At its core, the Book of Jonah is a story of teshuvah, repentance: The people of Nineveh are told that if they continue on their path, “In forty days Nineveh shall be overturned.” Their response? Fasting and repentance. Man and beast alike abstain from food and drink. The King of Nineveh himself rises from his throne, dons sackcloth and sits in ashes. God sees their sincerity and they are spared. In fact, the Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 16b) cites this story as a proof text that one can change their fate by changing their actions. Such is the power of teshuvah! We even use the approach of Nineveh to teach how we as Jews should behave on a public fast day (See Mishnah Ta’anit 2:1).
But why on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, do we read the story of Nineveh, a gentile community engaged in teshuvah? Are there no stories about the Jewish Nation engaged in repentance that could serve as an inspiration for the power of change?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that the story of Jonah teaches a profound lesson: Concern for humanity.
While the sailors of the storm tossed ship cry out to their gods in fear, Jonah, in the holds of the ship, descends into a deep sleep; an escape of sorts. He is criticized by the captain who asks, “How can you sleep so soundly? Arise, call to your God! Perhaps God will pay us mind and we will not perish!”
The captain’s call is, in a sense, a wake up call to understand one’s role in the world – one’s responsibility to his fellow man. Can we sleep soundly while others suffer? Do we remain silent?
In fact, Jonah’s flight is more than a rebellion against God, it represents a rebellion against society. Jonah shakes off the burden of mankind when he shakes off the burden of prophecy. This was his mistake.
But Jonah’s lack of empathy is most clearly expressed at the end of the book. He is grieved after the city of Nineveh repents and is saved from destruction. Many explain that Jonah is pained for he knows that the backsliding Jewish Nation will suffer greatly if compared to the people of Nineveh and their teshuvah. (This was, as many understand, the reason for Jonah’s initial flight).
Now he sits alone in his sadness.
Suddenly, God creates a kikayon tree for Jonah. It provides him with shade and brings him joy. His whole demeanor changes. But the next day at dawn, a worm attacks the tree, and the tree dies. A hot wind blows in from the East and the sun beats down upon Jonah’s head. He is now even more despondent. He wants to die and says, “…death is better than my life.’’ The kikayon tree, of course, was a lesson for Jonah. Tragically, he does not comprehend the irony; the message is lost on Jonah. God Himself has to spell it out:
You took pity on the kikayon for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow; it lived one night and perished after one night. And I, shall I not take pity upon Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?
Yom Kippur is not just about the individual, nor even just the Jewish Nation. Our collective fate is being sealed: Which nations are destined for ‘…sword and which for peace, which for famine and which for plenty.’ We all pass together under God’s staff as members of the flock. We all feel vulnerable.
The story of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur because it demands of us to think of the other.
And so we pray for the entire world. We consider what we can do for our community and what we can contribute to humanity. And we express sincere concern for our fellow man, created in the image of God.