When We Are Jonah
BY AMY JOSEFA ARIEL
YOM KIPPUR 5778
30 SEPT 2017 / 10 TISHREI 5778
The word of God came to Jonah ben Amitai, and he . . . ran.
From what? From the mission? No. From God.
The air in this season is thick with riddles. Who will live? Who will die? Why did Jonah, a prophet, run from God?
The Book of Jonah churns with with tension. It is a story of opposing forces: the land and the sea, sleep and wakefulness, life and death, compassion and judgment, good and evil.
Evil – ra’ah. Throughout the story, ra'ah is a pervasive theme. The people of Nineveh did evil, evil is referenced in the storm, people change their evil ways, and then God changes God's mind about the evil God was going to do to them. This is a world in which both God and evil seem to be everywhere. Jonah’s world.
Jonah won his reputation as prophet of truth in the days of Jeroboam - a story from Kings for another day. But then, when he was sent to Jerusalem to tell the people there that their behavior would lead to their doom, they repented and disaster did not come. Now it is the people of Nineveh, enemies of the Jewish people, who God told Jonah to prophesize to. And Jonah . . . ran.
He ran to a ship to try to escape to Tarshish, so God sought to connect to him through a violent storm. He ran into sleep, and the captain woke him because everyone else was praying to their gods. He tried to run into death; Jonah told the men to throw him overboard.
Can we pause for a moment and feel Jonah's anguish?
This confusing story is so short. We often read it so quickly. For just a moment, can we feel Jonah’s intense pain? Something has happened in his relationship with God that has left this prophet without hope or comfort. Jonah seems to have nothing left but the desire to remove himself as far as possible from God.
Of course, deep in the sea, death did not come. A big fish opened its mouth and swallowed Jonah. Some tell that this fish had been created in the very beginning of the world just so that it could rescue Jonah. Some tell that this fish had so large a mouth and throat that Jonah found it as easy to pass into its belly as he would have found it to enter a very large synagogue. Some tell that there were two fish, and it was in the belly of the pregnant female fish that Jonah, with nowhere to go and no way out, stopped running.
Maybe some of us have been in a place like that.
Maybe some of us are in a place like that.
What might we do with nowhere to go?
Jonah called out to God.
In my trouble I called to Adonai, and
Adonai answered me;
From the belly of Sheol I cried out, and
You heard my voice.
You cast me into the depths,
Into the heart of the sea,
The floods engulfed me;
All Your breakers and billows swept over me.
I thought I was driven away
Out of Your sight:
Would my eyes ever gaze again on Your holy Temple?
The waters closed in over me,
The deep engulfed me.
Weeds twined around my head. . . .
When my life was ebbing away,
I called Aondai to mind;
And my prayer came before You,
Into Your holy Temple.
They who cling to empty folly forsake their own welfare,
But I, with loud thanksgiving, Will sacrifice to You;
What I have vowed I will perform.
Deliverance is Adonai's! 2:3-10
In Jonah's prayer is no search for forgiveness. He isn't sorry for running away. Jonah hasn't changed his perspective. Neither has God. When Jonah is spit out onto dry land, God says again go and help save Nineveh - and Jonah does.
As predicted, the people repent, and God spares them. Jonah speaks of the Thirteen Atributes of Adonai from Exodus after the Golden Calf and hurls them at God. This is why I ran, he says confounding us, because I knew you were a God of compassion.
Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses. Exodus 34:6-7
Except, that’s not quite what he says. It’s almost what he says. Jonah says:
You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, renouncing punishment. 4:2
In Exodus, God was also abundant in truth, but not so here. Here Jonah adds renouncing punishment. Changing Your mind. Jonah ben Amitai, Amitai – aleph-mem-tav – also Emet – also Truth - replaces truth with the accusation that God changes God’s mind about how to respond to evil. With pure justice, for every act, there is a consequence. With only justice, no one could survive judgment. God’s compassion for Nineveh is confusing. Are there consequences for actions, or not? Is there justice in the world, or not? Can Jonah, or anyone, rely on a God whose mind changes? But . . . can Jonah, or anyone, rely on a God whose mind doesn’t?
To approach this riddle, Rabbi Fohrman invites us to the end of the story and asks: What was the purpose of the plant? He points out that in the verses just before God makes the plant grow, Jonah had made himself a sukkah, a hut, to provide himself with shade from the sun. He didn't need the plant for that kind of shade.
And Adonai-Elohim prepared a plant, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his evil. Jonah was exceeding glad because of the plant. 4:6
To deliver him from his evil. Other sources translate each of the references to evil in different ways and here as misery or grief.
And here we are. Struggling to stand before God in the hours before the Gates close. Kol Nidre is only a memory now. The prayers of the morning are long past. Musaf is behind us. We are thirsty. We are hungry. Maybe some of us long to leave – to distance ourselves from this impossible task. Maybe, like Jonah, we wish to sleep. Maybe a full day in our own thoughts has us yearning to get away from our contradictions, our conflicts, our unquenchable desires, and our limited possibilities.
For many of us, maybe in some way for all of us, this is the moment when we are Jonah.
Do you feel it?
The doubt. The sadness. The anger.
Where is the comfort in all of this tension?
Here we are - so like Jonah - in the belly of our own fish, in the midst of a swirling sea, and we call out to . . . Who? To the One who in the very last verse of The Book of Jonah asks, "And should I not care about Ninevah?" For me, the comfort is in the God from whom we might run, but who is never actually far away. The comfort is that, with God, justice and judgment exist in balance with compassion. Maybe these are not riddles to be solved, after all. Maybe, like Jonah, we just live in them.