D’var Torah: Jonah

At Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of the connection between Purim and Yom Ha-KI-purim, the day that is like Purim. This connection is not obvious, since we associate Purim with fun and Yom Kippur with dead seriousness. But today we are treated to the most exquisite humor in the Tanakh. This is not the pathetic humor of victimization in the Book of Esther—they tried to kill us but instead we killed them, ha, ha, ha. Nor is it the sick humor, the pulp fiction grossology of perverse stabbings, dissections, and bodily excretions that has kept the book of Judges almost entirely out of the Siddur and well out of reach of minors. No, if it is introspective humor we crave, laughs at an antihero that are really laughs at ourselves, then we need look no further than the Book of Jonah.

The trouble with The Book of Jonah is that its four little chapters touch on so many potent religious themes that we run the risk of taking it too seriously. The rabbis saw the story as a display of God’s power to control the forces of nature, and a testimony to God’s merciful compassion. Christians likened Jonah’s fish-encapsulated retreat with Jesus’ dark night of the soul, when he spent three days under the earth. The Book of Luke also saw Jonah’s conversion of the Ninevites as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ power to convert the gentile nations.

These lofty pronouncements all miss the point. Jonah was accomplished in his profession, a high achiever in the art of prophecy. At least that was his public face. But the story takes us below the surface for the unmasking of the real Jonah. The distinguished Jonah, God’s anointed prophet who can change the course of mighty empires with a few well-chosen words, reveals a very different inner persona: the schlemiel, the coward, the cynic, the escaper, the quitter, the overgrown crybaby, the hard-hearted tyrant. If we are doing our homework, at this moment we should each see another distinguished person being unmasked in this same way: ourselves. By the afternoon of Yom Kippur, as we near the climax of this season of introspection, a less-than-pretty picture may start to emerge. The laundry list of sins we beat our chest over several times today may actually evoke dimensions of ourselves we would rather have kept under wraps.

That’s the beauty of Jonah: the more we can laugh at his antics, the more we can laugh at our own. And the gate of laughter is often a more effective entryway into the hidden recesses of the heart than is the gate of remorse.

The story begins with a prophetic calling. “The word of Adonai came to Jonah: Go at once to Nineveh and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.” This is a common motif in the prophetic literature. Typically the prophet will confess his inadequacy to carry out the prophecy; Moses probably gets the prize for making the greatest number of excuses. But sooner or later he agrees to do it. Isaiah’s excuse is “I am a man of unclean lips”, so an angels purifies his lips with a hot coal. Then God said, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And Isaiah, in a line that has crept into presidential politics this year, answers: “hineni sh’lacheini”—“Here I am; send me!” But only Jonah actually does what the other prophets may have secretly wanted to do—he sails away to the other side of the known world.

I used to know a young Catholic priest who openly shared his resistance to hospital chaplaincy. He knew that some of the patients carried more suffering than we wanted to handle. So he walked up to each hospital room and did what he called a “room dance”. He walked quickly by the doorway before the patient noticed he was there, and if things looked too disturbing he would wiggle around, one foot ready to go in, the other foot pulling back. He then took another quick peek in the hope that the patient had fallen asleep; or he suddenly remembered that a patient in good spirits on the next floor had asked him to bring something, and he had to go get it.

Jonah kept his escape act going even when God had created a thunderstorm on his behalf. When the sailors were doing whatever they could to stay afloat, Jonah fell into a deep sleep. And when all else failed, he preferred to drown rather than go to Nineveh. Twice in the last chapter, Jonah will say, “I’d rather die than live”. Like a child who tries to hold her breath rather than let in a situation she’s trying to avoid, Jonah misses no opportunity to escape from what he needs to do.

We have a children’s book from Elischa’s childhood about a puppy with a toothache. The puppy is so terrified of the dentist that he endures incredible pain rather than seek help. He runs away from home and hides in the forest, until his father finally finds him and brings him to the dentist. Within seconds the dentist pulls the tooth out from his trembling patient, and the pain is gone. This is Jonah’s trap. Escape is much more painful than simply doing what he has to do.

It is in this setup, trying everything he can to escape, that this preposterous situation of being swallowed by a fish interferes with his plans of avoidance. Jonah has become a child with a tantrum whose parent has called a time-out. He’s stuck in the fish belly for three days, even longer than we sit here in the sanctuary without food or water, to reflect on his situation. And for a moment he seems to get it. He drafts a Psalm in the style of King David—“You cast me into the depths. The waters engulfed me. Yet You brought my life up from the pit. I will sacrifice to You with loud thanksgiving.” Then, in the midst of his poetic reverie, the magic words fall out of his mouth: “What I have vowed I will perform.” The holiday-at-sea is over. The fish brings him right back where he started, and just two pesukim later he arrives at the gates of Nineveh. He did what he had to do, and he did it great. The Ninevites repented and God saved the city.

