Why Did Jonah Run?
If Jonah Never Really Repented, Why Do We Read His Story On Yom Kippur?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
How should we understand the meaning of Jonah's story? Why did Jonah think that he could run away from God? What was God attempting to teach Jonah with the strange allegory of the kikayon plant? More importantly, if Jonah never really repented, why do we read it?
We read the strange Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, a book that has nothing to do with repentance... which seems a bit odd. The Book of Jonah is about a prophet who rebels against God. Where is the connection to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year?
In this course, we delve into the most essential messages hidden in the Book of Jonah. By studying the interactions between Jonah and God, we uncover meaningful lessons about the critical balance between justice and compassion in the world.
Watch this course and you’ll learn that both the Book of Jonah and Yom Kippur are about something much greater than repentance alone.
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 take-away here? And what is that takeaway? It is a maddeningly puzzling book.
Why Do We Read Jonah's Story on Yom Kippur?
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 very end and these two questions combined, get in the way of almost the most basic understanding of what this book is about.
In a moment, I will introduce to you those questions. But before we even get there, I want to talk about one other puzzling thing about the book, which is just basically what it’s about.
So let’s start with this: I mean, here we are, it’s Yom Kippur, 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 into the fish, his journey on the ship, his journey then to call out to them – what is Jonah’s journey about?
Did Jonah Ever Repent?
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 his 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 to you in these videos, 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.
I mentioned to you there is a question at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book. Let’s talk about these two questions.
Studying the Big Questions in the Book of Jonah
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.
Question #1: 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. Let’s see what happens because otherwise, they are going to be destroyed.” And Jonah doesn’t do it.
Why Did Jonah Run Away from God?
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 notion enough 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 up 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 burning questions in the first three verses of this book. But these questions are linked to another question; a question that emerges from the end of the book.
How Do We Explain the End of 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.
Understanding the Moral Lessons in Jonah's Story
These are the two great question 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 in the coming videos, 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!
Why Did Jonah Think He Could Run from God?
I want to come back with you and examine this question of what it might be that is propelling Jonah to want to evade God's mission. There is this big question in the beginning of the book that we were talking about before. So let me discuss with you four possible motivations that comes to mind.
One possibility is that Jonah doesn't want to be seen as a false prophet. Here comes God and says "Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh; I want you to get these persons to repent." We know that he actually goes into Nineveh and he says, "Forty more days and Nineveh is going to be destroyed." Now, maybe his position is this, "Look, I know these guys are going to repent and I know when they repent, you God are going to forgive them and I know you're not going to destroy them after 40 days and I am going to look silly and I'm not interested in looking silly."
What do you say? Does that work for the book?
So, here is my problem with this theory; if that's what Jonah is thinking, there is very easy way around this problem. All he had to do is go back to God and say, "Instead of asking me to go back to Nineveh and tell them 'Forty more days and then they will be destroyed,' what if we say, 40 more days and then they will be destroyed unless you guys change your ways," and that way it's great! You are happy, because you get your message across; I'm happy because I don't look like a fool when they do Teshuvah and we're great!"
And basically then, the moral of the story of the Book of Jonah is 'God and his prophet should communicate better.' Is that what the story is about? I don't think so.
If Jonah jumps off the ship, that's really part of the story. If he gets swallowed by a fish, that's really part of the story. All these things are the mainstays of the story; they are not incidental. So I think the possibility of it – Jonah not wanting to be seem as a false prophet – does not seem to be what's really motivating him here.
So what might be another possibility for why Jonah is running away?
Here, I want to suggest the 'Jonah is selfish theory.' You know Jonah, he was just a selfish kind of guy. He was interested in God being nice to him but wasn't particularly interested in God being nice to anybody else. We're talking of prophets are usually a people of higher moral quality than that.
But let's see if we can actually disprove that theory. If you look at the book itself, is there anything in the book that argues against the 'Jonah is selfish theory?' So two things I think come to mind. The first thing is what happens to Jonah on the ship during the storm.
Jonah runs away, he is suppose to be going to Nineveh, instead he's going to Tarshish and there is a divinely inspired storm. The sailors are afraid, they think the ship is going to go down.
They throw lots to see if there is somebody on the ship that is causing this divine anger. And the lots fall on Jonah. So they turn to him and they say, "What's the story?" Jonah explains – he is running away from God. They are all very afraid. And at that point they give him an opening, they say, "Well, what should we do with you?"
