Sefer Yonah is definitely one of the most confounding narratives in the whole of Tanach, perhaps *the* most confounding narrative – and yet: it always slips through the cracks, and we never seem to get around to unpacking this strange story.
Each year, when I get to that point during mincha on Yom Kippur when someone gets up to read Maftir Yonah – I always make a mental note: I’ve got to look into Yonah in more detail. I’d love to give a shiur on Yonah, I think to myself. It’s such a weird story. There’s so much that needs to be explained. Why do we read it on Yom Kippur? What’s the meaning of the story? Who is Yonah, and what is he all about?
There are so many questions, but not so many answers. And then: Mincha is over, and we begin Ne’ila – and, you know what it’s like – I totally forget about Sefer Yonah until next year Yom Kippur, and then again the following year.
It’s been on my bucket list for years, and this year I have finally decided to grab the bull by the horns. And let me tell you, it’s been quite a ride!
Do you know who Yonah HaNavi was? Yes, I know you’ve heard of him – but do you know anything about him? When he lived? Who he was a prophet for? The truth is, you know nothing about him. So to start off with, let’s take a look at that aspect of things before we turn to Sefer Yonah itself.
Yonah is one of the “Trei Asar” – the twelve minor prophets of Tanach. Some of the other “Trei Asar” nevi’im are Hoshea, Micha, Chabakuk, and Malachi.
Yonah lived in the eighth century before the common era – that’s roughly 2800 years ago. His mother was a widow. One day, when Yonah was a child, his mother had a visitor. The visitor was none other than Eliyahu Hanavi, who was hiding out from King Ahab. Yonah’s mother fed Eliyahu water and bread, even though she barely had enough for herself. Then, without warning, Yonah stopped breathing and he was dead – but Eliyahu Hanavi stepped in, and with Hashem’s help he miraculously brought Yonah back to life. That’s who Yonah was!
Yonah is also mentioned in II Kings 14, as the prophet who prophesized during the extended reign of King Jeroboam II over the Kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam II was the thirteenth king of Israel. He was not a good king, as he allowed pagan idols to be worshipped in Dan and Bet-El. Yonah is one of several prophets to have been active in his reign. In military terms, Jeroboam II was extremely successful. He extended his territory to Damascus, and even as far as Hama – which is about 280 miles north of Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel.
Clearly, Yonah was not a very successful prophet, at least when it came to changing Jeroboam II’s bad behavior – and the sages of the Talmud highlight his failure, and criticize him for it, citing the story contained in Sefer Yonah to prove what a failure he was.
Although, despite getting off to a false start, in his mission in Sefer Yonah, Yonah is successful. He gets the inhabitants of Nineveh to do Teshuva. The problem was that Yonah was concerned about what would happen if Nineveh did teshuva, and the Jewish people didn’t, so he tried to ignore God’s instructions.
But before getting into all that, let’s get an understanding of Sefer Yonah, and then let’s try and discover how it connects with Yom Kippur. And to do that – we need to summarize all four chapters of Sefer Yonah. The first two chapters are somewhat connected. The third chapter has a literary connection with chapter one — but is its own separate narrative. And the fourth chapter makes no sense at all.
In this chapter we are introduced to Yonah the prophet, who was the son of Amitai. God tells Yonah to go to Nineveh, a city that was very wicked and would be destroyed unless the inhabitants did teshuva.
Just so you get an idea of what we are talking about, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, and was the largest, most cosmopolitan city in the world at that time. Like Athens was for the Greek Empire, or Rome was for the Roman Empire. Or like Alexandria was during the period after Alexander the Great. Or, for a modern comparison, think New York or Los Angeles. A huge city, with a massive population, and a significant concentration of wealth, culture, and commerce – and of course every vice and sin imaginable!
God wants Yonah to tell the residents of Nineveh to repent. Can you imagine a prophet coming to New York or Los Angeles to get the entire city to repent? Where would you even start? It’s almost inconceivable. But that’s what God wanted Yonah to do. In any event, Yonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh and carry out his mission, and he decides to run away instead. He goes to Jaffa, to find a ship that will take him to Tarshish.
He boards a ship, but while he is on his way to Tarshish, there is a terrible storm at sea and the ship is in danger of capsizing and sinking. It actually says that the ship was in danger of breaking into two pieces. The crew throws some cargo overboard to try and lighten the load and save the ship from disaster, but nothing helps. The captain then asks Yonah to pray to his God to save the ship.
Meanwhile, the crew casts lots to figure out who among them is causing the storm – and guess what, they pick Yonah. Who are you?… they ask him. Where are you from? What do you do? And he answers them: עִבְרִי אָנֹכִי וְאֶת ה’ אֱלֹקי הַשָּׁמַיִם אֲנִי יָרֵא… “I am a Jew, and I fear God in Heaven.”
