“…For this reason I hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil” [Jonah 4:2].
One of the highlights of the Yom Kippur experience is the reading of Jonah, a book containing profound lessons for the holiest day of the year. God calls upon Jonah, son of Amitai, to implore the people of the city of Ninveh to repent. Jonah refuses to do so, and believes he can escape God by sailing out to sea. The central issue of the book is why the prophet should have found that mission so objectionable.
We must remember that Ninveh was the capital city of Assyria and Assyria, then the arch enemy of Israel. Indeed, Assyria defeated the ten tribes and banished them into exile in the 8th century B.C.E. Jonah cannot understand why God is interested in Assyria’s repentance. After all, as long as the Jews have more merits than the Assyrians, the chances of an Israeli victory in battle are far greater. Hence Jonah seeks to escape God by boarding a ship bound for Tarshish.
A raging storm develops at sea, and a drawing of lots makes it clear that Jonah is responsible for the storm [1:4-7]. It is fascinating to note that water is both the major symbol of the Book of Jonah as well as the major symbol of the Tishrei period of festivals.
Water is both the symbol of life as well as of destruction. The Bible opens “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” [Gen. 1:2], and no life can grow without the presence of water. At the same time, the Bible tells us immediately prior to its description of the life giving waters that “there was darkness on the face of the tehom”, usually translated as the depth of the cavernous waters of the netherworld. It was, after all, the waters of the flood that threatened to destroy the world.
At the same time, the Mishna tells us that the Festival of Sukkot is when God judges our merit for the life giving rain which enables fruit and vegetation to provide sustenance for the coming year [Rosh Hashana 1:2]. Rain is therefore a symbol of God’s gracious bounty, His purification of His children on the Day of Forgiveness.
As the prophet Ezekiel says in words that we repeat during the Yom Kippur penitential prayers, “And I shall sprinkle upon you the waters of purification and you shall become pure” [36:25]. Hence the festival of Shemini Atzeret, in which we thank God for rain, has a double meaning: God’s waters bring physical sustenance as well as spiritual purity, the combination of the two brings redemption.
It goes even one step deeper. We begin giving God praise as the One Who “causes the winds to blow and the rains to flow” on Shemini Atzeret, and these words of praise are incorporated in the Amidah blessing about God, “Who causes the dead to live again.” God’s purifying waters can even revive us from death and bring us eternal life.
Jonah is cast overboard into the raging waters. He has challenged God, endeavoring to escape the Divine mission, and is therefore worthy of death. God, however, in His infinite compassion, provides a whale, a creature of the water, to follow Jonah and bring him back to life. In Jonah’s own words, “I called, in my distress, to God and He answered me. From the belly of the grave I cried out. You heard my voice. You cast me into the depth of the heart of the sea… your waves passed over me… yet You lifted my life from the pit O Lord my God.” (2:3-7).
The waters almost destroyed Jonah, and the waters in the form of a water-creature sent by God saved his life. God is trying to teach the crucial lesson that Assyria, which has been so evil and destructive, can and must make a complete turnaround if the world is to be redeemed. And God is also teaching that He is willing to overlook the evil Assyria has committed if she will indeed repent.
Jonah refuses to accept this. He is, after all, the son of Amitai, a name derived from emet, truth. Truth demands that evil never be overlooked; evil must be punished.
This is precisely how Jonah explains why he refused God’s mission: “…for this reason I hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil” [Jonah 4:2]. This is not the God in whom I want to believe, the God who described Himself as being “abundant in lovingkindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6).
But Jonah has forgotten that his first name means dove, and that just as the dove was saved from the flood so was he undeservedly saved from the raging waters. The Compassionate One thus teaches the vital lesson that anyone who truly repents (returns) from his sins can benefit from God’s life-giving purity. May we all merit to earn that gift this Yom Kippur.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.