Pretend you are Jonah, they've asked you, "Well, what should we do with you now?" Now, imagine you are a selfish kind of personality; would you say, "Throw me overboard?" Or would you say, "Well, why don't we try rowing harder back to shore?" I think you would choose 'rowing harder back to shore.' But it's not what Jonah chooses. Jonah says, "Throw me overboard!" Selfish people don't say, "Throw me overboard."
And now let's go to a second thing. And the end of the book, the people of Nineveh do repent and God forgives them. Jonah didn't want it to happen; now he's lost the battle. What's his response? He says to God, "My life isn't worth living anymore. Take my life from me. I want to be dead rather than be alive!" It's not what a selfish personality does.
But there is something going on with Jonah; it's deeper than being selfish. He want's to die because Nineveh was forgiven. He wanted to die before when he told the sailors to throw his off the boat. I mean, there is something much deeper, much more visceral going on here. That leads us to the possibility of some other motivations that might be propelling Jonah to do what he does.
I want to introduce you to something I call the 'Jonah as Jewish Patriot theory.' Who were the people of Nineveh? Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria. These were not good guys. The Assyrian empire were enemies of the Jews. In a couple generations, the Assyrians are going to swoop down, invade the Northern Kingdom, exile the 10 tribes, make war against countless Judean cities – and maybe Jonah's position is "I don't want to help these guys. You God are asking me to warn these people about their destruction. Well, I'd like it if they got destroyed. I don't want them to be forgiven." Maybe that's his position.
Are there any problems with this position? Well I want to suggest that there is. And again, the issue is, any motivation that you posit for Jonah at the beginning of the book, has to be able to make it's way through the end of the book. So let's talk about the end of the book.
Interpreting the Story of Jonah and the Plant
In the end of the book, we have this story about this big plant and the worm. There is this big plant with all of its leaves shading Jonah and Jonah is very, very happy about the plant. Along comes the worm, the worms eat away at the roots, it destroys the plant, and the plant withers and Jonah wants to die and he is very, very upset.
Now at that point God says, "You had compassion on that gourd that you didn't work for and I shouldn't have compassion on Nineveh, this great big city? You know Jonah the implication is here that the problem with you, you don't have enough compassion." If I was Jonah, I would be offended. I would say, "God, I'm a very compassionate person. I have compassion upon my people. I'm just not interested in the Ninevites attacking us!"
Now, I also want to just introduce you to another sort of variation of this theory – 'Jonah is a Patriot theory' – and this variation is given by the Midrash; it's sort of a spiritual version of the 'Jonah is a Patriot theory'.
The Midrashic Explanation of Jonah's Story
Here is what the Midrash that Rashi quotes says, "Jonah knows history and he knows that over and over again, God has sent various prophet to the Jews to no avail; they just haven't repented. And now, along goes Jonah to go to some Gentile city and to get them to repent and Jonah is worried that they are actually going to do it; and that's going to make the Jews look bad. God is going to say, 'I send prophet after prophet to my own people that I have this covenant with and they ignore all of these prophets and I send one lousy prophet to the Gentiles and all of a sudden they repent like there is no tomorrow!' What do I need the Jews for? And Jonah doesn't want to be the instrument of that."
Very satisfying this theory in its own way. Again though, the problem is how do you make it through the end of the book? If this is really the simple explanation, how does the story of the gourd and the worm that destroys it, suppose to convince Jonah of anything? What, he is supposed to have compassion on the gourd? "Don't talk to me about gourd and plant you know! Again, I am a patriot of the Jewish people. I just don't think it is going to make our people look good!" You know, what would be the answer to that?
So if you told me that the answer that God was giving Jonah at the end of the book is "look Jonah, I understand that you're worried about the Jews but you can't look into such long term spiritual consequences to what's going to happen. You just have to accept my plan." And if you told me that that was God's answer, that would make sense. But it doesn't sounds like that's God's answer.
The story of the gourd doesn't seem to be a story in which God says, "You don't have the right to question me. You are questioning me and I'm trying to provide you an answer with this story." What is that answer?
So those are four possible approaches but none of them seem particularly compelling because none of them really seems to match up with God's response at the end.
So I want to suggest to you a theory that I think works – what I might call a fifth approach – but in order to get to that, we really need to dive into the details of the story.
We need to look at some of the other perplexing things here. When we do that, we're going to collect additional clues that will help us piece this together, help us understand why Jonah ran away and what God is trying to reach him at the end of the story.
The Chain of Evil: A Hidden Lesson in Jonah’s Story?