Why did you create this storm?… they inquire. He doesn’t give them an answer, just tells them to throw him overboard and that then the storm will subside and the sea will calm down.
Yonah knows full well that the storm is his fault. But the crew doesn’t want to throw him overboard. In the end, though, the sea is just too crazy. They call out to Hashem – please don’t kill us, we are innocent!!
Nothing helps. So they throw Yonah overboard – and immediately the storm is over and the sea calms down. The ship’s crew thank God and make all kinds of promises to God. And that’s the end of the first chapter.
The second chapter focuses on Yonah who is in the sea. A massive fish swallows him up – and he stays inside the fish for three days and three nights. Abarbanel suggests that Yonah was able to survive being inside the fish just like a baby survives inside its mother’s womb. An interesting idea, and not one that works physiologically.
Other commentaries, such as Ibn Ezra, suggest that this is one of the great miracles of Tanach, because surviving in the stomach of a creature even for a short period of time is impossible, and certainly not for three days. Another opinion – and Ibn Ezra goes in this direction rather than settling for the miracle idea – is that the whole big fish story never actually happened. Instead, it was a prophetic episode. Yonah was in some kind of a trance, imagining that he was inside a giant fish, but in reality – he wasn’t.
Whatever it was, while he is inside the fish in the story, Yonah prays – and he thanks Hashem for rescuing him from the dreadful situation he is in. He realizes that even as he sinks into oblivion, God is always still there for him. Yonah’s prayer is very powerful. And God listens to the prayer and saves him. The fish regurgitates Yonah, and he ends up on dry land. And so ends the second chapter.
The third chapter begins with a new prophecy: קוּם לֵךְ אֶל־נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה – “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it what I tell you,” Hashem says.
This time, Yonah doesn’t waste a second. He goes promptly to Nineveh. “You’ve got forty days to get your act together,” he says to the inhabitants, “or you are all doomed.”
As crazy as it sounds, the people of Nineveh take Yonah seriously, and declare a fast day, and sit around in rags repenting. Go figure! Even the king of Nineveh abandons his throne, and sits on the floor. It’s a crazy scene.
And God is watching this scene unfold, and he is so impressed – the people of Nineveh have done proper teshuva. Real teshuva. So God cancels the decree to destroy Nineveh, and Nineveh is saved. But… the story of Yonah is not yet over. There’s one last chapter left.
The fourth chapter of Yonah is definitely the most shocking of all the chapters – and that’s even after hearing about the giant fish that swallowed Yonah in the second chapter. It’s so shocking, it’s so weird, because after everything Yonah has seen and experienced in the first three chapters, suddenly, out of the blue, he’s angry with God for having spared Nineveh, and he is not shy to let it all out.
In an astounding outburst, he says to God – and I’m slightly paraphrasing here – “Hashem! This is exactly what I knew would happen and that’s why I ran away to Tarshish. You are far too compassionate and far too gracious. You don’t get angry enough. You’re so kind. You don’t punish the wicked. And do you know what? Kill me now, I’d rather die than live in your world.”
This is probably one of the most astonishing and emotionally raw outbursts to be found in the whole of Tanach.
But Hashem *is* kind. Yonah said it, and he was absolutely right.
“Are you really so upset?” God asks. Meanwhile, Yonah had left Nineveh to see if it really was going to escape destruction. He couldn’t quite believe it. He couldn’t believe that God was going to let them off.
Yonah sat under a large leafed kikayon tree, which God provided him so that he had shade – and Yonah was very happy about it. But then God sent a worm, and overnight the big leaves were all eaten by the worm. The next day, it was so hot with the sun beating down, that Yonah was ready to die again.
“Are you so upset about the plant?” God asks him.
“Yes,” says Yonah.
“But you did nothing to make it grow – it came from nothing, then it went back to nothing,” God says. “And yet you still care about it! So shouldn’t I care about a city of 120,000 people, and many animals, that I created, and that need my help?”
That question is left hanging in the air, and that’s the end of Sefer Yonah.
Sefer Yonah consists of a debate, a dispute, between a prophet of God and God, about how God runs the world. By his own admission, Yonah cannot get it into his head how truth can coexist with compassion and forgiveness. And that’s why Yonah refuses to go to Nineveh, and that’s why he runs away.
The question is – why do we say Yonah on Yom Kippur, and particularly, why do we say it just a short time before Ne’ilah? Think about it. It’s a story about a prophet who defies God. Okay, so he was unsuccessful. But should we really be reading about a failed rebel on Yom Kippur? Why don’t we read about one of the great heroes of Tanach?
