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D'var Torah: Yom Kippur Mincha

Jonah and the Lying Vanities

Last Yom Kippur I gained an insight into the story of Jonah. Jonah found himself in the belly of the great fish which had descended to the depths of Sheol, the abode of the dead. At the edge of death, Jonah turned to honest reflection and prayed in the form of a psalm. What caught my attention in the passage was the phrase “lying vanities.” Lying vanities are two words that seem to tell me something about Jonah’s inner character and his overt actions. To a sociologist like me, they suggested cognitive dissonance and self-deception. Cognitive dissonance is realizing a conflict between our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that needs to be reconciled. Cognitive dissonance may occur when people self-deceive, that is, lie to themselves in order to avoid unacceptable or inconvenient truths. Self-deception and cognitive dissonance often result in behaviors with serious consequences.

They are related. For example, you realize you are going nearly 80 miles per hour but the speed limit is back down to 65. You see yourself as a safe driver and change your behavior by switching lanes and slowing down. Or you can convince yourself that you can drive safely and continue to stay in the fast lane. Either way you’ve relieved your cognitive dissonance. We are socialized to be law abiding and pragmatic “to call it like it is,” but we may occasionally deceive ourselves and “call it like I see it.” If things really matter and we want to assert our will and authority, we say, “It ain’t nothing ‘til I call it.” The last two are self-deception. The story of Jonah contains episodes of self-deception, confronting the reality of the situation, and dealing with cognitive dissonance.

Jonah is a unique prophet. While most other prophets rebuke the Israelites and call on them to repent, and Nahum proclaimed the fall of Nineveh, only Jonah was sent to Nineveh to declare its pending overthrow. At first Jonah runs away but after being swallowed by the great fish reluctantly agrees to go to Nineveh. In the end he is very dissatisfied with the outcome and sulks.

The name Jonah ben Amitai appears twice in the Tanakh. Jonah first appears in II Kings 24:25 where he correctly prophesized that the boundaries of the Northern Kingdom will be restored. The second, of course, is in the Book of Jonah. Jonah means “dove,” which can symbolize a messenger, and Amitai means veracious, implying habitually speaking the truth. Therefore Jonah ben Amitai is the messenger who is the son of the truth teller. But as we shall see, Jonah does not believe his prophecy about Nineveh is truthful and will be fulfilled. His story is about someone suffering from self deception and cognitive dissonance.

Over the past year I have studied Jonah and would like to share my scholarly journey. I first looked at the translations of the phrase hav-ley shav. Jonah’s prayer or psalm is poetry, and its meaning has varied over the centuries. Shav means lying or false, and hav-ley literally means breath or vapor, which suggests something insubstantial, and by extension, something futile and worthless. Our Reconstructionist prayer book translates this as “vain and empty things,” while the Orthodox Chabad website has it as “worthless futilities.” The King James Version of the Bible rendered the phrase as “lying vanities,” and “lying vanities” appeared for many years in the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh. The full text (Jonah 2:9–10) reads: “They that regard lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving; That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is of the Lord.”

My next step was to review commentaries on Jonah and identify those who were clinging to lying vanities. Rashi and others concluded that the “they” were the sailors on the storm tossed ship. Each of the sailors called futilely to his own god to calm the sea. So hav-ley shav came to mean false gods or worthless idols and is often translated that way.

I then wanted to know where else “vanities” appears in the Tanakh. The first and best known is in Ecclesiastes 1:2: “Vanity of vanities,” says Kohelet, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The second is in Psalms 31:7: “I hate those who regard lying vanities, but I trust in Adonay.” The third is in Jeremiah 8:19: “Why have they provoked me to anger with their engraved images and with foreign vanities?”

Fighting idolatry has been a major theme throughout Jewish history, but vanity and idolatry are not the same. Let us consider Ecclesiastes; did Kohelet really mean to say “Idol of idols; all is idolatry”? Today we understand "vanity of vanities" to mean the emptiness and transitory nature of life like the vapor of a breath on a cold day. Psalm 31 was written by David when he was fleeing from King Saul. David is saying that he is not like Saul, who did not obey the order to destroy the flocks of the Amalekim (I Samuel 15:1–24). If Jonah is quoting Psalm 31, then he, too, is admitting that he still believes and trusts in Adonay and now vows to complete his mission.

Finally, Jeremiah mentioned both engraved images and foreign vanities. He called for people to remain faithful to Adonay and not listen to false prophets. For him, the “they” who had taken on foreign vanities, that is, customs and affectations, were the Israelites returning from exile in Babylonia. Jeremiah (3:14–15) had to re-assimilate the large community returning home to Jewish religious practices and beliefs. If the Book of Jonah was written after the Babylonian exile, as some contend, then the “they” in Jonah’s prayer may refer to the returning Israelites.

