An Introspective Look at the Jonah Story
Yom Kippur Morning 5782
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim, Bentleigh VIC
Last night, I took us into the belly of the big fish in the Jonah story. Today, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to walk us through the story in an unusual manner, seeing the events unfold through different eyes in different contexts, and hoping that through one or many perspectives, each of us will be able to find a glimpse of ourselves.
The story of Jonah is found in the Prophets section of our Tanakh, our Jewish bible. It is customarily read each year on Yom Kippur afternoon as a paradigm through which we can understand the tshuva, or repentance process. Most people remember Jonah being swallowed by a whale (even though, it was actually a big fish and not a whale), but few people actually know the entire story. In short, Jonah was called by G-d to tell the people of Nineveh that they were doing the wrong thing and should change their ways. Jonah tried to avoid this task and fled on a boat going the opposite direction.
G-d caused a big storm. Jonah went into the cabin of the boat to sleep while the other sailors worked frantically, throwing things overboard to save the ship and their lives. Meanwhile, Jonah was discovered and confessed his ploy to avoid G-d’s command and volunteered to jump overboard. The sailors didn’t let him at first, but eventually, they all agreed that Jonah was the one G-d was after. So, Jonah jumped into the sea, the storm ceased, and Jonah was swallowed up by a big fish – NOT A WHALE. He was in the belly of the big fish for 3 days, where he poured his heart out in prayer, and was literally vomited up by the fish.
He went to the city of Nineveh and told the people to change their wicked ways. They did. G-d forgave them and did not enact G-d’s intended punishment. Jonah did not understand how G-d could forgive the people. The punch line at the end of the story is a bit of a cliff-hanger and leaves room for much interpretation, but in short, G-d demonstrates to Jonah how if you care about something or someone, it is difficult to give up on them, and better to give them space to change their ways, forgive them, and let them return to you.
Our story begins with a simple command – “וּקְרָא עָלֶיהָ- proclaim judgement” – where G-d commands Jonah to proclaim judgement upon the people of Nineveh for their “wickedness”. In other words, it’s to call out a group of people who have done the wrong thing. Jonah hears the request and promptly runs away in the opposite direction.
I don’t know about you, but the first thing that came to mind for me when I thought about a group of people doing the wrong thing was the Ripponlea debacle.Once again, there are more scandals and bad press for the Jewish community, bringing a plethora of antisemitic commentary on social media, some harassing of the Jewish community while walking home from shul after this incident, and intra-communal frustration at the outright arrogance of part of the ultra-Orthodox community bringing all Jewish people into disrepute. Though, I have to admit that I had a laugh at the Fiddler on the Roof and Mission Impossible takes of the Adas participants in their now infamous Rosh Hashanah breach, literally escaping the police by running on the rooftops and climbing down fire escapes.
So, what did I do after this incident? Nothing. What could I do? What difference could I make? I thought to myself, will their fines make any difference at all to people who believe their understanding of their observance of G-d’s law is above that of our Premier or Minister of Health? I doubt it. So, I, like many of us, distanced myself from them, and looked the other way. What could I have done? What can I still do? – Loudly and publicly vocalise my disapproval and outrage at their actions, clearly stating that their actions do not represent that of our entire Jewish community.
But digging a bit deeper, how different are “they” from us? So, their breach was large and public. What about our breaches…beyond Covid? What have we seen in our own community or family that we have let slide because we didn’t think we could make a difference or change anything?
- because we didn’t want to cause trouble or make a big deal.
- because we just couldn’t be bothered.
How many people do we know who have cheated on partners, in business, or on their taxes, have lied to their family, friends, teachers, or workmates, or have stolen or not returned something they borrowed or found? How many people do we know who have been disrespectful or abusive? How many people do we know who could have made a phone call to a friend or relative that would have lifted their spirits and chose not to? How many people do we know who could have donated money to the synagogue or Israel or another charity and chose not to? How many people could have saved energy or water, been more conscientious about the environment?