For example, why don’t we read about King Chizkiyahu, the greatest Baal Teshuva of all time, who changed the whole Kingdom of Judah so that they worshiped Hashem instead of idols? He would be a great choice.
Yonah seems like a poor choice for Yom Kippur – he is not someone who springs to mind as belonging at the top of the list of Yom Kippur heroes, or even on the list at all.
According to Rashi, the reason that we say Yonah on Yom Kippur is because the people of Nineveh did Teshuva – and that’s a powerful Yom Kippur message. It tells us that people who are doomed to die can be rescued from the jaws of disaster. But while that’s a powerful suggestion about a Yom Kippur connection – it would make much more sense to end the Haftora at the end of Chapter 3, and not include Chapter 4. Chapter 4 ruins everything!
Abudraham, who lived in the fourteenth century and compiled a comprehensive siddur for the whole year – which includes a commentary, suggests that the reason we read Yonah on Yom Kippur is because it shows that no one can ever run away from God, or from what God wants them to do. Yonah, a great prophet, who had good reason to shy away from his mission, was compelled to do what God wanted him to do, and therefore we too must listen to God and fulfill our mission in this world. That is our destiny.
It’s another wonderful interpretation – but again, why include Chapter 4? Stop the Haftora at the end of Chapter 3, and that would be fine. The inclusion of Chapter 4 makes no sense whatsoever.
THE VILNA GAON’S INTERPRETATION
The Vilna Gaon has a totally different read for Sefer Yonah, and it fits much better with the Yom Kippur theme. All four chapters, he says, are entirely allegorical – a series of wordplays and clever puns that all have profound hidden meanings.
Here are some examples. God is the essence of truth, “meet”; and Yonah is “Ben Amitai” – a child of truth, with a neshama inside him that is a representation of God. וַיְהִי דְּבַר ה’ אֶל יוֹנָה בֶן *אֲמִתַּי* לֵאמֹר – God calls out to the truth within Yona, to his neshama.
The whole purpose for human beings to have a neshama in this world, says the Vilna Gaon, is to create harmony between the material and the spiritual, and to fix the broken world – to elevate everything mundane into the celestial spheres.
Which is why God tells Yonah to do some fixing – after all, that’s his purpose. “Go to Nineveh, which needs fixing, and do what it is you are here to do.” But Yonah doesn’t listen. He is distracted from his purpose. He goes to Jaffa (in Hebrew: “yaffa”), which is the Hebrew word for physical beauty, particularly the beauty associated with the body. And then Yonah heads to Tarshish, which is Hebrew word for jewel, connoting a hunger for money and wealth – another literary indication that rather than following his neshama’s destiny, Yonah is falling prey to the distractions of the physical world.
But guess what – that sea is a very rocky sea indeed, and as he heads further and further away from his spiritual journey, the ship he’s on is in danger of breaking in half. His neshama wants to break away from his neshama.
The crew asks Yonah: what can we do? Why is this happening? He knows the answer. It’s so clear to him: עִבְרִי אָנֹכִי וְאֶת ה’ אֱלֹקי הַשָּׁמַיִם אֲנִי יָרֵא – “I am a Jew, and I fear God in Heaven.” And then he is thrown off that ship. Death, namely: detachment from the physical world, is Yonah’s only salvation.
In the Yonah featured in Chapter 1, we can see ourselves so clearly. We, too, are easily distracted from our primary neshama purpose. We wander off the reservation. Rather than doing what God wants us to do, we head off in another direction. And then we are surprised when things don’t pan out as we planned. And the end of that story is very unpleasant. We are exposed, but it’s too late. And then it’s over.
The second chapter of Yonah, says the Vilna Gaon, is a vivid depiction of the neshama going through purgatory, experiencing a thorough cleansing so that it can return into a human body. Then, in the third chapter, Yonah’s neshama is reincarnated, and God addresses the new Yonah: וַיְהִי דְּבַר ה’ אֶל יוֹנָה *שֵׁנִית* לֵאמֹר.
This time around the neshama totally complies with God’s wishes. It’s a new Yonah, unencumbered by the urges of the first iteration. This time, the neshama fulfills its function of getting Nineveh back on track, ensuring that the broken world is fixed.
But what a journey until he got there! Still, all’s well that ends well – isn’t that what we always say? The trouble is, it doesn’t end there. The story is not over yet.
UNDERSTANDING THE FOURTH CHAPTER
The fourth chapter is the one which offers the most challenging — and the most rewarding! – message.
