Yom Kippur Mincha
(The Book of Jonah)
September 25, 2004
There are different ways of understanding the stories of the Bible. The Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Elijah (18th century), chose to interpret the book of Jonah as an allegory, namely, as a story that symbolically represents a higher spiritual reality in the guise of a tale about a prophet who tries to escape an inevitable divinely commanded mission. According to the Gaon, the story of Jonah is about the mission of the soul in the world. Its purpose on earth is to repair the world. However, in the meantime, its mission is thwarted and it taints itself. In the end, after being sent a second time (reincarnation), the soul accomplishes its task but only after much trouble and anguish.
Jonah, the hero of our story, represents the soul. His God commanded mission symbolizes each individual\’s role in the world. Jonah is sent to Ninveh, the symbolic representation of the world, to restore it. Instead, he decides to escape his mission by escaping to Tarshish in a boat. The boat, according to the Gaon, represents the body and the sea, a person’s life. Jonah’s journey at sea is symbolic of the soul’s descent into life in the body. The escape to Tarshish symbolizes the soul’s fall into human sensuality and consequently to abort his God-given mission. The storm, which breaks the ship apart, represents things like pain and suffering which cause a person to recognize life\’s futility and cause a person to reconsider his or her ways. Jonah (the soul) realizes that his failure and now yearns for another attempt to accomplish his mission to save Ninveh (the world). At this juncture, Jonah (the soul) is cast into the sea and the storm is quieted. He is swallowed up by a fish, which represents the grave, and is brought down into the depths to answer for his misguided life. Jonah (the soul) is saved from this fate by the good deeds that he has done only to start his mission again in another life.
This time, Jonah is willing to go on his mission to Ninveh and fulfill God’s word. The Gaon notes that Jonah\’s (the soul’s) mission (the second time around) begins on Rosh Hodesh Elul and ends forty days later on Yom Kippur. This was the period given to Ninveh (the world) to do “tikkun” – repair. The king and people of Ninveh heed Jonah\’s call and repent and God shows them mercy. Jonah (the soul) does not quite understand this process. He has difficulty discerning what has been wrought before his eyes. God must teach him the wisdom of divine mercy. The gourd, at the end of the story, was created to teach Jonah this lesson. It provides Jonah with shade in the heat of the dayand Jonah becomes quite fond of it. When it is destroyed Jonah despairs. Once Jonah can appreciate God’s mercy, he understands the importance of teshuvah and we, too, the readers of the Gaon\’s allegory, are enjoined, as well, to respond to this model during this season of repentance.
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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