Do these behaviours classify as “wickedness”? Do they all belong in the same category?
The Mishna says:
מצווה גוררת מצווה; עברה גוררת עברה
One mitzvah brings about another mitzvah; One sin brings about another sin (Pirkei Avot 4:2). In other words, if we get in the habit of doing smallwrong things, it is easier to do morewrong things; and, in so doing, it is easy to lose track of what is small and what is big.
Hence, our tradition reinforces the idea of “wiping away wickedness in our midst” (Deut. 21:21) or “turning back from their evil ways” (Jonah 3:8) - the idea of ridding ourselves of the “ra” - the evil or wickedness. Sometimes this refers to the people, but most of the time, the rais the behaviour, before the behaviour fully infiltrates the people to the point of no return. Thus, G-d’s command to Jonah. Go to the people before it’s too late, proclaim judgement in order that they can change their ways. Jonah was not set up to be “the bad guy”, but rather, to be the helper.
So, how can we look at our situations, when we see wrongs that are being done? How can we be more helpful and steer others back on track before they reach the point of no return? For “return” is what tshuva is all about!
Now, back to our story. As Jonah runs in the opposite direction to avoid his calling, or his responsibility, he finds himself on a ship in the middle of a storm amidst a group of frantic sailors.
The sailors are so concerned about their own lives that they do not even notice that Jonah is sound asleep down below. Each of the sailors cry out to their own god, praying for salvation.
How many of us, like the sailors, have been so caught up in our own lives, that we have not noticed those around us? How many of us have felt so stuck and dismayed at the ineffectiveness of our past coping mechanisms that we were not open to listening to or seeing other ways out of our current predicaments? How many of us have been so preoccupied with our own survival that we were blind to the needs of others around us?
Those “others around us” could be those within our family or friendship circles who are seriously struggling, or simply want to be noticed and share their thoughts, achievements, or joys with us. The noticing doesn’t only have to be the miserable and the sad. The noticing could be the everyday growth of a child or the wisdom of a grandparent, the appreciation of a tasty meal or a tidy room, a good joke or insight from a friend. What are we NOT noticing because we are so fixated on our own current state? What else are we missing about the others around us?
The “others around us” could also extend beyond our immediate circles to include women and children locked down at home in abusive situations, the elderly, who are isolated and alone, those who have lost wages and jobs and are struggling to receive or survive on the government payouts, or those left in poverty and have become homeless. Organisations like Impact for Women (https://www.impactforwomen.org.au/), Jewish Care (https://www.jewishcare.org.au/), and Dignity (https://dignity.org.au/) all work to help people within and outside of the Jewish community who are struggling in their storms and are in need of being noticed and supported with dignity and respect.
“Others around us” could include our brothers and sisters in Israel, who have not only been struggling with increasing Covid cases, despite their high vaccination rates, and are being turned away from hospitals due to limited space and higher demands, but who have also been living with terror and rockets bombarding their homes, struggling to both isolate and stay safe in their shelters. Many have been affected and are suffering from PTSD.
The UIA is currently running a campaign to provide rehabilitation grants for children experiencing PTSD triggered by the recent attacks(https://uiavic.secure.force.com/donate/2021-KN). For how many of us is Israel so far outside our radar now that we have no idea what’s happening in our Jewish homeland? How many of us have lost touch and forgotten that Israel is “around us”… is part of our home, our people, our history, our future?
Where does our responsibility lie? The sailors eventually woke up to their responsibility and noticed Jonah. They began to work together for their collective safety. What can we do as individuals to work together for our collective safety? What can we do to notice others and help bring calm to their stormy waters?
Sometimes, a simple phone call can make all the difference. Taking a break and offering gratitude for the everyday gifts that those we love bring to our lives. Making a donation to an organization or two or three that work tirelessly to support those with a variety of different needs can help change a person’s life before they get to the point of no return.
