Commentary on Jonah for Yom Kippur

13 Sep

Jonah is not like the other prophets. Most prophets are famous for some famous deed of piety or leadership, such as Moses for his wisdom and leadership of the Israelites in the desert, or Elijah for his glorification of God in his showdown with the priests of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel. Others are famous for particular quotes, such as Amos’ “let justice roll on like a river and righteousness as a mighty stream.” They are people whose examples we should follow, and whose words we should live by. Jonah, on the other hand, is most famous for disobeying God and getting eaten by a fish, and sets a perfect example of how we should not act.

The book starts out with God giving Jonah instructions, and rather than follow them, Jonah runs in the opposite direction of where God tells him to go. Rejecting God’s initial call is nothing new for a prophet. Not everyone has the perfect faith in God shown by Isaiah, and that is okay. Moses and Jeremiah also rejected God’s initial calling to them, but while they do it for reasons of humility, Jonah rejects God’s charge because he just doesn’t seem to care about helping the people of Nineveh.

So Jonah gets on a boat headed for Tarshish, but on the way, God sends a storm that is so precise that it targets only Jonah’s ship. Everyone on the boat clearly realizes that such a thing must be of Divine origin, and so they all go to pray to their gods to try to abate the storm. All except for Jonah, who, knowing that he was guilty and that they were all in mortal danger solely because of him, decided to take a nap. The 15th century commentator Abarbanel says that Jonah felt so ashamed of himself that he did not want to face God, and so went to sleep, accepting of the death penalty he assumed was coming, only hoping to die peacefully in his sleep. When the captain wakes him up, Jonah immediately confesses that he is the one who has brought this danger upon them all and tells them to throw him into the sea to appease God and save themselves. Jonah’s willingness to suffer the unpleasant death of drowning alive just to save the lives of a few sailors indicates that Jonah seems to have learned his lesson, and after his acceptance of God’s will during his prayer in the belly of the fish, God has the fish spit Jonah and repeats his instructions to Jonah. This new Jonah, who was willing to suffer an unpleasant death just to save a few sailors sets off to do what the old Jonah refused to do: inconvenience himself for a few days in order to help save a city of thousands.

But as it turns out, Jonah has not learned his lesson. The people on Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning and repent from their wicked ways and God, seeing their repentance, spares them… and this makes Jonah unhappy. God chastises Jonah for this, and seeks to teach him a lesson once more with the metaphor of the ricinous plant. The book ends with this chastisement. Jonah’s response, if any, is unrecorded, and we do not know if Jonah learns his lesson.

We read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur to remind ourselves that we are not like Jonah. Jonah was so ashamed of his sin that he could not bare to face God. Ashamed of them though we are, we come to shul on Yom Kippur to face God for our sins. Jonah’s unresisting acceptance of the death sentence he thought was coming to him shows that he did not believe that he could do better (and his inability to learn his lesson seems to indicate that perhaps he couldn’t). Of all the prophets who prophesied doom in the Bible, Jonah’s is the only doom that does not come to pass because of the people of Nineveh realized that they can be better and they repent. Like them, we believe that we can do better, and on Yom Kippur we come before God to repent and pledge to be better people this year than we were last year.

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