What must it have been like to be a prophet in Israel? Back in the day when God spoke
directly, as the story goes – Jonah is just one in a long line of those chosen to receive direct
communication with God. Most often the message is that God is not happy, and the people must
repent. Today we perhaps find this prophetic voice in self-help books, viral YouTube videos
asking us to stop and consider and reflect and to move forward. It is true that for most of the
ancient prophets, their words often fell on deaf ears – the Israelites were bound and determined
to lust after other gods, to build their idols, and to forget Torah.
But there is one prophet whose story reads differently. The most successful prophet in all
of history, in Torah for sure. He speaks, and people listen. Not only do they listen, but they
change their ways almost immediately. Jonah eventually speaks before a foreign king,
and even that non-Jewish king is moved to repent. What is a Jewish prophet doing calling on
Assyrians? And why on earth do they listen to him? A Jew arrives and announces the coming
judgment of heaven and the king orders fasting and mourning for all his subjects? It is farcical,
too convenient to be literary coincidence.
To begin, there must certainly be something special about this prophet! Jonah’s name
means “dove” and he does cry like a dove, full of passion and remorse. But not yet, we are
getting ahead of ourselves in the drama. In the beginning of Jonah’s story, we encounter an
ordinary man, on what seems like a very ordinary day. Welcome to a day in the life of Jonah,
wherein we might discover something special about our own day of fasting, our Day of Justice
Today, you are Jonah ben Amittai, living in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Play this
part with me as we live this one day in his skin, a most extraordinary day in Jonah’s life.
Together we will flesh out this man, his thoughts and feelings, his understanding of the journey,
from the lowest of lows, to the highest of heights.
Listen. Do you hear something? It begins with sound, but not a sound heard with the
ears. You, Jonah, are like any other ordinary prophet – you don’t always recognize God’s voice
at first. God always seems to call right when you are in the middle of something else. In a flash
you forget the lentils on the stovetop, and you understand, in a flash, that you will be taking a
long, long trip, that once again your skills of persuasion are needed in the service of your people.
You are to go to Nineveh, that enormous city, and cry out against it.
But wait, something is not right. You have offered one or two prophecies before, but
always to the good Israelite people with whom you live. Surely there is some mistake, you think.
Nineveh is not an Israelite city; in fact it is the capital of our enemy. Years from now they will
lead the charge against Jerusalem, the very heart of your people. Why give the enemy any
chance to repent? And so, without a word, you run, you flee; you head the other direction, and
end up on a boat to Tarshish, the farthest place from Nineveh you can find on a map.
Why do you run Jonah? Is it fear you feel? Fear of failure, that perhaps the citizens of
Nineveh will not take kindly to an Israelite prophet criticizing their ways? Or maybe you are
more afraid of success, isn’t that the truth? You are afraid that God might be sincere in wanting
Nineveh to repent, and that would be worse than failure, wouldn’t it Jonah?
For you have always relied upon the books in your study to help you figure out right from
wrong. The prophet’s voice is strong, and it does not waver. Right is right, and there are clear
lines, rules to follow that govern every part of life, every relationship. Without our sense of right
and wrong, we would find ourselves in anarchy and chaos.
But God has never asked you for something like this before. Your words of inspiration
are reserved for the holy, blessed Israelite people, God’s chosen ones. As it was written in
Torah, they shall lose their way and worship other gods, and then they will repent and be
forgiven. But not Nineveh. That place lies far from any Israelite camp. It is filled with wicked,
evil people, and that is that. “Those people” don’t deserve to be saved; they don’t even
acknowledge the one true God.
God’s message, although implied, could not be clearer. Jonah, God offers, you are wrong
about “those people” and you are wrong about yourself. All human beings are My creation, and
I have compassion for them all. The path of teshuvah is open for all people at all times repent
from wickedness and even if it is the hour of your death your repentance shall be accepted.
You are confused and angry, and you demand an answer from God that never comes.