The reformed Yonah is so perfect – that he cannot accept the imperfections of the world. Even when Nineveh has improved itself, it remains so far from where it needs to be – and Yonah expects it to fail completely and immediately.
But it doesn’t fail, and Yonah is infuriated. How can something so imperfect function in God’s world? Why would God tolerate imperfection? Why is God satisfied with short-term superficial repairs that will soon enough be in need of a new repair?
Yonah, who has gone through an epiphany – having experienced his own descent, punishment, and subsequent elevation – is incensed that the inhabitants of Nineveh are not given the full measure of punishment that is due to them.
But perhaps this is the most powerful message of all, and it is the message that is so relevant in the final moments of Yom Kippur. Your teshuva may not be perfect – but it’s heartfelt in the sense that you’ve made the effort to use Yom Kippur to grow and improve. Yonah is on his pedestal, on his high horse, now – but in a previous incarnation, he was tossed overboard, discarded for his failure to perform.
Last night the kikayon was offering shade, but today it is gone. But don’t worry, it can grow back, and God will make sure it happens. Yonah can be a fish’s dinner — and still emerge as the charismatic messenger of God who can change the destiny of the largest metropolis of the ancient Middle East.
Just before Yom Kippur is done, and as we get ready to embark on a New Year, a year that will be full of exactly the same challenges as last year, we need to hear the story of the kikayon. We need to repel the unreasonable perfection sought by Yonah, otherwise — we are all doomed!
TWO DIFFERENT TYPES OF TESHUVA
The Yerushalmi tells us that chochma – wisdom, and nevuah – prophecy, were asked what the consequences should be for someone who sins – and both chochma and nevuah responded that they must be punished.
After chochma and nevuah had answered the question, God was asked the same question. His response was that people who sin should do teshuva, and then there doesn’t need to be consequences.
On the face of it, Yonah’s approach is the nevuah approach. And all of us have come across this approach, and the matching chochma version – it is harsh, unforgiving, unrelenting, and inflexible. It’s an approach that has no room for a person to change, and for them to move in an upward trajectory.
Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveichik raises an interesting question in Al Hateshuva. Is teshuva considered “emet”, truth that is just an extension of “midas hadin” – unbiased, unadulterated justice? Or is the fact that teshuva works simply a “chesed”, a kindness, from God?
Rav Soloveichik’s answer offers a beautiful insight. If one does teshuva properly, as Yonah did, and by doing that one has now totally restored one’s relationship with God, then teshuva works even within the framework “emet” and “middat hadin.” But if the teshuva is more superficial, whimsical, shallow – then the fact that the teshuva works is a pure “chesed” from God.
This might also be the message at the end of Yonah, which is why Chapter 4 is included as part of the Haftora on Yom Kippur. Yonah assumed that teshuva has be deep and meaningful, total, without blemish – and he knew that Nineveh’s teshuva wasn’t that. Abarbanel says that Nineveh did teshuva, but the inhabitants never gave up their pagan practices. I am not even sure how that’s possible, but Abarbanel says it.
And that’s what bothered Yonah. He thought that teshuva is emet, that it’s midat hadin. But God told him “you’re wrong – teshuva is chesed.” The fact that we can do wrong, and then do not-quite our best at doing teshuva, and that God still takes us seriously, is evidence that God accepting our teshuvah is the ultimate act of chesed.
Yonah is so happy when the kikayon plant grows – but then it dies. Nothing can live without God’s chesed. Yonah himself had experienced this, having been thrown off a ship and then being rescued by God. And now Yonah realizes that he can’t go on unless he is protected from the sun.
PROTECTED FROM HARSH JUSTICE
And that scenario is a microcosm of the world. In the harsh light of the sun – which is God’s truth and justice – the world would wither and die. There needs to be a veil between God’s truth and justice, and His creation, in order that the creation will not be burnt to a crisp. We are only here because that sun is *not* burning us.
Every Yom Kippur the kikayon tree grows again and protects us for another year. What an amazing blessing. Although, the downside is this: the same veil that protects us also conceals God’s presence in the world, and makes it impossible for us to fully understand His ways. This was Yonah’s struggle, and it is also our struggle.
But – if there is one thing we can understand, it is this: on Yom Kippur, God wants to accept our teshuva even if it is far from being perfect, just like he accepted Nineveh’s teshuva. On Yom Kippur, God’s unconditional love for us is expressed so clearly that it is truly remarkable.
Yes, we can always understand that God loves us so much that He wants to forgive us. There is never a veil between us and God’s love.
May we continue to experience God’s love, and God’s forgiveness, this year and for many more years to come, and may the powerful message of Yonah penetrate into our souls and into our minds, not just on Yom Kippur, but throughout the year.