously survived. In the dank, malodorous innards of the whale, Jonah recognized what he had never truly been willing to see: G-d's intimate knowledge and care over each life and each moment. As a prophet his awareness of G-d was not a novelty to him. But this recognition of the depths of G-d's mercy was a new revelation.
It was then that Jonah did teshuva — he repented — returning to G-d and, in the same way, to himself.
Now Jonah recognized that no matter how painful the contrast between the Assyrians and the Jews might seem on the outside, G-d's motivation could only be one of mercy. Once he recognized this truth, he understood the divine purpose of his mission and why he (and only he) had to complete it. On cue, the whale spat him out at the shores of Nineveh.
Jonah told the residents of Nineveh what awaited them: In forty days they could either make radical changes in their lives or the city would be destroyed by G-d's wrath. The changes in Nineveh happened with speed and drama. The king himself led the people into a total reformation.
Everything that Jonah had feared came to pass. The contrast between Assyria and Israel he had dreaded was more vivid in reality than it was as prophecy. He had only one further request: that he be spared from seeing the destruction of his own people at the hands of the Assyrians. The realization that the Jews would not take the example from Nineveh would be the final act of callousness that would seal their fate. G-d did not answer Jonah's request with words. He answered by deed.
After Jonah left Nineveh, he went to the outskirts and made himself a shelter in the shade of a kikayon tree, but then G-d sent a worm that ate through the branches and withered the tree. All the internal agony broke forth from Jonah's lips, and he said: “I would rather die than live.” G-d replied to Jonah: “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” Jonah replied, “Yes, so deeply that I want to die.”
Then G-d said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”
And so ends the story of Jonah.
A Story of Contradictions
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes, “The book of Jonah invites interpretation from the first verse to the last; but its elusive meanings are never fully netted. There is no conclusive answer to its questions.” (The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconsciousness)
There is constant tension in the story of Jonah: between the Assyrians and the Israelites, between the land and the sea, sleep and wakefulness, up and down, an embracing of G-d and an evasion of G-d, an embracing of mission and an evasion of mission, good and bad, compassion and resentment, desire for mercy, desire for truth, Jews and non-Jews.
We read this book at the time that we attempt to stand before G-d in the hours before Yom Kippur concludes. The exaltation of the Kol Nidre prayer has long passed. The possibility of the dawn and its prayers are gone. The elation of the Mussaf service is behind us as well, and we are at our thirstiest and our hungriest. We may wish to simply lay down low and sleep — far away from the oppression of the day; far away from the oppression of ourselves, from our contradictions, our internal and external conflicts, our limited possibilities, and our limitless desires.
At this point in the Yom Kippur service, we relate Jonah. The task is too great and too daunting. All we want, simply, is to have a sip of water, to sit in the shade, to be left undisturbed. Yet we know that Yom Kippur is coming to a close, that the gates will soon be shut, time is of the essence and there is some internal yearning within us, an unquenchable desire to achieve that which we dream for ourselves, and to rise to the challenges put before us.
We read Jonah during the Mincha service because we are Jonah at this point in the day. We have fully committed to the belief that our prayers will lead to certain outcomes. This is, after all, the entire purpose and goal of Yom Kippur. Yet deep within us, within our desire to return to our normal lives, there is doubt, anger, and the knowledge that we can never fully understand how the world works, and we begin to wonder if there is any point in even trying. We read Jonah to be reminded that this tumultuous, contradictory, unfathomable space is, in fact, the domain of prayer and possibility. And hope.
Zornberg continues: “The enigmas that enrage and sadden Jonah are not riddles to be solved. They remain; G-d invites Jonah to bear them, even to deepen them, and to allow new perceptions to emerge unbidden. In a word, to stand and pray.” (Ibid)
And so we, like Jonah, enter the synagogue as he entered the whale, and as we stand in the dark unseeing, we call out to our Creator. We do not answer these riddles. Rather, we immerse ourselves in them and let them take us over.