Okay. So in order to make some progress in understanding Jonah’s motivation for running away, I want to look at one seemingly small point in the episode involving Jonah and the large leafy plant, the kikayon, that God creates to come up over his head. And let me just ask you this deceptively simple question – what was the purpose of this plant? And you say “well it was hot outside. The purpose was to provide him with shade.”
Here are two difficulties with that. Jonah already had shade. If you look at the immediately preceding verse it says “that Jonah had made himself a sukkah, made himself a little hut. Vayeshev tachteiha batzel, “and sat in the shade of the hut.” So, what was God doing providing him another source of shade?
So if you look carefully at the text, you’ll find something interesting. The plant was there to provide shade; but it was also there to provide a second thing. Vayeman Hashem Elokim kikayon, “God created this kikayon,” vayaal meal leYonah, “and it went above Jonah,” lihyot tzel al-rosho, “to be a shade for his head,” lehatzil lo meraato, “but also to save him.”
Save him from what? Raah usually means evil. The problem is, translating in context, what does it mean? The plant was doing what to save Jonah from his evil?
So, to discover what it means, you need to really focus on the word raah and notice that it is used throughout the text; it’s actually almost like a train of raah that continues one after another after another. And actually, the occurrence of raah which I’ve just pointed out to you, the gourd, saving Jonah from raah, that’s actually the last occurrence of raah.
Let’s go back and look at the first one and trace it all the way through. The first raah is the raah of Nineveh. God wants Jonah to go out to Nineveh to call against it because the people of Nineveh has done raah, they’ve done evil.
The next time you have raah is the storm. The storm comes and threatens Jonah and the sailors say baasher lemi haraah hazot lanu, “Why is this storm coming?”
The next time you have raah is again with reference to Nineveh. When the people repent, they repent from their raah they changed their evil ways.
The next time you have raah is when God sees the people having repented from their raah, ki shavu midarkam haraah. And then what God does is vayinachem haElokim al-haraah asher diber laasot-lahem, God changes his mind about the raah that he is going to do to this people.
So you can see what I’m talking about in terms of this chain of raah. The people were doing raah, therefore they were going to be destroyed. Raah, evil, was going to come to them but they changed their ways and therefore God changed his mind about inflicting raah upon them and then there is a final domino effect and that is the very next verse, chapter 4 verse 1, vayera el-Yonah raah gedolah, “And Jonah felt a terrible raah.”
Why is it that Jonah is angry that he has this great feeling of evil, of raah, upon him? It’s because he explains to God, nicham al haraah, “You have changed your mind about doing raah to the people.” And then we get to the very final car on the train, which is the one we started with – the leafy plant, the kikayon. It there lehatzil lo meraato, to save Jonah from his raah, and now we know which raah. Just look at the next train car up in the train of raah.
When God gives him the leafy plant to save him from raah, it’s to save Jonah from the feeling of terrible evil that he had because God was nicham al haraah, “because God changed his mind about doing evil.”
There is something about this plant that will do more than shade; it’s going to explain everything. We just have to figure out how. Let’s look at the end of this train of raah a little bit more closely.
Jonah had complained to God that you are nicham al haraah, “You changed your mind about doing evil.” Those are very crucial words because in those words we actually have the Book of Jonah’s own answer to the questions we began with – why did Jonah run away?
Why Did Jonah Run Away?
It turns out that Jonah had himself explained to us why he ran away – just not at the beginning of the book where we might have expect to have seen it. There, it’s a mystery; but at the end – at the beginning of chapter 4 – Jonah reveals his motivation.
After the people of Nineveh are forgiven, Jonah lodges a complaint to God and in his complaint he says al-ken kidamti livroach Tarshishah? “Why do you think I ran away to Tarshish? It’s because I knew this would happen. It’s because of...” And now the next thing he is going to say, we’ve heard these words before – the quote from somewhere. I‘m going to read those words and you’re going to tell me where have you heard those words before?
Here is why I ran away to Tarshish. Ki yadati ki atah Kel chanun v’rachum, “I knew you were a gracious and merciful God,” erech afayim v’rav-chesed, “slow to anger, full of compassion.” You’ve heard those words before. Where do they come from? It turns out they come from the Book of Exodus.
These are the famous yud-gimel middot harachamim – the 13 traits of compassion that God revealed about himself to Moses in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. God tells Moses, “I’m the gracious and merciful God.” And that grace and that mercy becomes that which saves the Jews from destruction after worshiping the Golden Calf at the foot of Sinai.
But now, for some reason, he is throwing these words back to God. So one interesting thing is that Jonah is quoting these things from the Book of Exodus, but the tone in which he says them is entirely different. Instead of these words being wonderful – an oasis of compassion – they are that which brings Jonah to a state of wrath. They are, in the mind of Jonah, a source of terrible evil.
