Haftarah Yom Kippur 5762
(The Book Of Jonah)
September 27, 2001
A reluctant prophet is not atypical among the prophets of Israel. Neither Moses nor Jeremiah was eager to serve. Jonah is, however, distinctive in that in some sense his unwillingness to heed the Divine call serves as the book’s theme. Jonah’s trials accentuate the very ideas which underlie Yom Kippur.
Jonah’s behavior is odd and totally “unprophetic”. When God presents him with a mission to go to Nineveh to warn them of the seriousness of their sins, Jonah opts to try to escape the divinely assigned task. “Jonah started out to flee to Tarshish from before God” (Jonah 1:3)
Radak, a 12th – 13th century Provencal Biblical commentator, claims that Jonah was certainly discerning enough to appreciate that he could not actually flee from before God rather he was attempting to avoid God’s mission.
Similarly, when the sea becomes tempestuous and it appears that the boat will go down, when all of the other passengers on the boat have “found religion” in order to save themselves, Jonah descends into the depths of the vessel as if to escape the divine confrontation and “he lays down and falls asleep” (verse 5). One cannot help getting the impression that Jonah is trying to distance himself as much as is humanly possible from God. He even allows the innocent sailors to cast him into the sea to save themselves. He seems to prefer death to his mission. His estrangement with God is total.
What is it that Jonah is trying to avoid? The answer to this question is enigmatic. Whatever the lesson must be, God is insistent that Jonah learn it. When stormy seas and prayerful sailors make no impression on him, God has him swallowed by a fish saving his life. Yet Jonah, both physically and metaphorically, sinks to greater depths. Still there is no response on the part of Jonah. He is without appreciation – without hope.
Ultimately Jonah can no longer avoid his mission to deliver God’s message to the Ninevites. The Ninevites repent and Jonah who should be overjoyed, is left more distraught than ever. He would have preferred that God carry out justice rather than mercy. He finds the idea that God has compassion for those who have repented unbearable?
Jonah understands God’s message but is still oblivious to its import. He complains to God: “You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.” (Jonah 4:2) He goes angrily off into the wilderness, willing to die. He is saved only by the graciousness of God that he so loathes. Only after he shows sympathy for the booth (gourd) which God has provided for his shade does he finally realize the significance of God’s message that mercy and compassion are as important as justice.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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