Yonah’s Flight from Destiny

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29 Jun 2006
Yom Kippur

Towards the climax of Yom Kippur, we are instructed by Chazal to focus our attention on the reading of the entire Book of Yonah. Why did our Sages see fit to choose this particular reading as the gates of mercy are about to close? There are those who suggest that the answer lies in the theme of the teshuva (repentance) of the city of Nineveh. However, if this were the case, it would have been sufficient to stipulate the reading of only chapter 3; this reason alone does not justify the reading of the entire book.

It would seem that the intention of our Sages was to place at the center of our attention Yonah and his actions, rather than the teshuva of Nineveh, and for this reason the reading is not limited to the latter subject. There seems to be something in the conflict between Yonah and God which is worthy of the attention of the Jewish People immediately prior to the Ne’ila prayer. Likewise, the intention seems to be an emphasis not on ideas which pertain to prophets and other lofty souls, but rather on basic issues which apply to all of us and are particularly significant on Yom Kippur.

WhaleWhat, then, is this basic issue? A cursory glance at the four chapters comprising Sefer Yonah, with a view to finding the basic framework of the story, reveals the following sequence: Yonah’s escape from his destiny, his escape from God, and his escape from himself. We may follow this sequence with the aid of the key words, “kum” (get up) and “red” [go down”], which are expressions of approaching the Divine mission and distancing oneself from it, respectively. (It should be borne in mind that for a prophet, this approach or withdrawal is unequivocal, owing to the clarity of the mission as revealed in the prophecy. The same is not the case for a regular individual, for whom the unequivocal mission appears complex and hidden.)

Get Up and Call / He Descended and Fell Asleep:

As the Sefer opens, the mission transmitted to the prophet is presented to us, in God’s words: “Get up, go to Nineveh, the great city, and call out against it, for their evil has risen before Me” (1:2).

“Get up” and “call” are the two verbs expressing awakening and movement towards the mission. Indeed the narrative continues, “And Yona got up…” (1:3). Here begins Yona’s flight from God, from his destiny and from himself. God sends him eastward (to Nineveh), and he flees westward (via Yaffo, to Tarshish): “And he WENT DOWN to Yaffo and found a ship… and he DESCENDED INTO IT to go with it to Tarshish from before God” (1:3).

The great wind and furious storm, the terror of the sailors and their shouts and desperate actions all leave Yona unaffected, and do not halt his descent: “And Yona DESCENDED into THE RECESSES of the ship, and he lay down and fell asleep” (1:5). Descent after descent within descent. The flight from God also involves physio-topographical descent, as well as isolation from the surrounding events, and the sleep of escape from reality.

God sends many messengers, and when the powers of nature – the wind, the sea and all their activity – fail to intrude on Yona’s isolation, God sends an additional messenger, the captain of the ship, who wakes Yona from his slumber and attempts to return him to his destined path: “Why are you sleeping? GET UP AND CALL to your God” (1:6). [The words of the captain of the ship are in marked contrast to Yona’s actions in descending and falling asleep following God’s command, “Get up, go to Nineveh … and call to it.”] But even this dialogue fails to check Yona’s slide, and it becomes apparent even to the sailors around him that “he was escaping from before God, for he had told them” (1:10).

The flight continues: “And he said to them, ‘Lift me up and lower me into the sea…'” (1:12). And after serious deliberation, “They lifted up Yona and lowered him into the sea…” (1:15). [“R. Natan said: It was Yona’s intention to die in the sea. Similarly, we find in the case of other forefathers and prophets, that they gave up their lives for Israel…” (Yalkut Shimoni, 550).]

“And God appointed a great fish to swallow Yona, and Yona was in the bowels of the fish for three days and three nights. And Yona prayed to the Lord his God from the bowels of the fish, and he said, ‘I have CALLED… TO GOD…'” (2:1-3)

Here, from the depths of the sea, from the stomach of the fish, at the very climax of the escape, comes the turning point: Yona calls out to God. “You have brought up my life from the abyss, O Lord my God” (2:7).

“And God spoke to the fish and it spat Yona onto dry land” (2:11). Once again Yona stands with his two feet on the ground, at the same point where he started: “And God’s word came to Yona a second time saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, the great city, and call to it…'” (3:1-2). And indeed, this time, “And Yona got up and went to Nineveh as God had commanded, and Nineveh was a great city … of three day’s journeying. And Yona began to enter the city one day’s journey, and he called…” (3:3-4).