Gemilut chasidimand tzedakah,acts of kindness and charity, can certainly tip the scales and create more balance in our lives and in the lives of others. Herein lies the power of righteous choices - Tzedakah.
Next up in our story, Jonah recognizes that despite the renewed efforts of the sailors, the only hope of saving them is to cast himself into the sea. This is not a message advocating self-harm or suicide, affirming that people are better off without his presence; but rather, this is a message that sometimes we must jump into the eye of the storm, into the belly of the big fish, into our dark or quiet place, in order to find stillness and reclaim our voice. And in this space, Jonah prayed. He prayed –
בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ
with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might. Prayer is about looking deep within, looking honestly at ourselves, and judging ourselves – not based on our appearance, our wealth, our success, our grades, our marital status, our careers or that of our children or grandchildren, but we judge ourselves based on our values.
Have we made choices that enable us to live according to our values? If so, kol ha’kevod – well done. If not, what can we do differently to align our life choices, however big or small, with our life values?
Jonah was running away from his responsibility because he was afraid that he would not be successful, or that he was not worthy of the task. He made his choice out of fear, not based on his life values. For Jonah was chosen by G-d, not because he was perfect, but because he was capable of change, because he valued living according to G-d’s teachings. While he was in the belly of the big fish, he was able to identify his fears and tap back into his values and find renewed purpose. Sometimes, through honest, heartfelt reflection and prayer, we can gain better perspective on our own actions, choices, and lives, and rediscover our purpose.
Herein lies the power of Tefillah.
And finally, Jonah went to the great city of Nineveh and told them to fast, wear sack cloth (while he was covered in ashes), cry out to G-d, and turn back from their evil ways. G-d saw their changed behaviours and G-d’s mind was changed; thus, G-d did not carry out the intended punishment.
This upset Jonah greatly, for he could not understand how G-d could care about a people who had behaved so poorly, and, because they changed their ways, all was forgotten and forgiven. Personally, I wanted to tell Jonah to raise teenagers and watch them grow into young adults, and then he could answer his own question!
G-d essentially said the same thing to Jonah in a more biblical way. The people of Nineveh were G-d’s people, and like G-d’s children, who “did not know their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11), they were not able to discern right from wrong. Jonah helped show them, thus facilitated their tshuva process. They were able to recognise what they did wrong and demonstrated sincere regret and remorse for their actions. They reconciled their behaviour through prayer and the changing of their actions. Thus, they were forgiven and returned to the right path, living an ethically sound existence for the betterment of society.
Sometimes we need to allow and recognise people’s ability to change. Just because someone always acted in a certain way does not mean they always will, particularly if they are aware of and regret their negative actions, and have made conscious efforts to change their ways.
Forgiving others involves giving them space to change, which includes, sometimes, reverting back to their old ways, but less often, until they are able to make a complete change. Change doesn’t come quickly or easily. We must be patient, as G-d was patient with the people of Nineveh.
Likewise, we must learn to forgive ourselves and recognise that change is difficult and takes time. That it is unlikely that we will be able to make a complete change in one go, as G-d tried to explain to Jonah. We often get attached to our ways of doing things and have difficulty letting go, even if we know it is necessary. G-d tried to teach Jonah to let go of the things that don’t matter and stick with the things that do matter. The story of Jonah is a blatant rejection of the sentiment: “I’ve always been this way. I can’t change.” For any person has the potential for change if they can recognise the error of their ways, their bad habits, their inner demons, feel remorse, and sincerely have a desire to change their ways. There is always a path back to where they would like to be. That path might be difficult to see. We might even need help to see it, but it is always there. Herein lies the power of tshuva.
So, whether we identify with Jonah, the sailors, the people of Nineveh, or G-d, the message of the story is clear - Tshuva, tefillah, u’tzedakah - repentance and returning to the right path… honest reflection, self-judgement, and prayer… and righteous acts can tip the scales in our favour, helping us to lead more balanced lives in line with our values. Wishing you a safe journey and a place of quiet solitude as you enter into your Yom Kippur storm.