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It is very clear why the story of Jonah is part of the Yom Kippur service: it beautifully summarizes and dramatizes the great themes of the Day of Atonement—God’s mercy, the power of fasting, the power of prayer, the possibility of repentance, the possibility of people changing their behavior for the better, the ability to avert and avoid fatal decrees. Nineveh is warned it has 40 days to mend its wicked ways or else its 120,000 inhabitants will be destroyed. The people of Nineveh heed the warning—they fast, pray, put on sackcloth. Even the King of Nineveh is sufficiently humbled—he takes off the royal robes, puts on sackcloth, sits in ashes, and decrees that no one—not even the animals—is to eat or drink anything and that everyone is to mend their wicked ways and cease the commission of injustices. It works: God turns back from His wrath and renounces the sentence He had passed on Nineveh.
The meaning for congregants at Yom Kippur could not be clearer: if the wicked gentiles of Nineveh can change their behavior and avert God’s fatal decree, who among us—Jews, His people—would not or could not? For the God of Jews is neither wrathful nor whimsical—rather, He is reasonable, fair, merciful, compassionate, gracious, tolerant, understanding, forgiving, flexible, kind—exactly that God we would wish to be subject to on the Day of Atonement. The story of Jonah tells us what we want and what we need to hear—that atonement is possible, that the fasting and praying in which we engage on this day is no mere exercise, that human nature and human behavior can be altered.
No, God is not the problem in the story of Jonah—Jonah is. Or, rather, the attitudes and behaviors that Jonah represents. As a historical personage, as a prophet, even as a biblical character, Jonah is insignificant, irrelevant, his person is of no consequence. But what he thinks and feels and what he does matter greatly, especially when contrasted with the God of the story and with the other characters in it.
It is especially incumbent upon us at Yom Kippur—even more so than during the rest of the year—to pay heed to God’s word. What does Jonah do? God commands him to go to Nineveh and warn the people, to go—note the urgency—at once! Jonah does the opposite: he flees from God’s service. It is also especially incumbent upon us at Yom Kippur—even more so than during the rest of the year—to pray and to trust in the power of prayer, to seek God’s forgiveness and God’s mercy. But what does Jonah do? In the midst of the storm God sends, Jonah descends into the hold of the ship and falls asleep; each of the gentile sailors cries out to his own god for deliverance but Jonah, despite the captain’s amazement—“How can you be sleeping so soundly?”—and admonition—“Up, call upon your god. Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish!”—does not call upon his—upon our—God.
Only after Jonah is thrown overboard and then saved by the whale God provides for just that purpose does Jonah pray and call out to his God. From the depths of the whale’s belly he does display the attitudes one would expect at Yom Kippur—recognition of the severity of his plight, recognition of God’s power to save, recognition of the power of prayer, recognition of the ability to change one’s behavior and the necessity to do so. In this prayer Jonah sincerely repents his former disobedience and vows to behave differently in the future. The prayer concludes: “What I have vowed I will perform. Deliverance is the Lord’s!”
So God commands Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh to warn the people of the danger they are in, and this time Jonah does so. Thus, Jonah seems to have learned the lesson that must be learned at Yom Kippur. But has he? When the people of Nineveh do pray and repent and change their ways and when God consequently renounces the punishment He had planned to bring down upon them, what is Jonah’s reaction? Does he rejoice in the lifting of the fatal decree? Does he thank God for His mercy? Does he congratulate Nineveh for taking his God—who is not their God—seriously? No. Jonah is displeased, Jonah is aggrieved. What displeases him? What is his grievance?
If Jonah believes in the power of prayer and the possibility of repentance—and presumably he does because he has prayed and he has repented and God has saved him—he does not believe in them for Nineveh. He never did and he doesn’t now. Only now do we learn why he fled from God’s service in the first place: “That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish,” he tells God. “For I know that you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.” It is an extraordinary admission. What he is really saying is, “You are too compassionate, too gracious, too slow to anger, too abounding in kindness, too willing to renounce punishment, DAMN IT! I knew back then that it would be a waste of time for me to go to Nineveh. Why should I waste my time—and my reputation—prophesying destruction if you are going to change your mind and let Nineveh survive?” God, however—far less rigid than Jonah, far more forgiving than Jonah—does.
Indeed, there is no evidence in the story that Jonah cares about anyone or anything other than himself, no, not even about the plant that is destroyed by the worm and dies. When Jonah tells god he would rather die than live, this kind and compassionate, merciful and forgiving, bleeding-heart of a God thinks it is because Jonah is as deeply grieved about the plant’s death as God would be at the death of Nineveh’s 120,000: “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 I not care about Nineveh?” But I don’t think Jonah cares about the plant at all: he mourns the death of the plant because it provided shade for his head and saved him from discomfort; without it, the sun beats down on his head and he feels faint.
What is Jonah’s problem? What is his grievance against God? Jonah is a disturbing and revealing portrait of excessive self-absorption and the arrogance—emotional, mental, moral—such self-absorption gives rise to. From the very first he is completely wrapped up in his own sense of self, in his sense of his own self-importance: he will not obey God and go to Nineveh on what he deems a futile mission. His descent into the hold of the ship during the storm is a metaphor for his descent deeper into himself, fleeing not only from the service of God but from his fellow human beings, in this case the sailors he has put in peril.
Here, precisely, is the source of Jonah’s displeasure, of his grievance against God: he does not believe that the sailors or the inhabitants of Nineveh are—or should be—fellow human beings. Jonah may be guilty of the arrogance of the Jew who does not acknowledge the gentile as an equal in God’s eye or he may be guilty of the more generalized arrogance of the intellectual or moralist so persuaded of his own superiority that he can literally acknowledge no kinship with those “beneath” him on the great chain of being—whichever the guilt, the result is the same: humbled only by undergoing a virtual death, by coming face to face with the possibility of his own mortality—“You cast me into the depths, into the heart of the sea, the floods engulfed me, all Your breakers and billows swept over me.... The waters closed in over me, the deep engulfed me, weeds twined around my head. I sank to the base of the mountains; the bars of the earth closed upon me forever!” (very strong intimations of mortality indeed)—Jonah seeks God’s mercy and forgiveness for himself but cannot grant to the gentile inhabitants of Nineveh the same opportunity to pray and fast and repent and change that God has given him. He really would rather die than live in a world in which God cares as much about the 120,000 gentile sinners of Nineveh who do not yet know their right hand from their left as he does about His chosen prophet Jonah.
The story of Jonah ends in ominous silence: God asks Jonah, “Should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons?” but there is no reply from Jonah. We leave him sitting outside the city, watching from a distance to see what will happen—aloof, removed, remote, withdrawn as he was in the hold of the doomed ship—enclosed in his own booth—his own skin, his own cocoon, his own self. The question we are left with is not what will happen to Nineveh but what will happen to Jonah—Jonah’s soul, his moral condition. To the extent that there is a Jonah in all of us that is the issue that is always still to be resolved—one’s moral destiny is always the great unanswered question.
The message—for the Day of Atonement and for every day—is very clear: we need not fear God for our God is compassionate and gracious and kind, slow to anger, heedful of our prayers, happy for our repentance, glad to renounce the fatal decree. We need only fear the Jonah in us, the self-absorption and sense of superiority that inevitably result in disdain for, indifference to, and alienation from our fellow human beings, the arrogance that the self-proclaimed “chosen,” the self-crowned “elect” are always heir to, the self-importance that causes us to judge others more harshly than God would and, in so doing, fatally separates us from God Himself, that God we deem our own.
September 17, 1983
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