How can you stand by while those people sin, and then simply accept their teshuvah as if they
were your beloved people? Where, O God, is your sense of justice? We are taught to follow
God’s law, and those who do not are punished.
If God withholds punishment, then what does the law stand for? Your entire world is turned
upside down. You look the heavens, but there is no reply.
As a Jewish prophet you understand boundaries. Your world is neat and clean – us and
them, our people,/those people, insiders and outsiders, right and wrong. You draw lines around
yourself and those who you care about, and it feels okay not to care about those outside the
circle. But God has shaken that foundation, and so you run. You run from the task, and you try
to hide from God.
Perhaps you convince yourself that you are simply exercising your God-given free will.
Remember Abraham and Moses, who argued with God and won. Maybe God wants you to show
a little spirit, a little defiance. Maybe this is all a test. And you find yourself on the first boat out
of Jaffa, and even on that boat, you hide, in the deepest, darkest corner of the lowest hold.
You find a hammock, and fall fast asleep, cocooned in your denial that God would be able to
find you hidden in the dark.
And you sleep. The gentle rocking of the boat lulls you into a sense of well-being, and
your dreams are uninterrupted, until you are shaken awake by the captain of the ship. “There
you are,” he screams, a look of panic on his face.” You sit up, disoriented and confused. “Who
are you, and to which god do you pray? How can you sleep? Get up and cry to your god.
Perhaps this is all because of you.” You first realize that a mighty storm has swollen the ocean,
and the ship is being torn apart. And then you realize that you know whose fault it is. You know
why this storm is threatening the ship; you know who on the boat is responsible. “Who are you?
How can you sleep, when so much is threatening to fall apart, and you have not yet begun to take
responsibility? Cry out to your God!”
But Jonah, as thick-headed as you are, you never cease to amaze me. Even then you
don’t cry out to God, as the sailors are begging you. You cannot or will not appeal to God’s
mercy. You know you deserve this punishment, for trying to run, for avoiding responsibility, for
defying the God of Justice. If there is justice in this world, you think, I certainly deserve it now.
“Throw me overboard,” you say to the sailors, “and the sea will calm.” You quit, you surrender,
you can run no longer. And you are calm as you gather your few belongings, and wait by the
side of the ship, for the sailors to pick you up and throw you to the waves. If it is justice God
wants, then you will give God the chance for vengeance. And they throw you overboard.
You sink beneath the surface, content in your knowledge that God’s word is true, that
you deserve this watery grave. Do you have any hope left? Do you have any will to struggle
against this fate? Do you truly believe that your one defiance outweighs a lifetime of goodness;
that the calculus of sin and punishment is so simple that God would not recognize the good in
your heart? Do you not have one moment of doubt, in which you find not acceptance in your
heart but anger and indignation? Jonah, you have done all that God has asked countless times before.
Do you not find it profoundly unjust, for God’s punishment to feel so severe? The boat will be
saved, but you believe you do not deserve such luck. And when the giant fish approaches from
the depths, do you not assume its terrible teeth will devour you? You are swallowed whole.
At the bottom of the sea, far from the world, you sit alone in the dark, putrid innards of
the fish. You wanted a life of clarity, protected from the needs and claims of others, from any
responsibility outside of yourself and your own people. And that is what God has given you.
And the inside of that fish smells like death, you have never felt so alone, you feel abandoned,
even by God. You lay back, and anticipate the agony, the pain and suffering of death.
And it doesn’t come. According to rabbinic tradition, in this moment, the aggressive
male fish who threatened you, (the dag) is transformed into a female fish (dagah),
pregnant with eggs and new life. Rather than devouring you, that giant fish rescues you. And
then a new realization occurs. You never did deserve harsh and unkind punishment for your
behavior, all along God has been protecting you, sometimes from yourself. The fish that at first
seems terrifying and life-threatening can and does save your life. God touches you at the depths
of your self-inflicted torment to say, even in your despair, I am with you. When you suffer, I
suffer. Your pain is not punishment – it is the nature of life. I want what is best for you, says
God; I will help you overcome any struggle, any obstacle to help you find your way. Mine is
not the way of strict, blind justice. Mine is the way of grace and mercy, the loving-kindness that
I demonstrate with you so that you might demonstrate it with others.
