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I have been worrying about Jonah—I have been brooding about Jonah—all year—not the Jonah who gets thrown overboard to propitiate the raging sea, or the Jonah who spends three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, but the Jonah who flees from God’s command that he warn the inhabitants of Nineveh their lives are imperilled and the Jonah who withdraws from his mates and falls asleep in the hold when the ship is being destroyed and especially the Jonah we last see, the Jonah who builds himself a booth east of Nineveh and calmly sits in it to wait—and to watch—Nineveh’s fate, but who is so deeply grieved at the loss of the plant which has provided him shade that he wants to die.
I have not been, it seems, alone in having Jonah on my mind. Wherever I have turned this year, so it has seemed, whatever I have read, there Jonah has been, sitting in his booth, mourning his plant. Not a week has gone by that I have not seen his name in print, come across an allusion to him, found him referred to—and always in the same context, for the same purpose. Around the middle of the year I started keeping a Jonah file, so frequent and persistent were his appearances. Why 1984 has turned out to be not the year of “Big Brother” but the year of “Poor Appalling Jonah” might become clear if I read one of the clippings in my Jonah file to you. It appeared in The New York Times under the headline, “Are Yesterday’s Friends Still Friends If Tragedy Strikes?”
About a year ago, our child became suddenly, desperately ill. Recovery could not, as one doctor put it, be “guaranteed.” These days, thank heaven and modern medicine (and the ability to find and pay for the best care), the illness seems to be abating. Though we can’t predict the future, we are hopeful. For the child. I’m not sure about the rest of us.
Besides the obvious damage illness has inflicted on our family, it has depleted our funds; it has drained our energy; it has aged us. But perhaps the worst, the most puzzling, side effect of this long illness has been the disappearance of our friends.
After initial expressions of sympathy, they drew back from us and I am still trying to understand why. That question has teased me all this wretched year.
In my more bitter moments, I conclude that our friends drifted away because we no longer seemed affluent, well-turned out. Our money had to be husbanded in case of emergency or to provide years of medical care, and our attention was not focused on our appearance.
Nor were we “fun” to be with; people who are consumed by worry, who can scarcely sleep for fear of the future, don’t make entertaining companions. But had those friends (the people we called our friends) been supportive, we might not have been so consumed and fearful; we might have been better able to bear what was given us.
Once, illness drew your friends and neighbors to you. I still remember, during one of my mother’s difficult pregnancies, how her friends trooped into our house and did the spring cleaning, including the windows, inside and out. And when my father was hospitalized for a month, my mother never had to cook a main meal; the neighbors provided for us.
Yet, a few decades later, in the middle of the emotional and actual chaos that sudden illness brings, when we desperately needed comfort and order, I sat in front of an immense pile of laundry, too tired and depressed to put it in the washer, and wondered where my friends were.
There’s a Ph.D. thesis in that question. Were we “shunned” in a kind of primitive revulsion against sickness? Were we feared as somehow contagious? (Contagion was not possible.) Were we judged, like Job by his comforters, to have committed a great sin, since had incurred such punishment?
Or, were we simply unwelcome reminders of mortality, of the great precariousness of life? The lessons we have wrested from this year—that safety is an illusion, that humans have much less control over life than they think—may be unbearable for some people. And, why bear them secondhand if you don’t have to?
But when I reach this point in my thinking, I am caught short. Only in our relatively protected country and time are such truths news. Elsewhere, children not uncommonly suffer and die, and adults understand that life is not to be trusted. Knowing that they are themselves at risk, they offer helping hands.
A safer condition may inhibit empathy. Jonah had to be made to suffer before he could pity the people of Nineveh.
Thus, Jonah’s popularity this year, the Jonah who flees God, flees his shipmates, flees Nineveh: his withdrawal and detachment, his indifference and apartness are so severe as to rend him the personification of the withdrawal and detachment, the indifference and apartness many of us fear are coming to characterize our own particular time. Indeed, his indifference to his fellows is so extreme as to be nearly incomprehensible: you have, I hope, caught the error made by our otherwise perceptive and well-read author—Jonah never pities the people of Nineveh. He certainly has, by whatever definition, suffered—as he himself says, “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.”—but his suffering has not increased his sympathy for those who also suffer or his empathy with what others have to endure by not a single iota.
Even God, who, because he is God, has seen everything and is, therefore, not easily shocked by the spectacle of human failure, is taken aback: “You cared about the plant,” He says to Jonah, “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!” Exclamation Point! Exclamation point, indeed! Not only is Jonah incapable of caring about any or all of Nineveh’s 120,000 people, but he cannot understand how God can or why God should.
Because on Yom Kippur we must worry less about Nineveh than about Jonah, he must seem to us more pitiable than appalling although his remoteness and detachment certainly do appall. For he does not understand, as on Yom Kippur we clearly must, that although salvation can be only individual and can be arrived at only individually, it can be achieved only vis-à-vis one’s fellows, not east of Nineveh but in it, not in the shade or the confines of one’s own private booth, but in the glare and the heat of the sun. We can achieve salvation only by not disappearing in time of need and not drawing back or drifting away but, rather, by helping others bear what has been given them, comforting those who need comfort and bringing order to those who need order, doing the spring cleaning, including the windows inside and out, cooking the meals, and putting the wash in the dryer.
Thus, one of the Torah readings for Yom Kippur—Leviticus 19—admonishes us not to pick the vineyard bare or to gather the fallen fruit but to leave them for the poor and the stranger; admonishes us not to insult the deaf or to place a stumbling block before the blind, and admonishes us not to deal basely with our fellows.
Thus, the haftarah concludes not with Jonah’s silence in response to God’s incredulity but with Micah 7, which speaks of God’s delight in loving-kindness and compassion, surely it is not asking too much of us mere mortals to treat one another with some of the same.
And, thus, our most peculiar form of penitence, our public and communal confessions of our sins against one another. Not for us the privacy and consoling darkness of the confessional booth, not for us the forgiveness of a kindly father confessor. Unlike Jonah, we will not be allowed to flee from one another, hide from one another, withdraw from one another. Irrevocably linked to one another, we confess our sins against one another within one another’s hearing, in one another’s sight. We are one another’s guilt—it is what we have or have not done to one another that we seek forgiveness for—but we are also and simultaneously, if we can change our ways and treat one another with care and concern, one another’s only chance for salvation.
October 6, 1984
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