Although the traditional interpretation of Jonah links lying vanities to worthless idols, and everyday English defines vanity as excessive pride or self-admiration, I choose to interpret lying vanities as a form of self-deception and cognitive dissonance. Jonah tried to resolve his cognitive dissonance first by running away to Tarshish and then by having himself thrown overboard to calm the sea. He now realizes that he must call upon the mercy of Adonay and vow to complete his mission.

Other commentators have pointed out that Jonah was instructed to announce the imminent doom of Nineveh with no call for repentance. Abravanel wondered if the people of Nineveh would say that Jonah had lied, since they repented and Nineveh was not overthrown. Was Jonah a false prophet? Abravanel then asked: Why should it matter to Jonah what the Ninevites think of him, for he is not one of them?

I suggest it mattered very deeply to Jonah. If vanity implies an excessive desire to win the approval or praise of others, then lying vanity suggests that one must self-deceive in order to maintain one’s credibility and self esteem by holding a belief or attitude in the face of evidence to the contrary. This cognitive dissonance needs to be resolved. As a sociologist, I knew that the concept of cognitive dissonance was first presented in a study entitled When Prophecy Fails1 which is about people who believed the world would come to an end on December 21, 1954.

Jonah predicted the end of Nineveh in forty days, but it didn’t happen. No sooner had Jonah announced its overthrow than the people of Nineveh reacted to the threat by fasting and putting on sackcloth. This was quickly followed by the king calling upon his subjects to forsake their evil ways and having the cattle covered in sackcloth. Jonah desperately wanted his words to come true and to see Nineveh destroyed.

Jonah experienced cognitive dissonance between his self-image as the truthful messenger of Adonay prophesying the overthrow of Nineveh and his gut feeling that the Ninevites would symbolically repent and be spared without abandoning their idols. He feared that Adonay would show mercy and renounce the threat.

I then came across a commentary by John Calvin who interpreted the phrase as “vanities of falsehood” meaning that people deceive themselves and invent fallacies for themselves. After Adonay spared Nineveh, Jonah (Jon. 4:2) claimed that he knew from the beginning that Nineveh would not be overthrown: “Was this not my word when I was still in my own land? That is why I hastened to flee to Tarshish; for I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil.” This is similar to the Thirteen Attributes from Exodus 35:6–7 we have chanted several times today: “Adonay, Adonay, God merciful and gracious, slow to grow angry, abundant in love and truth, forgiving sin and transgression...”

After the Ninevites performed teshuvah, regretting their misdeeds and ceremonially atoning, Jonah again became depressed and suicidal. Having completed his mission, Jonah left the city, built a booth, and waited to die. He remained stiff-necked, refusing to end his melancholy even after Adonay’s brief tutorial on empathy and compassion wherein Jonah’s grief over the loss of the shading vine is compared to Adonay’s sparing the people of Nineveh who do not know right from wrong and also much cattle. The book closes with Jonah again depressed and awaiting his fatalistic death since he is unable to overcome his cognitive dissonance.

I do not want to leave us on such a depressing note. Rather I wish to highlight a lesson learned from Jonah and perhaps why we read it on Yom Kippur afternoon. Last night we began our Kol Nidre service chanting: “By the authority of the Court on High and our own congregation … we suspend the rules and declare it lawful for the righteous and the transgressors to pray together.” In the Kol Nidre prayer itself we request release from all vows, promises, and pledges which we have not fulfilled that we made between last Yom Kippur and this Yom Kippur day. During the past year did we merely forget to meet our obligations, did we conveniently deceive ourselves that we had met them, or convince ourselves that it wasn’t worth the effort? In any case, we still have the chance to relieve this cognitive dissonance.

After much prayer and fasting, we have learned from the Book of Jonah that Adonay recognizes acts of repentance and forgives those of us who tried to fulfill our obligations as well as those of us who did not. Like Jonah in the belly of the great fish, we still have time for honest reflection before the gates close and our fate is sealed for the coming year. Regardless of whether we were observant or not or how we behaved this past year, when we next confess our sins in the Al Chet, we may choose to add, like Jonah, that we have practiced self-deception and succumbed to our lying vanities. What we vow during the coming year, we intend to complete wholeheartedly and with cognitive consistency.

May you have a good sealing in the Book of Life.

—Harry Perlstadt
September 2015

1. Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World, Harper-Torchbooks, 1956.

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