This life lesson hits you at rock bottom, Jonah. You have spent your life counting on the
rules and preaching them to others. And only now you realize how shortsighted you have been,
and how simple God’s vision was.
God does govern justly, but God’s judgments are tempered with mercy. All people deserve a
second chance, even when, especially when they have not acted righteously. Now you
understand the world can work no other way. You only hope that God’s mercy mighty allow
you a second chance at life.
In the fish you are sheltered, protected, swaddled in a womb at the bottom of the sea.
God comforts you, nurtures you, and strengthens you. And feeling that presence, you finally
find your prayer. You have not prayed before so the words do not come easily. But you feel the
need to respond to God’s presence, something you have never done before. You are a prophet;
you have recognized God’s voice countless times. But this prayer is the first time you have ever
spoken back, the only time you have talked to God as a loving partner who seeks to hear your
voice as well.
You remember psalm 42, a favorite of yours, and you improvise on it now.
Your words of gratitude sound like this: : “karati mi tzarah li el Adonai – va-ya-aneni. I called
out of my affliction, out of my narrow place, my narrow mindset, I called to God, and God
answered me. The waters surround me, even to my soul, and I went down to the bottom, and
you have brought me out of this pit.” And the fish leaves you safe on dry land. And you swear
you will do what you have known all along was yours to do.
I imagine that you talk to God all the way to Nineveh, perhaps enjoying this new
intimacy. You are humbled, and ready to serve God’s purpose. But the truth is, Jonah, you are
still struggling with understanding. You are thankful that God saved you, but why would God
want to save those people, so different from yourself, so clearly the enemy of God’s chosen
But you keep your promise, and no sooner do you speak your words of prophecy but the
King of Nineveh himself decrees a fast day for the entire city, and commands his people to hear
And God accepts their atonement. For you Jonah, it is not that simple, and you are angry. You
cry out to God, “Isn’t this what I said all along? These people deserve justice not mercy,” you
cry. And then you remind God of the words in our Machzor. You spit them in God’s face.
“God, you are indeed gracious, compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy. But
today, God, I wanted you to be on my side. I wanted those evil people not to count, not today.
Why do they deserve another chance?” You still don’t realize that you are speaking about
yourself. You are the one who needs another chance. You are the one that God is testing.
And in your misery you ask, once again, that God take your life. You say, “I would
rather not live than to see evil go unpunished. I would rather die than to know that there is no
justice in this world!”
And now we are really at the heart of your story, Jonah. What once read like a children’s
tale has become dark, unsettling. Your story, Jonah, ends in a most peculiar way.
You leave the city, and sit in the desert to be alone; trying, once again, to run. God finds you
there too, and offers you comfort; three separate responses to your pain, the existential pain of
your search for meaning in this world. Why can we find no correlation between behavior and
reward? Why does evil go unpunished? What does our existence mean, when even the worst get
a second chance? How do we balance justice and mercy?
At first God pushes you, just a little bit. “Come on, Jonah,” God offers. “Are you really
so upset? Isn’t the world a better place because of My compassion? Do you really expect
anything less? Would you want anything less for your own family, your own community?” But
God’s words do not penetrate. And you look back over your shoulder, hoping you might yet see
the distant city of Nineveh going up in flames.
So God provides a second comfort, yet another miracle, and a plant grows near you with
a tremendous gourd, to shelter you from the desert sun and wind. And you are grateful for the
But then comes the greatest lesson, from the greatest teacher. The gourd has sheltered you, and
so when God takes it away from you the very next day, you do not understand. And God says,
“This magical gourd which offered you shade and then disappeared, do you mourn its loss
greatly?” And you, feeling the effects of the sun and the desert sands, thinking only of yourself,
say, “Yes, I mourn for that lost gourd!”