The last key to understanding Jonah’s motivation, comes from the very next word that he says. Because when he continues, he actually changes the yud-gimel middot harachamim. What were the next words? Ki yadati ki atah Kel chanun v’rachum erech afayim v’rav-chesed… v’emet, “that I am a God of truth.” Johan leaves out that word and replaces it with a different phrase.
In Jonah’s version, v’nicham al haraah. And there is the caboose in the chain of raah. “You changed your mind about doing evil.” Fascinating! Jonah has replaced the word emet, “the truth,” with nicham al haraah, “changing your mind about doing evil.” Now, why would he do that?
Well, in the next video, we are going to explore that. But before we get there, I want to give you a clue. There is a hidden connection between this verse at the very end of the train of raah and the very first verse of the book.
Take a look at that very first verse in the book. Who is Jonah? Vayhi devar-Hashem el-Yonah ben-Amitai “the word of God came to Jonah the son of Amitai.” Jonah, the son of Amitai. Jonah is the son of emet and he just happens to leave that one word out of God’s own explanation of himself.
What is this son of truth really saying? Let’s come back and talk about it.
Studying the "Truth" in Jonah's Story
Let’s talk a little bit about this word that Jonah leaves out – emet, “truth” – the name of his father. What exactly do we mean by “truth?"
Truth is really an abstract concept, it’s good for mathematical kind of things: 2 + 2 = 4 is true; 2 + 2 = 5 is false. What does truth look like when it is reflected in the real world? For every act; there is a consequence. This equation, we might call justice.
Newton expressed this Third Law of Motion – ‘for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ If one billiard ball hits another billiard ball, the second billiard ball is going to move. And for every consequence there is an act, the second billiard ball doesn’t move unless it gets hit. This is what truth looks like in the real world.
It turns out that justice is a religious concept as well. When most people talk about why it is that they are attracted to religion, people will talk about “God is love;” “spirituality,” “prayer,” “devotion,” “community.” There is very few people that will say, “You know what I like about religion? Justice! Ah, nothing like seeing the divine court of justice in action!” Very few of us are attracted to religion that way.
But interestingly, justice is a very, very important concept within Judaism – there is a whole segment of the calendar devoted to it, the yemei hadin, “The Days of Justice.” Rosh Hashanah is known as the yom hadin – “The Day of Justice.”
How do we approach that day? I think most of us, me included, approach that day with a great deal of trepidation. The notion of ‘God sitting on a throne of justice and judging people’ is not very attractive. But I think in order to really appreciate Judaism fully, we have to ask ourselves “Is there some sort of positive way that we can relate to din? Can we actually get anything out of it spiritually or is it just something that we have to endure?”
I think there is actually something we can get out of it. Rosh Hashanah – this Day of din – is actually a day that we celebrate. We wear nice clothes, we feast on delicious foods, we celebrate on this Day of din. What a strange reaction to justice. What is nourishing about Divine justice? I think Jonah, the son of Truth, is asking us to take a hard look at that question.
So to try to get at that, I want to propose two kind of thought experiments with you; experiments that ask you to imagine a world in which Divine justice was compromised in some way.
So here is experiment number one. Imagine for a moment, it’s after 120 years, your time on earth is up, your soul approaches the gates of heaven. Now, I want to give you two possible scenarios and you pick which scenario you would prefer.
Scenario #1: you were met by an Angel who is handling crowd control at the gates of Heaven and the Angel is really apologetic. He explains to you that their whole system has gotten really overwhelmed and the Almighty simply can’t be bothered to spare any time to talk with you just now. So the Angel kind of take a quick look at you, offers you a set up in the Mezzanine level of Heaven – you can hang out there for all eternity. That is scenario #1.
And here is scenario #2: God, as the Master of the Universe, your Creator, the Almighty himself, sits down with you and goes over your whole life from the first time that you learned to walk, to the time that you defended your friend from a bully in seventh grade, to the time you watched your own children learned how to walk, and you walked your own children down to the chuppah; you feel a tremendous amount of pride. God cares and is so proud of you for all that.
But you also see moments you failed, moments you yelled at your kids and it wasn’t their fault; when you’re unsure on Sukkot, and instead of davening you’re thinking of the World Series; and these moments are embarrassing, they are painful. But this is your life, with its good and its bad and all of its rich colors and all of its years.
