Haftarah Yom Kippur Afternoon
(The Book of Jonah)
September 26, 2012
10 Tishre 5773
Jonah was a problematic prophet. God commanded him to serve as His prophetic agent, but, instead, he fled to avoid his mission: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me. Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the Lord’s service.” (1:1-2) In true biblical fashion, Jonah’s motives are enigmatic, stirring immense curiosity, especially because of the book’s liturgical prominence in the prayer service on Yom Kippur. The reader asks: ‘What are we expected to learn from this seemingly wayward prophet?’ In what way is he to serve as a paradigm that we should read of him on Yom Kippur?
One major trend in rabbinic thought is expresses in this passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi: “Said Rabbi Jonah: Jonah ben Amittai was a true prophet. You find that when the Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: ‘Get up and go to Nineveh that great city and proclaim judgment upon it for their wickedness has come before Me,” Jonah responded: ‘I recognize that the nations are sincere about penitence, so if I go and prophesy to them [I am sure] they will repent. And then the Holy One Blessed be He will come and punish Israel [for not repenting]. So what should I do? To flee?’ ‘Jonah started out to flee to Tarshish from before the Lord. He went down to Jaffo and found a boat destined for Tarshish. He paid the fair and went aboard.’ (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 11:5 30b)
This passage exchanges the picture of Jonah as an intransigent prophet for that of a heroic guardian of Israel. He flees from his mission, according to this midrash, in order to protect his own people since he is afraid that the non-Jewish Ninevites, in their willingness to repent, will put his own unrepentant people in a bad light. This makes him like Moses, a defender of Israel. On the other hand, the Ninevites do make an inviting model for a nation seeking out reconciliation with God. They do fast and make a complete turnaround warranting God’s mercy.
I am not sure that this rabbinic reading of Jonah’s behavior can be considered the “pshat” or plain sense of the story. It does, however, Illustrate for us that the sages could not see prophets in anything but a heroic light. This reading of the story manages, though, to leave us not only with a “rescued” hero, but also with what the sages thought an unlikely but compelling model of repentance to emulate.