Yona’s call works wonders. “And God saw their actions … and God reconsidered the evil which He had spoken to perform against them, and He did not perform it” (3:10).

Yona the prophet is not party to the joy over his success: “And the matter was very bad to Yona, and he was displeased. And he prayed to God and said, ‘… For this reason I tried before to flee to Tarshish … And now, take my soul from me, for I prefer to die than to live’ … And Yona went out of the city…” (4:1-5).

Yona fulfills his mission and hurries away from the city. It is difficult for him to remain there; he is still haunted by profound doubts, as well as the experience of his recent flight from God. And so he leaves. “And he made himself a sukka and sat beneath it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city” (4:5).

The crux of the turbulent conflict still lies ahead of him, and this is where it takes place – to the east of Nineveh.

Man’s flight from his destiny and mission as defined by the needs of the generation and the nation is a common human phenomenon. It involves descent after descent, and leads to escaping from reality.

A graphic summary of this, describing Yona’s geographic- topographic descent, corresponding in this case also to his spiritual fluctuations, reveals the symmetry of the Sefer and represents a significant symbol which helps us to understand the process. (The graph that arises is in the form of a bird – a dove [Yona] – in flight. Yona first receives his call and rises; then he descends to the boat and keeps descending further and further; he proceeds to return to land and rise to his call; finally, he is dejected and sits outside the city.)

God’s Messengers

One of the most important and ubiquitous themes of the Yamim Nora’im, which also threads its way through the story of Yona, is that of Divine Providence. We have already mentioned above that God sends many messengers, some revealed and others concealed. Each speaks to man in its own language. We need to ensure that our ears are open and ready to hear and absorb their message.

In four places in Sefer Yona there is an emphasis on Divine intervention, with the use of the word “va-yema’en” (and He appointed). A short review of these circumstances gives rise to some thoughts on the subject of Divine Providence:
“And the Lord appointed a fish…” (2:1)
“And the Lord God appointed a plant…” (4:6)
“And God appointed a worm…” (4:7)
“And God appointed a strong east wind…” (4:8)

The words “He appointed” indicate Divine intervention in a concealed fashion. Each of these phenomena appear incidentally, as it were, in Yona’s vicinity.

There is a hierarchy of size and power amidst this collection of messengers: a great fish, a tree, a worm, a strong wind. There is also a variety of types of creation, from the point of view of the relationship with man. Their selection is not coincidental; their interrelationship points to a clear trend. God recruits various different creatures and creations as His messengers to man with a view to returning him to his mission, to informing him of God’s word: inanimate objects, vegetation and animals; from the sea, from the land and from the air. All are fulfilling the will of their Creator. Encountering this multi-faceted reality crammed with events, we need to ask ourselves – what is this showing us? What is the significance of this?

We have highlighted above some general themes of Divine Providence which would seem to arise from the text. It would, moreover, appear that even the very choice of some or other specific creature to serve as a messenger of the Divine also has significance in the framework of the mission. Let us attempt to explore this possibility with regard to one of the four messengers listed above – the fish.

Our attention is drawn to the particular language used in describing Nineveh, where the text does not stop at mentioning the name of the offending city but takes the trouble to present it together with a description: “Nineveh – the great city.” Elsewhere, the text elaborates even further: “And Nineveh was a great city to the Lord, (measuring) three days’ journey” (3:3).

A similar description is to be found in the case of the fish: “And God appointed a GREAT FISH to swallow Yona, and Yona was in the bowels of the fish THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS” (2:1-2).

These two emphases, seemingly redundant, create a peculiar parallel: the great Nineveh, three days’ journey = great fish, three days.

An interesting solution to this parallel came to me via Eliakim ben-Menachem’s commentary on Sefer Yona (cited in the Da’at Mikra commentary, 1:2 and footnote 7): Nineveh, which was situated on the banks of the Euphrates river, was signified in ancient Ashuric script by the symbol of a fish within a house. It may be that the historical source for this symbol was connected to the fact that Nineveh was a source and ‘home’ of fancy fish, and this was a well recognized symbol of its renown. The name Nineveh may well have been chosen because of this symbol: “Neveh (home) shel Nun (fish, in Aramaic)”.

