What’s Jonah Really About?
If Jonah Never Really Repented, Why Do We Read His Story On Yom Kippur?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this video, the first of the course, Rabbi Fohrman presents a number of essential questions regarding the book of Jonah. As the questions build, it becomes clear that Jonah – and Yom Kippur itself, the day on which this book is read – is about even more than the classic theme of teshuvah (repentance).
I would like to share with you a problem that I have struggled with year after year on Yom Kippur. Here is Yom Kippur, a day when you’re in synagogue, you are trying to find things that inspire you. You are listening to the haftorah in the afternoon, you are listening to the Book of Jonah. And it doesn’t seem to do anything for you. Is this story supposed to inspire me? Is it supposed to give me some sort of takeaway here? And what is that takeaway? It is a maddeningly puzzling book.
Understanding The Meaning of Jonah's Story – And Yom Kippur
Here we are, it’s Yom Kippur, it’s a day of teshuvah, a day of repentance; is this book about that theme? Is it about repentance? Well, on the one hand, it is kind of about repentance. The people of Nineveh, they are bad, and they end up doing teshuvah, they end up repenting, and they end up getting saved. So you might say that it is about repentance.
But here is the problem with that. The book is not called ‘The Book of Nineveh’; it’s called ‘The Book of Jonah.’ And as a matter of fact, the people of Nineveh, if you really think about it, are just supporting actors in this book. The book isn’t really about them. They only get a few verses here and there. The book, as its title suggests, is the Book of Jonah. The book is about Jonah’s journey – his journey on the ship, his journey into the fish, his journey then to call out to them – what is Jonah’s journey about?
It’s not about teshuvah. Jonah does a lot of things wrong. He runs away from God. He wants to die. He never apologizes for any of this. He never repents. You can never find teshuvah anywhere in the book, even in his prayer, which he prays to God from the belly of the fish, can’t find any thoughts of teshuvah in that prayer whatsoever. A book that doesn't have to do with teshuvah at all on the day that’s all about teshuvah. What I want to argue is that the Book of Jonah is about something even more fundamental than teshuvah; and Yom Kippur is about something even more fundamental than teshuvah.
There is a certain kind of air, a certain kind of environment, in which teshuvah breathes. And without understanding that environment, Yom Kippur makes no sense. The Book of Jonah is about understanding what that environment is. That’s somewhat abstract. As we get into the nitty gritty of the book, I think it is going to begin to make sense. But in order to do that, we have to open our eyes to some of the questions that make the book so difficult to understand.
There are two basic questions that face you when you look at the Book of Jonah; one is right at the beginning, and one is at the end of the book.
Let’s talk about these two questions.
Did Jonah Think He Could Run Away from God?
Question #1: Here you are, reading the beginning of the book; it just hits you, in the first two verses: vayehi devar-Hashem el-Yonah ben Amitai leimor, And the word of God came to Jonah, the son of Amitai saying, Kum lech el-nineveh ha’ir hagedolah ukra aleiha ki-altah ra'atam lefanai. Jonah gets his mission: Go to Nineveh, this great city and call out against it because their evil has come up before me. Verse 3, vayakam Yonah livroach tarshishah. And Jonah gets up to run away to Tarshish, milifnei Hashem, from before God. Jonah gets up, runs away to Tarshish, jumps on a boat and he’s off. He’s not going to Nineveh.
Why is Jonah running away? I mean, here he got a direct command from God, “Go to Nineveh and call out against them. Inform them that they are doing the wrong thing..” And Jonah doesn’t do it. Why didn’t he do it? Jonah is a prophet; why do you go into the prophecy business if you’re just going to say, “No” when God wants you to do something?
Coupled with the issue of why he runs away, is why he thinks he can get away with running away. If you are a prophet of the one God, surely you have a sophisticated enough notion of the Divine to understand that you are not going to get away with it. And, in fact, God catches up with him. There is a storm, Jonah gets swallowed by the fish – he can’t run away from God. And Jonah, a prophet of God, is in the position to know that better than anyone. How does he think he can get away with it, and why would he want to get away with it? These are the two burning questions in the first three verses of this book. But these two questions are linked to another question, a question that emerges from the end of the book.
How Do We Explain the Messages in The Book Of Jonah?
Listen to the end of the story. The city of Nineveh has repented; God has saved them. Jonah is upset by this, and he tells God that he wants to die. As it happens, it’s very hot outside, so God causes this very large gourd to just come up overnight above Jonah. In the morning he’s got this gourd and it’s providing shade for him. Then, God causes a worm to come and the worm eats away the roots of the gourd and destroys it. At that point, Jonah wants to die again. And then God says to Jonah, atah chasta al-hakikyon asher lo amalta bo. You had compassion on this gourd that you never worked for. It was only here for one night and was gone the next night. Don’t you think I should have compassion for Nineveh?
And that’s the end of the story. You’re Jonah. What would you say to that? Does that make sense to you? Are you willing to just give up and say, “Yes, you were right all along, God.” What would you say if you could answer? I mean, I’ll tell you what I would say. “What do You even mean that I had compassion on the gourd? I was hot; it was burning hot outside. You made this gourd. I was very happy because I had air conditioning now. You took away the gourd and now I don’t have air conditioning; so, of course, I am going to be upset. How is that supposed to help me understand why You’re supposed to spare Nineveh?” The whole analogy here does not seem that compelling.
What is the Moral Lesson and Purpose of Jonah's Story?
These are the two great questions that lay at the heart of this book. How does the beginning of the book make sense – why does Jonah want to run away? How does the end of the book make sense – what is God trying to teach Jonah with the story of the gourd and how is the analogy effective? But what I want to show you, is that these two questions are actually related to each other. And in order to make sense of this book, you have to sort of attack both questions together. Because, however it is that you understand Jonah’s motivation for running away is going to affect how you understand the analogy with the worm and the gourd at the end of the book. Come with me and let’s take a stab at it!