Yonah / Yom Kippur – A Shocking Message

ויאמר ה’ אתה חסת על הקיקיון אשר לא עמלת בו ולא גידלתו שבן לילה היה ובן לילה אבד. ואני לא אחוס על נינווה העיר הגדולה אשר יש בה הרבה משתיים עשרה רבוא, אדם אשר לא ידע בין ימינו לשמאלו ובהמה רבה?

(יונה ד’, י’-י”א)

Every year on Yom Kippur I am baffled by the reading of the book of Yonah. After the intensity of the seder avodah prayers during Mussaf – describing the rituals performed in the Temple during this holy day – and before the climax of the concluding prayer of Ne’ilah, the reading of Yonah during Mincha seems a bit of slump in the day’s prayers. Yonah is hardly the most inspiring of prophets. The book lacks the sweeping prophecies of redemption found in Yishayahu or the great moral admonitions found in Yirmiyahu and Amos.

If we read the book of Yonah literally, as the story of a prophet who failed to run away from his destiny, it has very little practical meaning for us. We are not prophets so we cannot understand how Yonah felt, and we cannot learn much from his tribulations. Even if we read the book of Yonah with the aid of the various interpreters, the ending of the book – with Yonah finding refuge under the kikayon (the gourd tree) – seems like an anti-climax that does have much much significance for us on Yom Kippur. Yonah performed his mission and the people of Nineveh repented, so the concluding story about the kikayon seems completely out of place. We need to find another way to understand the message of this book.

On the face of things, humility seems to be the defining characteristic of Yonah. He shies away from God’s mission, he hides away in the belly of the fish, he finds refuge under a common bush. In contrast, everything around him is characterised by the word “big”: Nineveh the big city, the big storm, the big fish. Furthermore, the book of Yonah does not offer us any historical context. We don’t know in which period in time Yonah lived or under which king he served.

Perhaps this teaches us that Yonah should be read not as a historic book, but as a universal story, one that is relevant to each and every person, always. Yonah sees the world as something with which he is in conflict. He is constantly running away. But God’s words in the concluding two verses of the book teach him that he has a direct connection to the world, that he cannot hide behind his humility:

And the Lord said: ‘You had pity on the gourd, for which you have not laboured, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?’  (Yonah 4, 10-11)

God admonishes Yonah for thinking about himself. It is not the kikayon he was sorry for. He was sorry for himself, for the shade that was gone. Like God with Nineveh, Yonah should have shed his humility and opened his eyes to the suffering of others – the people of Nineveh, the kikayon. Thinking about himself stands in contrast to Yonah’s perceived humility throughout the book, which is a shocking conclusion to the book.

This is the great message of the book of Yonah. Just before embarking on the Ne’ilah prayer of Yom Kippur, God’s admonishment of Yonah serves as a jarring wake-up call to shed our perceived humility. On the conclusion of this holy day, we should not be thinking and praying about ourselves only. We should be praying for the rest of humanity and creation as well.

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