And then God asks you one final question, and this question remains unanswered. Now I
do not know if you will search deep into your soul for an answer later, but today, Jonah, you
simply leave us with the question. God says, “You have compassion for the gourd, which you
did not plant or help to grow in any way. That gourd which grew in one night, and was gone the
next; and its death troubled you so much? Yet this great city of Nineveh,” says God, “with
thousands of living breathing souls, do you think they deserve less from Me? Do not all My
creations deserve mercy as well as justice?”
I do not know of another book of the bible that ends with a question, nor do I know of a
question more worth considering, on this, Sabbath of Sabbaths, the Day of our Repentance.
Don’t we, every one of us, deserve God’s mercy, to temper judgment’s severe decree?
If the world was ruled by a strict sense of justice, we would all be alone and afraid.
There would be no compassion, no second chances, no reason for apologies, for turning, for
teshuvah. But the world and our relationships do not work that way. An eye for an eye, as the
expression goes, leaves the whole world blind.
We know that without justice, no one is accountable for their actions – and nothing is
sacred. The world, we decide, must be run by both – the objective, blind scales of justice,
tempered by the compassionate warmth of mercy. And if we are to model ourselves after God,
then we must allow that same balance to enter our hearts. On this day of all days, we hold
ourselves accountable, but we allow ourselves compassion too.
We acknowledge the ways in which we have hurt our loved ones, even as we ask for their
forgiveness and embrace. And we try not to see the world as black and white. We don’t allow
ourselves to think that “those people” seem never to be on the right side of history; how some
people, some cultures, and some countries seem unredeemable, we call them “evil.”
Ultimately the lesson of this book is simple – the world is anything but black and white.
We do our best, but we always remember that we are not given all the answers; we do not even
have the complete instruction book. For God, there is a unity beneath our many divisions,
wholeness beneath disjunction: you and me, us and them, ours and theirs. Though separate on the
surface, we are deeply connected within. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham
Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly,
affects all indirectly. All life is interrelated.”
Allow me to ask one question of you, Jonah, before we say goodbye. It is a question I
believe your book asks of us, the readers. In your darkest moments, when the chaos that you
created threatened to engulf not only yourself but an entire ship full of people and cargo, where
were you? The ship’s captain found you in the lower hold, the innermost part of the ship, fast
asleep, unaware of the storm that tossed the ship about, and threatened us all. “How do you
sleep?” asked the captain, as you were brought to the deck.
How indeed? We so easily drag our loved ones into our chaos. We see chaos enveloping
our lives, our city, and our world. How do we sleep? How do we pretend that those concerns
are far away, and having nothing to do with us?
God is asking you to confront the humanity of everyone around you and to discover that
the divide that separates us can be healed. In God, there is no such thing as “care for our own”
apart from “concern for the other.” Judaism demands that we take responsibility,
and bring our justice and our mercy into the world. “Be a blessing,” God says to Abraham, “and
let all the families of the earth be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12) Today you are pulled out
of isolation, and the captain is asking you to help save the ship. “Who are you?” he demands.
“Who are you really?”
It is a question we must answer. Who are we going to be? How will our community
define itself? Will we demand strict justice, will we be unforgiving with one another and the
world? Or will we, like God, temper our judgment of each other with mercy and kindness, and
find forgiveness and compassion in our hearts? We can strive only to be more God-like, and in
the coming year attempt to find the balance between the two that keeps our world and our
relationships moving forward.
The book of Jonah is the only work of the prophets that is not given any particular time or
place. Jonah lives in all generations, because he is to be found in each one of us.
The temptation to divide, separate, withdraw from our world of obligation is ever-present. And
so each year, in the middle of Yom Kippur, at the very moment of our deepest self-absorption,
when the stomach groans, the head aches, and the feet are tired, we revisit the prophet in the
belly of the fish to learn again that
reaching to the soul within us
and reaching to the world beyond us
are the ways we reach
for the God who cares for all of us