Notes on Jonah
Our Torah reading for Yom Kippur Mincha is from Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code. The most famous phrase from this passage is in verse 18, ve’ahavta l’re’akha kamokha, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But it is not just the neighbour, or kinsman, that we are bidden to treat with respect and concern. Later in the reading, the same is said of the stranger or outsider (verse 34): “The stranger who dwells among you shall be like a citizen among you, and you shall love that person as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” That idea of treating the stranger with respect links us, in an unexpected and rarely remarked way, to the Book of Jonah, our haftarah for the Mincha service.
The question I’m posing is this: Why do we read the prophet Jonah as haftarah on Yom Kippur afternoon? It seems a strange choice. If we went through the prophetic section of the Bible, I’m sure we could find numerous passages that speak more directly to the themes of Yom Kippur. This morning’s haftarah from Isaiah is a good example. So, why this choice?
Many commentators link Jonah to Yom Kippur via the repentance of the “great city (‘ir gadol)” of Nineveh. Jonah is commanded to go to Nineveh, which is in Babylonia, and prophecy to them to repent, or else. When the king hears that Jonah is spreading the word, he immediately institutes all the signs of mourning, and the entire city repents. God then spares the city. Given that Yom Kippur is all about sin, repentance and forgiveness, it makes sense that this theme is highlighted by the tradition.
But there are other themes as well that relate Jonah to Yom Kippur in a more nuanced manner, and I’d like to explore one of these today. This theme hinges on who Jonah is and why he is so reluctant to carry out God’s command. We can contrast his reaction to that of Abraham, who we are told “gets up early in the morning” to respond to God’s command. Given that we read Abraham’s story on Rosh Hashana and Jonah’s on Yom Kippur, the comparison is apposite. Why do we hear the story of a reluctant prophet on Yom Kippur?
Just to recount the story that we’re about to read: Jonah ben Amittai is told to get up and go (kum lekh) to the great city Nineveh and speak out against it. But Jonah goes in the opposite direction to Tarshish. The ship carrying him across the Mediterranean is caught up in a great storm (everything is “great” in Jonah; it’s a very dramatically intense, overdrawn story!) and is being battered about while Jonah is in a deep sleep (or trance, tardemah) in the hold. The captain wakes him up and implores him to call on his god to save them. The sailors cast lots to discover who is responsible and naturally Jonah is the man. So they ask him to identify himself. He says “I am a Hebrew, I revere Adonai, God of heaven, who made sea and land.” However, we note, he doesn’t actually do what the captain asks and offer a prayer to God to cease the storm. Instead, he tells the sailors to throw him into the sea, which they very reluctantly do, and that works; the storm stops, and in the process Adonai gains several new worshippers.
In the meantime Jonah is swallowed by a “great fish” (dag gadol). While in the fish’s belly he recites a psalm about being “cast into the heart of the sea”; “I descended to the deepest edge of the mountains”; “Yet You… raised up my life from the pit.” All ends on a “sound of thanksgiving” (kol todah), and the fish spews Jonah out. Jonah goes into Nineveh’s outer suburbs, not the city centre (the city is a three-days’ journey in size, and he goes one day’s-worth), and cries out “Forty more days and Nineveh shall be overturned.” The people and the king mourn with considerable displays of regret, and God relents (vayyinachem).
That should be the end of the story, but it’s not – there’s another (4th) chapter to go, and that alone alerts us that the story is really about Jonah, not Nineveh. Jonah thinks God’s relenting was “a great evil” (ra’ah g’dolah). Quoting from God’s 13 middot in the Exodus narrative, as we do throughout Yom Kippur, Jonah complains that Adonai is “a gracious and compassionate God, endlessly patient and abounding in steadfast love.” God, the heavenly social worker, acknowledges Jonah’s anger. Jonah then goes east of the city and makes himself comfortable under a gourd vine (kikayon) that God provides for shade. This gives Jonah “great joy” (simchah g’dolah). The next day God kills off the vine and the sun beats down on Jonah. He’s very peeved, angry “to the point of death.” Then God spells out the moral, as at the conclusion of a Mozart opera, using the rabbinic logic of a kal vachomer (“how much more so…”): If you pitied the gourd vine, which you put no effort into, surely God should show compassion to Nineveh with all of its (divinely created) creatures, human and beast.
Who, then, is this Jonah who rejects compassion in favour of strict justice? Dr Erica Brown (in a wonderful booklet on the Ten Days of Repentance that may be found on the Sefaria website) alerts us to the back story, which is missing from our prophetic book. Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 as the prophet who had supported King Jeroboam in his efforts to restore the land that Israel’s enemies had occupied. We may assume, therefore, that Jonah is a patriot who has no sensitivity or positive feelings towards the enemy. For Jonah, the enemy deserves what he gets. That’s justice. Nineveh is counted among the enemies of Israel; its empire was a constant threat to Israel. Why, then, would Jonah, defender of the faith and protector of Israel, commiserate with the people of Nineveh? In the fullness of justice, they should be destroyed.
But God sees things differently – we might say, God sees things in the spirit of Yom Kippur. God would override divine justice with divine compassion and mercy. Adonai is a God of life, not death, a God who seeks sincere repentance and not vengeance (as the prophet Ezekiel makes clear). Jonah knows this and hates it. Jonah doesn’t want compassion to be shown towards Nineveh, and he says this several times to God. He wants punishment or revenge. In effect, if we may say so, Jonah questions God’s integrity and sense of judgment.
In an ironical twist, as Dr Brown points out, Jonah is called “ben Amittai”. The word Amittai is from emet, truth. Though Jonah is called the son of truth, yet he questions God’s emet, God’s truth which is about compassion, and replaces it with his own narcissistic belief in revenge against the enemy. Of course, in the end we are taught through God’s parable of the gourd vine that God’s truth is indeed true, and Jonah’s is false. As a rule, the rabbis teach, when it comes to matters of life and death, compassion should override justice.
That’s also the message of Yom Kippur: we may have good reason to be angry with another person, but is that respectful of God’s creation? Compassion overrides anger, even righteous anger. Maybe we can find some other way to handle our anger than simply holding onto it and running away from our duty to show compassion towards others. That’s the challenge that the book of Jonah puts to us.