The joy you feel is ecstatic; but disappointment is searing. But God through your life and shows you His view of it. You see the grand significance of your life in God’s eyes – why your life mattered to God; why it mattered to those around you. The second involves Divine justice, the first no justice at all. Which would you want?
I have to confess, I would prefer the first! You know, happy to just take the pass God, you know, seat me in the Mezzanine level, I’m totally good. The notion of Divine justice is scary, but I would like to be the kind of person that would like to choose the second. Because the second, even if involves pain, means my life really meant something. And in the first, the question I am left to wonder is “did it matter?” I spent 60, 70, 80, 90 years doing my best and this is it? To be seated at the Mezzanine level with peanut shell beneath my feet? I feel so alone.
I feel like “what did it all mean? Why did I bother so much?” There is something hollow about option #1. Din – “justice” – lends a kind of meaning to life because everything matters; because I see how every act had consequences and how consequence didn’t come out of nowhere, but my actions created them; they made a difference in the world.
And here is thought experiment #2. God forbid, but imagine that someone really close to you – a child, a sister, a brother – is the victim of a terrible crime, the victim of something truly horrible at the hand of a brash and malicious attacker. Trial begins and then one day, the judge calls you into his chambers and I want you to imagine the following nightmare scenario.
The judge says, “Look, I’ve talked with the defendant. I just had to tell you, I think this show trial has gone on long enough; this whole media circus, we just have to call it to a close. I’ve spoken with the defendant, he is willing to come by your home for a Brandy one night; he is going to offer you his apologies for what may or may not have occurred on the night of May 12th. I would like you to call a press conference and just dismiss all the charges; it’s time to let bygones be bygones and moves.”
If the judge said that to you, how would you want to respond? If you are like me, it would be a terrible nightmare but it’s not the most terrible nightmare. There is actually an even worst nightmare. It’s exactly the same as the situation we just described with only one difference – the identity of the judge; it’s not a human judge anymore – it’s God.
Let’s come back and imagine the situation.
Here is the greater nightmare: everything is exactly the same, except this time, it is not the judge who asks you to call the press conference and drop the case – it’s the Almighty himself.
You have a dream that night, and in the dream, the Master of the universe Himself comes to you and says exactly the same thing that the judge said to you, “The show trail has gone on too long, I’ve talked to the defendant, the defendant is going to come to your home. I want you to call a press conference and dismiss the charges. This is the Lord signing out.” You wake up, it really was God and God is telling you to drop the charges. Now why is this nightmare even worst than the nightmare I described to you before?
In the previous scenario, as you walked away from the courtroom, you say to yourself, “The judge is nuts!” But you console yourself by saying “But there is another Judge – there is a Judge in heaven and justice will ultimately be done. It may not be done in this world but it will be done in the next. There still is justice in the universe.”
But in the second scenario, you can’t say that. God’s heavenly court is the supreme court. If God himself comes down and tells you to convene the press conference, it means that there is no justice. And then what do you want to do?
As you wake up in the morning, what do you want to do? I think you want to run away – very far, out of the world if possible, out of this domain of the Master of the universe. You want no part of this because somehow, if this is true, life doesn’t matter anymore.
If there is no justice, why bother? I want to argue to you that the courtroom scenario I described to you before is real. Jonah had that nightmare.
Why Was Jonah Running From God?
God comes to Jonah and says, “The people of Nineveh, those guys over there, the really bad ones, I want you to go and accept their apology.” And Jonah says to himself, “And that’s it? They’ve done all these terrible things and then just say a few words and it’s over. What they’ve done doesn’t matter? There is no consequences for that?” Jonah is the son of Truth. Where is the truth in that?
Jonah has the nightmare and he wants to run away. He’s not just escaping his mission, he wants to escape God – as impossible as that can be. He knows he can’t escape God, but he feels like he has to run anyway. Look at the words of the text: “Jonah gets up to run away to Tarshish.” What’s he running away from? It doesn’t say he’s running away from his mission, he’s running away melifnei Hashem, “He’s running away from before God.”
So he goes down to Jaffa, gets on a ship, and then there is a storm. Now the text tells us something very interesting. At the height of the storm, Jonah goes to the bottom of the ship to take a nap. Imagine yourself in a wooden fishing vessel, at the height of a divinely inspired storm – waves more than 50 feet high. Would you be able to sleep? And yet there is Jonah, sleeping like a baby.
The storm is God; it’s God saying, “Jonah, we have to talk.” And what’s Jonah’s response? “I’m not talking to you. If you’re not going to let me run away onto a ship, if you are going to follow me with a storm, I’ll run away into sleep.”
