Haftarah Yom Kippur afternoon
(The Book of Jonah)
September 14, 2013
10 Tishri 5774
Jonah was not the first prophet to try to avoid God’s appointed mission, though he was the first to try to physically flee from God: “Jonah, however, started out to flee (livroah) to Tarshish from (milifnay) the Lord’s service. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the Lord. ” (1:3) The very thought of a prophet attempting to escape God’s service by running away has confounded interpreters throughout the ages.
The following rabbinic midrash attributes Jonah’s behavior to his intense loyalty to his people and his desire to protect their interests at all costs: “Could Jonah have thought that he could flee from before God? Hasn’t it already been said: ‘Where can I escape from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?’ (Psalm 139:7) However, Jonah thought: I will go outside of the land [of Israel] – a place where the Shekinah (God’s presence) is not revealed, since the Gentiles are more inclined to repent, I might as a result cause Israel to be guilty [of not repenting]. [God’s response can be understood through a] parable – A kohen (priest) had a servant who said to himself: I will flee to a cemetery, a place where my master (a kohen) cannot enter. His master said: I have other slaves like you [who can go retrieve you]. Similarly, Jonah said: ‘I will go outside of the land where the Shekinah is not revealed, since the Gentles are likely to repent, causing Israel to be found guilty.’ But the Holy One Blessed Be He responded: ‘I have other agents just like you, as it says: God hurled a great wind into the sea’ (Jonah 1:4). From this we see that there are three kinds of prophets: One who insists on the honor due the Father (God) as well as that of the son; one who insists exclusively on the honor of the Father, and one who insists exclusively on the honor of the son. Jonah insisted on the honor due the son (Israel) but did not insist on the honor of the Father.” (Adapted from Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Pisha 1, Horowitz Rabin ed. pp. 3-4)
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (11-12th century), Spanish exegete and polymath rejects this opinion entirely basing his opinion on an interesting grammatical distinction. He asserts that in Biblical usage “to flee from (lifnei)” indicates fleeing on account of fear. The usage here, however, is “milifinay” which Ibn Ezra claims means that Jonah fled on account of rebellion. (Ibn Ezra knows that this opinion is controversial and does not spell out his opinion completely, stating as he often does in such instances: “the discerning will understand”.)
Rabbi David Abudraham (14th century Spain), the famous liturgical interpreter utilizes this interpretation as his rationale for its inclusion in the Yom Kippur liturgy: “This comes to teach people that no one can flee from before God after committing a sin.” In other words, in his sin, Jonah is a role model that even prophets are held accountable.