Familiarity with Bible stories often works against us. That’s because we remember simple, sometimes fantastic stories from our childhood and then have a hard time re-reading these stories as adults.
Reading the Book of Jonah as an adult, as I finally decided to do, made me realize that Jonah should be remembered for much more than using a whale (the text only tells us it was a big fish but it is a reasonable assumption to say it was a whale) as the world’s first submarine. A more mature read shows Jonah to be one of the Bible’s most outrageous characters. Such a read has this small book that we read every year on Yom Kippur emerge as one that requires serious thought in order to understand.
From what I make of it, Jonah’s main problem was that he had too much integrity. In fact, he had so much integrity as to even disagree with how God runs the world! That is to say that he felt that it lacked the “higher standards” that he would have expected from God.
To put this into perspective, most Biblical prophets prayed to God to have more mercy or to complain that he was too strict. With Jonah, however, it was just the opposite – he complained that God was not strict enough. As a result, he gets bent out of shape by God’s decision to accept the repentance of the city of Nineveh and to commute its destruction. Indeed, it causes him so much distress that he tells God that he’d rather die than have to see such things! Moreover, instead of apologizing for refusing God’s mission until he is forced to comply, he holds his ground and explains that it was knowing that God would relent from destroying Nineveh that led him to turn down the mission to begin with.
Nor is the above an isolated incident. The text presents Jonah’s response here as a case of deja-vu. Before being swallowed by the fish, Jonah also seemed to prefer death to involvement in what he believed to be a mere parody of repentance. At the point in the story when his ship is threatened by a raging storm, the sailors all realize that the time has come to pray and improve their conduct. But Jonah doesn’t buy it. So instead of participating in the popular religiosity of his shipmates, he simply goes to sleep! For Jonah, better that than the triviality of the sailors’ new found “commitments.”
Lest one think Jonah was just a cruel and strange character, the people of Nineveh were far from righteous and we can reasonably assume, like Jonah, that their repentance was short-lived. (And it is quite possible that Jonah’s sailors weren’t much better.) But if Jonah knew this, clearly God must have known it as well. And yet the Bible often shows – and this is exactly the thing that Jonah objected to – that God is willing to accept repentance, even if it is mostly for ulterior motives and likely not to last for very long. We can only speculate why this is so. Perhaps simply getting people to move out of their inertia has more of a chance of long-term success then not doing anything at all. Or maybe because some good, no matter how temporary, is better than no good whatsoever. Or maybe there is something very powerful when an entire community decides to change its ways, whatever its motivation.
Whatever the reason for God’s acceptance of the sailors’ prayers and the repentance of Nineveh, these typically Biblical responses to imminent disaster, do seem more productive than what we see today. Imminent disaster rarely, if ever, produces introspection of any kind, now that we think we are too educated for that sort of thing (another example of modern man having become too sophisticated for his own good). Resultantly, we tend to focus on whether there is someone to blame and whether there is some sort of technical way to impede the disaster. I am certainly not against finding ways to avoid disaster and a good case can be made that the Torah obligates us to try to do so. Still, it would not be such a bad thing if we also used such occasions as an opportunity to move ourselves to try and do better.
But it is really not so easy. When you think about it, many of us are not so different from Jonah. We don’t want to pretend. We don’t want to just go through the motions. Rather we want to come to personal turnarounds worthy of the name. And so we will wait until that special moment comes. But the Bible knows that for most people, that moment never comes and as a result, it provides set times to improve regardless. Yom Kippur is one of those set times.
Perhaps we can now better understand why we read Jonah’s story on Yom Kippur.
Given the above, the message may be pretty straightforward – don’t worry about integrity, just say you’re sorry and do the best you can! For many of us, this may sound fairly uninspiring. It sounds like it shouldn’t be good enough – and that’s exactly what Jonah thought. But the big news is that God thought otherwise.
This article appears in The Jewish Press