In light of the above, the appointment of the fish is especially significant in the attempt to return Yonah to his mission. God is saying, as it were, to Yonah: You are fleeing from the ‘home of the fish’ (Nineveh), the great city of three days’ journeying, but you will return there via a fish which will serve you as a house for three days. And, indeed, from the midst of the great fish, after three days, Yona turns towards the great city of Nineveh, measuring three days’ journey.

What is Evil?

The theme of evil appears several times throughout the Sefer, in different contexts and with varying significance. At times the reference is to bad events – catastrophes; at other times the reference is to evil deeds. Sometimes ‘evil’ appears as a punishment, other times it is a painful warning. God, Yona, the sailors and the text all use ‘evil,’ and an analysis of this aspect of the story will shed further light on its meaning.

In explaining the reason for Yona’s mission, the text teaches, “Go up to it for their evil has come up before Me” (1:2). From this point onwards, the text turns on the actions of the people of Nineveh, and the chain of events which subsequently take place. God, Yona and the people of Nineveh all play a part.

The people of Nineveh, who hear Yona’s call to teshuva, take a number of steps, all of which are aimed at the ultimate goal of repentance – “And let them return, each person from his evil path and from the violence which is in his hands.”

The text summarizes this process in the following words: “And the Lord saw their actions, that they had returned from their evil path, and the Lord reconsidered the evil which He had spoken to perform against them, and He did not perform it” (3:10). The people of Nineveh apparently understand that their actions are evil and that they need to change their behavior. God accepts their teshuva and puts aside the evil which He had intended to unleash on them. But how does Yona see these events?

“And the matter was very bad to Yona, and he was displeased … ‘For this reason I previously fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a kind and merciful God, long suffering and full of compassion, and reconsidering the evil.'” (4:1-2)

Yona has a different view of what has taken place, and does not join God and the inhabitants of Nineveh in their evaluation of the process as having reached a successful conclusion. He sees the teshuva of Nineveh and its acceptance by God as the opposite – a great evil; to the point where the actual events make him leave the city and ask to die. There, outside the city, Yona sits under the shade of the plant which God appoints for him: “To be a shade over his head, to alleviate his suffering [‘ra’ato’ – literally, ‘his evil’]” (4:6).

Earlier on, while in the ship, Yona participates in a similar exchange with the ship’s personnel. Among other measures adopted by the sailors in the face of the rising storm, the text records: “And they said each one to his neighbor, ‘Let us go and draw lots, so that we may know because of whom this evil has come upon us'” (1:7). When the lots indicate Yona, “They said to him, ‘Tell us because of whom this evil has come upon us.'” When the sailors use the word ‘evil,’ they mean the great storm which is threatening their lives. Yona, in response to their questions, advises them: “Lift me up and lower me into the sea … For I know that it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you” (1:12). For him this is not an ‘evil;’ it is a natural phenomenon which is merely serving its purpose.

This distinction may not be all that significant in its own right, but it takes on a more profound importance in the context of the central theme. At the end of the Sefer, God’s appointing the plant to alleviate Yona’s suffering is juxtaposed to His reconsidering the evil which He had said that He would perform to the people of Nineveh. This is dramatically expressed in the rhetorical question: “You had mercy on the plant … Should I not have mercy on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand people … and many cattle?” (4:11). This is reminiscent of the midrash’s account of God’s question to the angels while the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea: “My creatures are drowning, and you are reciting praise?!”

In this way God wants to show Yona that his system of concepts – good and evil, reward and punishment – requires rethinking. When man flees from his destiny, his basic moral conceptual system is corrupted, and he assumes a limited perception of reality, building himself a system of good and evil which is different from that of God and that which affects those around him.

But it is not coincidental that the text leaves this central question open. Throughout the Sefer we seek the answer: Why does Yona flee in the first place? Why does he not want the people of Nineveh to repent? The answer is not given. A person is, by nature, full of doubts, internal battles, competing considerations and partial failures. But correct decisions along the way, and his chances of ultimate success, always depend on a correct perception of the goal, the mission. Someone who flees from his mission and destiny will find himself at a dead-end at every step of the way, and will discover himself having mercy on a plant while ignoring the good of fellow humans and animals.