Jonah is on the second flight from God. But then along comes the sea captain and the sea captain rises Jonah from his slumber, wakes him up and says, “Hey lad. What are you sleeping for? Everybody is up on deck, they are all praying to their gods; you go up also and pray to God.”
Jonah goes up to the top of the deck. Does he pray? He doesn’t. All these pagan sailors, everyone of them is praying. The one true prophet of God is not praying.
Why is Jonah not praying? The answer is “he has nothing to say to God.” You’re going to abrogate justice? You’re the supreme court. I have nothing to say to you.
Finally, all the sailors cast lots; they want to see who is responsible for the storm and the lots fall on Jonah. They say, “What should we do with you?” He says, “Throw me overboard.”
Why is he saying that? He doesn’t know there is a fish waiting for him. What does he thinks “throw me overboard” means? He thinks it means “I’m going to die in the sea.”
And what is he saying with that “God, if you’re not going to let me run away onto the ship and you won’t let me run away into sleep; I‘ll run away into death! I’ll do anything to get away!” Jonah is thrown overboard; but then there is the fish.
And then the Midrash says something very strange; they said there were actually two fish. You know why? Because the first time it says fish in the text, it says dag. But the second time it says fish, the fish is called a dagah, which is a female fish. The Rabbis are very bothered by this discrepancy and come to the conclusion that in fact there were two fish.
First, there was a male fish but Jonah wasn’t praying in the male fish so God had him spat out of the male fish into the female fish and the female fish happened to be pregnant and there wasn't much room, so Jonah prayed his prayer in the female fish.
Why are the Rabbis driving me crazy with such a strange story? The answer is: “the Midrash is speaking to, allegorically, about the deep meaning of what is going on.” The Rabbi saw the textual pattern that you and I are seeing.
What Is the Message Hidden in the Book of Jonah?
Jonah ran away once onto a ship, twice into sleep, the third time into death and the Rabbis just take it one step further and say, “Even in the fish, Jonah was running away – he wasn’t going to talk to God until there was literally no more room, no more physical room, no more spiritual room, it was the end of the rope; then, only then, did Jonah speak with God.”
So what did this man say to God? “I call out in my distress to you,” mibeten shol, “from the belly of the grave I call to you,” shivati shamata kol, “you listened to my voice,” vatashlicheni metzulah bilvav yamim, “I was in the heart of the ocean,” v’nahar yesoveveni, “water was all around me,” kol-mishbareicha vegaleicha alai avaru, “all your breakers and your waves pass over me.” Afuni mayim ad-nefesh tehum yesoveveni, “water came and threatened my soul, the deep surrounded me,” suf chavush leroshi, “seaweed entwined over my head.”
This is extremely vivid experience. And in that moment ani amarti, “I said to myself,” nigrashti mineged einecha “I’ve been cast out. You realize that I had slammed the door on you. I have no right to think that you would ever look back towards me. But now that you’ve saved me,” osif lehabit el-hechal kadoshecha, “I realize that I will come back to see your holy temple.”
He concludes ani bekol todah ezbecha-lach, “with gratefulness I will offer to you,” yeshuatah laHashem, “salvation is of God.”
It’s a prayer of thanksgiving and God heard Jonah and did save him and Jonah is grateful. But notice what’s not in this prayer. Jonah hasn’t changed his mind; he hasn't admitted he was wrong. He hasn’t done Teshuvah; he doesn’t think he has anything to do Teshuvah for.
It’s a prayer of personal reconciliation between him and God; but it hasn’t changed his perspective. And when Jonah gets spat out of the fish on dry land, God comes to him and says, “It’s time to go to Nineveh to accept the apology of his terrible aggressor.” The nightmare is coming true.
We really only have one thing left to do – try to figure out how the ending of the book works with all of this. What was going on with Jonah in the sukkah with the big leafy plant and the worm? In understanding that, all of the remaining pieces of this book are going to come together. And I think we’ll be able to see why the Book of Jonah is such a profoundly meaningful book for us. Let’s come back and talk about this.
The Purpose of the Book of Jonah: A Lesson of Justice and Compassion
Nineveh is forgiven and the nightmare happens. This troubled Jonah terribly and here these words are vayera el-Yonah raah gedolah – Jonah experiences this as evil and here we get towards the end of the train of raah.
Remember how we talk about the train of raah being almost like a domino effect – each car links up with previous car. The train of raah in a way is an expression of din, of justice – every act has a consequences – those are dominios. Nineveh did great evil – there would be consequences. Jonah runs away from God – then it’s a storm.