This would be the end of the story if we focused only on external events as covered by CNN. But even after facing his fear and accomplishing his goal, Jonah managed to mess up again. When God saved the city, “This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was grieved. “Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. I would rather die than live.” As a parent, I can relate to that line, “Isn’t this just what I said before?” There is, of course, nothing in the text suggesting that Jonah had said anything of the kind. But kids seem to relish saying, “I told you so”, even if they didn’t, when things go wrong. But Jonah’s melt-down is particularly absurd since nothing went wrong. Actually, one thing did go wrong. Jonah had repented when he was inside the fish, but apparently nothing had changed.

Alan Lew tells a story in his book about his rebellious teenage daughter. She had gotten so wild that in desperation the parents sent her to a wilderness survival training. On the last day of the program, the kids split into small groups and went into the mountains on their own. A fierce storm suddenly broke out and the group got lost. For four days they battled high winds, rain, and snow. Their food and water ran out, and some of them got hypothermia. Lew’s daughter kept one girl alive by lying on top of her and keeping her warm all night with her body heat. Finally, after they lost all hope, a helicopter spotted them and they were rescued.

When this girl came home, she was radiant. She said that when she was afraid she would die, she had a realization how much she loved her parents and how bad she felt about the way she had behaved. Now everything would change. But within two days, everything was back to exactly the way it was: tantrums, fights, staying out all night. Nothing had changed.

Like Jonah, Alan Lew’s daughter discovered that the resolution to change is not enough to make change happen. That’s why we don’t make New Years’ resolutions at Rosh Hashanah—they would only be vows that we hadn’t kept, and that we’d need to annul at Kol Nidre. As W.C. Fields said, “Now don’t say you can’t swear off drinking; it’s easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.”

It may be funny to see ourselves make heroic pronouncements, and then go back and do the same silly things we always did. But when we’re desperately trying to practice teshuvah and become sealed in the Book of Life, the joke may escape us. Fortunately the story with Alan Lew’s daughter had a happy ending. After six months, the girl really did change how she lived and how she related to her parents. All it took was took time, patience, and forgiveness.

As for Jonah, his story doesn’t last long enough for him to finally get it. We see only a gentle fatherly God trying to educate a defiant Jonah in rachmunes. When Jonah whines that he’d rather die than face the humiliation of preaching doom to people whose city God saved, God plays shrink with a reframing question: “Oh, are you that deeply grieved?” Jonah leaves town, sits around pouting for a while, and then God gives him a shady plant to help him keep cool. Jonah, like a kid with a new birthday present, is thrilled. But the next day the plant died and Jonah found himself stuck in the heat. As usual, Jonah pouts and wishes he were dead. Once again, Dr. God asks, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?”

Then comes the famous punchline: “You cared about this plant, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. Should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand infants and lots of cows?” This time Jonah is caught. All he has cared about all along has been himself. HE didn’t want to go to Nineveh, HE didn’t want to be humiliated if the disaster he predicted didn’t happen, HE had love only for a plant because it kept him cool. It never occurred to him that babies and cows have feelings too.

This is not a very satisfactory ending. We don’t know what Jonah did with this instruction; we don’t know if he finally grew up and opened his heart. Yet it is an appropriate ending for Yom Kippur. We’ve been in the fish’s belly for nearly 24 hours, hopefully we’ve gotten a glimpse of who we are below the surface and what’s going on in our hearts. We’re going to continue to plea for mercy from God; but as Jonah was shown, It’s we who need to learn mercy, both to others and to ourselves. The irony with Jonah’s selfishness was that it led him to so much misery and self-destruction. Last week we had a birthday in our family, and saw a usually loving and cheerful child torment herself with her new gifts. The more she had, the more she wanted. The more she tried to take it all in, the more agitated she became. Sometimes selfishness can be inseparable from self-destruction. That’s why Jonah kept wailing that he wanted to die.

Such foibles are less amusing to watch when they are going on inside of ourselves. But hopefully laughing at Jonah can help us not to take ourselves so seriously as well, and to open our hearts to a place of self-acceptance.

— Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
Yom Kippur 2004