Yom Kippur Mincha (The Book of Jonah)
October 12, 2016 / 10 Tishre 5777
There is an expectation among some that there should be a semblance of consistency in the messages of the Tanakh (Bible). A closer perusal will, however, yield a different truth. The Tanakh is filled with debate between different worldviews, ideologies in dialogue with each other. This profound message is clear from a close look at the book of Jonah and its place in the biblical canon. What, after all, is the message of this book? From its placement in the liturgy for Yom Kippur, one could easily assume that its primary message regards the importance of “Teshuva – repentance”. Yet, despite the centrality of “Teshuva”, viewing it as the purpose of the book, renders the hero of book, Jonah, secondary.
If Jonah is the subject, then we must examine his role carefully. Jonah is a renegade prophet. What bugs him? He is frustrated by his mission to Nineveh since he knows that they will repent and that his prophecy of destruction will be set aside because God will forgive them. In the process, from his perspective, he will be rendered a false prophet because what he proclaimed will not have come true. Where would he get such an idea? Clearly, Jonah is just following the line found in Deuteronomy: “And should you ask yourselves, ‘how can we know that the words were spoken by God?’ If the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the words do not come true, then the words were not spoken by the Lord; the prophet has spoken perversely, do not fear him.” (18:20-21) Is it any wonder that he was concerned? He knew very well that God was merciful and that this would be the result.
The book of Jonah is offering an alternative definition for a prophet. It is in debate with the definition found in the above quoted verse. This view, already found in the book of Jeremiah, sees a prophet as one who prophesies peace and consolation and whose desire is to rally his listeners to turn aside from wrong ways: “So if a prophet prophesies good fortune, then only when the word comes true can it be known that the Lord really sent him.” (28:9); At one moment I may decree that a nation or a kingdom shall be uprooted and pulled down and destroyed; but if that nation against which I made the decree turns back from its wickedness, I change My mind concerning the punishment I planned to bring on it.” (18:7-8) (See Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan, Sefer Yonah, pp. 14-15)
The storyline of this book is Jonah’s transformation from being a prophet who simply delivers a decree into one who fosters an opportunity to enact positive change in his audience. This is a message which should not be lost on any of us in how we lead our lives.
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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