But then something interrupts the train of raah – the people of Nineveh stops it in it’s tracks, they change their ways. They turned around; and then God turned around because God saw their ways that they changed their trajectory and God changed his perspective on the raah and the evil he had planned to inflict upon them.
But that change in perspective of the normal consequences of din causes Jonah to experience raah. Vayera el-Yonah raah gedolah. Din has been corrupted and if the natural consequences of Nineveh’s evil weren’t allowed to come to be and Jonah, the son of Truth, experiences the raah instead.
And he prays to God and says al-ken kidamti livroach Tarshishah? “Why do you think I ran away from Tarshish? I knew this would happen.” Ki yadati ki atah Kel chanun v’rachum erech afayim v’rav-chesed. And here he is quoting back to God, but angrily, the 13 attributes of compassion – “You’re full of grace, compassion, slow to anger, full of mercy, except even you God, when you said that to Moses, said you were something else. You said you were the God of Truth,” and now Jonah replaces that word with v’nicham al haraah.
It’s almost as if he is saying, “How can you say You’re the God of Truth, when You’re the God of nicham al haraah, Who changes His mind about doing evil? And now God, just take my life from me, it’s better to be dead than alive.”
As it happens, God doesn’t say anything to him. But God gives him an experience that is designed to save him from his raah through the medium of shade. Lihyot tzel al-rosho lehatzil lo meraato – shade will save him from his raah. How?
Jonah leaves the city and he makes himself a hut, vayeshev tachteiha batzel, “and sits in it in the shade” ad asher yireh ma-yiheyeh bair, “until he can see what will be with the city” this is fascinating – “until he can see what will be with the city.” God had spared the city, Jonah knows that God had spared the city. Why is he waiting to see what will happen with the city?
He knows that they are going to be spared. He just simply can’t believe that this application of justice is going to standard. Despite himself, he is sitting there watching – maybe, maybe God will change his mind.
And then, while in the hut Vayman Hashem Elokim kikayon vayaal meal leYonah, “God causes this huge leafy plant to rise up above Jonah,” lihyot tzel al-rosho lehatzil lo meraato, “ to give him shade,” vayismach yonah al-hakikayon simcha gedolah, “and Jonah was so happy over this gourd.” What was he so happy about? What was this man who already had shade so happy about?
Vayman haElokim tolat baalot hashachar, “then along came a worm that God appointed in the morning,” vatach et-hakikayon, “and caused the kikayon to wither. When that happened vayishal et-nafsho lamut, “Jonah wanted to die.” But the plant dies and Jonah is that deeply distressed about it. It is one thing to be upset with the aubrigration of din in the world but because your plant is no longer here, you want to die? Why is Jonah so upset about the loss of this plant?
The Spiritual Meaning Behind Jonah's Story
So let’s go back and look at the story – the story of the plant and the worm – and let me ask you this question: the plant, this great big leafy plant, what is this kikayon a product of? Is it a product of din, of justice, or is it a product of compassion?
The plant is a pure expression of love; it’s here just because God loves Jonah and God wants to provide him with shade – it’s such an expression of love because from a utilitarian standpoint, Jonah already had shade but now God, the Creator himself comes and give me shade because he loves me. Jonah was so happy about the plant.
The kikayon is an expression of God’s love but if the kikayom is rachmim, compassion; what is the worm? The worm is an expression of justice.
What is the great calculus of justice? For every act there is a consequence; every consequence comes from an act. Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could.
The worm looks at the plant and says, “Where did you come from?” In the world, where do plants come from? They come from seeds; no such thing as a plant without a seed. You plant a seed – that’s the act. The consequence is we have a plant.
Where is your seed? You didn’t come from a seed. You came from nowhere. And justice says, when something doesn’t have a right to be here, it goes away. In a world of justice, there is no plant and along comes the worm and destroys the plant. And when that happened, Jonah wanted to die!
What was so upsetting to Jonah that Jonah wanted to die? At some level Jonah had been affected deeply by the death of the plant as by the forgiveness of Nineveh. What is so upsetting about the death of this plant?
Explaining the Story of Jonah's Plant
Let’s put it this way, if you were Jonah, what arguments could you marshal in favor of keeping the plant? And the answer is “okay, so the plant doesn’t deserve to be here; but it is here! Such beautiful creation and to destroy it just because it doesn’t deserves to be here?” And then God says “Ah! Now you understand. First, you wanted to die because you didn’t want to live in a world without justice; now you understand you don’t want to live in a world without compassion either.”
To really understand the conflict between the worm and the plant you need to understand this – both justice and compassion have questions they ask. What is the great question of justice?
When a judge looks at a defendant, what’s the one thing the judge wants to know in order to dispense justice? What have you done? If I know what it is that you’ve done, then I know what the consequences would be.
But if that’s the question of justice; what is the question of compassion? What is the argument the Defence Attorney makes to the court? Is it an indiscriminate argument? “Ah, just let him off easy what’s the big deal?” No! Compassion is never indiscriminate.
You know, there is a Hebrew word for compassion – resh-chet-mem – it spells something else besides compassion, it also spells ‘womb’ – the soul of compassion is to be womb-like. It’s the product of being the Creator of something that you have compassion towards it.
But a womb asks the question too; the question is “What is your potential? What is can you be?” If the womb decides that it does not like the potential of the embryo, it expels it and we call this a miscarriage. Four out of five early pregnancies are actually terminated by the womb; because the womb ask this question. But if the answer is “yes, you really have potential,” then the womb says, “I will nurture that potential. I will make you into everything you can be.”
What if the womb asked the question of justice? What if the womb asked every innocent embryo “what have you done to be here?”, there would never be a child born in the world. The question of compassion is a different question – it’s not “what have you done?” It’s “what can you become?” The augment of compassion is “good, you may not deserve to be here, but it would be such a shame to destroy you.”
When Jonah wants to die, after the worm kills the plant, what he’s really saying is “I don’t want to live in a world where expressions of love are taken away just because they don’t deserve to be here.” And then God says “Ah! You understand!”
Atah chasta al-hakikayon asher lo amalta bo, you had compassion on this plant, but you weren’t even the creator of this plant, you never worked for it; compassion, true compassion comes from the loving blood, sweat, and tears that a creator invests in that which they create. Vaani lo achus al-Nineveh? “And I, the Creator of all, shouldn’t have compassion on Nineveh?”
And we asked before, “where was teshuvah in this equation? Why isn’t teshuvah mentioned?” And the answer is “teshuvah doesn’t make you deserved to be saved."
What Does the Book of Jonah Really Mean?
Jonah is right, what does “sorry” do? In a world of justice, sorry doesn’t take away your crime. Where is the power of an apology? Where is the power of teshuvah?
The power of Teshuvah is that it doesn’t change the past; it changes the future.
If I do Teshuvah, if I change my ways, then I can make an argument for compassion. It’s like I’m this beautiful leafy plant that has just begun to cast my shade in the world; look what I can do. Good, I don’t deserve to be here, but it would be such a shame to have me wither away.
That’s the argument that God himself marshals for Nineveh. They may have done evil things, they may deserve to die. But they’ve done teshuvah; look what they’ve become. It would be such a shame to destroy them.
Understanding Why We Read Jonah's Story on Yom Kippur
And that’s really the argument that we make to God on Yom Kippur and I think it’s why we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur. Because if you have a good Rosh Hashanah, if you really understand why justice is so essential for the world – why there can’t be any meaning in life without it – you come to Yom Kippur, you think it’s laughable, what am I supposed to do now? Apologize and say I’m sorry and that’s going to wipe out everything?
You have Jonah’s questions on Yom Kippur. I’m just going to say these words and he deserves to live? It’s not going to change the past. It’s laughable.
The Book of Jonah comes to answer that question, it comes to tell you why teshuvah can matter; because it doesn’t changes the past, it changes the future. It makes you to be able to argue with God, “save me because of what I can be. Good, I don’t deserve to live, good, I have lost my lease on life, but you’re the God of life, let me live.”
Look at the words zochreinu lachayim, melech chafetz bachayim, vechotveinu besefer hachayim lema'ancha Elohim chayim, “remember us for life, a King who desires life, inscribe us in the book of life for your sake, oh God of life.” What word appears over and over and over again? Life, life, life.
Mi chamocha av harachmim zocher yetzurav bechayim berachamim, “who is like you oh Father of compassion; who remembers His creatures for life with compassion.” These are the additions we make to shemona esrei, we appeal to the God of life.
As we go forward into Yom Kippur, we need to do so focused on what we’re really asking. We’re not arguing that because we’ve changed, we’ve somehow changed the past, erased it, but we’re arguing that we renewed our potential and God as our Creator prizes our potential.
We’re asking him to help us grow into so much more, we’re asking him for life and God our Creator is a compassionate God. He is our womb, He created us, our Source of compassion and whatever the demands of din, nurturing us, helping us become what we can is always in God’s plan.