Did you ever ask yourself what would the Book of Jonah have looked like, had Jonah done what he was supposed to?
There would have been no story. At most, a little rhyming poem, going something like this:
The Lord said, “Go tell Nineveh to repent!”
Jonah said, “Fine,” and went.
They did repent.
Really boring story. No tale of a “whale” (well, big fish, but okay) swallowing a man. No fleeing, no captain, no sailors, no weird vanishing tree.
Basically, no Book of Jonah.
It was only because he was a bad prophet, running away from his mission, going down, down, and down some more that we have this marvelous biblical book today, one that we read on the holiest day of the year, and look to for guidance on atonement.
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I’ll come back to this. Let me take a detour through an old movie and a new novel. The old movie, a favourite for many, is the whimsical and yet profound It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart (1946). In the movie, we see a man named George Bailey who is contemplating ending his life. All he can see are disappointments, missed opportunities, and his capsized dreams; he feels like an utter failure.
However, the prayers of his family reach heaven, and a guardian angel arrives to rescue him in the nick of time. When George expresses the wish that he had never been born, the angel shows him how the town and people’s lives would have turned out had George not been around: and the picture is one of terrible disaster and failure. George comes to realize how valuable he has, in fact, been to the world. “No man is a failure who has friends,” remarks the angel.
I want to point to one specific message from this memorable movie: “Life doesn’t always go as planned, but there is still good in it.” The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (2020) takes this idea one step further. Like George Bailey, 35-year old Nora Seed wants to end her life. Looking back, she sees many bad choices on her part, which have brought her life to the miserable point it is at today. She swallows pills but does not die. Instead, she is brought to a waystation between life and death — which is a library, containing a Book of Regrets, in which all of her regrets are listed. Where George Bailey was shown one alternative universe — in which he did not exist — Nora is given the chance to live out many alternative lives: one for each bad choice she made. Now she can make a different choice and see how it all works out.
For most of the novel, we follow Nora in a series of lives that include fame, fortune, and polar bears, yet do not ultimately lead to much happiness. She is repeatedly booted out of them and back to the drawing board in the Midnight Library. The message so far seems to be that misery can follow you even into wild success, and happiness is never guaranteed by external events.
But then we are hit with a twist: she enters a life where she is happy and fulfilled. She has a loving partnership, a child, and a meaningful job, though she is very tired. (The author’s choice to have this life, of all of them, be the one that is happy is itself a statement about what makes people happy, and not all might agree with this premise). Nora very much wants to stay in this life, clinging to it, telling herself desperately “this is the best life for me”…. yet in the end she is ejected from this one too.
She knows why. It is because that was not her life. Not only did she did not earn it, but it is also not the most authentic to who she is. Her life is a messy struggle, but it is her messy struggle. And, significantly, she recognizes that in this messy life she has helped some people whom she will not help when she is off being rich and famous. Her brother and friend are alive; and a young boy named Leo is taking piano lessons instead of heading for a criminal career. Nora chooses to live and is grateful for all the potential she now knows she has.
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Now back to our wayward prophet. Had Jonah been obedient, the sailors would never have met him. Those sailors in Jonah’s “dysfunctional” timeline are akin to all the people touched by George Bailey as he stumbles through his life of disappointments; they are like young Leo who is saved by the unhappy Nora’s piano lessons. Those sailors are good ethical men who did everything they could to avoid throwing Jonah overboard. Here though, they actually come to know God, and all because of Jonah’s presence. They pray and sacrifice to God and are saved.
Moreover, Jonah himself gets to, right in the eye of the storm, declare “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who has made the sea and the dry land.” Not only is this a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) that he would not have made in his other timeline; not only does this represent a very important moment in his life, one he would not have had had he been obedient; but we Hebrews get to treasure and quote this verse — to say it proudly and sing it loudly — to this day.
What I am trying to say can be encapsulated in the following idea I heard from someone: “No matter how winding your road, when you look back, it is always straight.” We are who we are due to our experiences; when we look back, that is the path that has brought us to being who we are. And along the way, even when we seem to be so dysfunctional, so lost, we have still impacted the people around us, probably in ways that would otherwise not have happened, as George did for his townsfolk, as Nora did for Leo, as Jonah did for those sailors.
And as the Book of Jonah does for us.
We are always on a meaningful journey, even when we seem to be on full flight mode from life. We are always writing chapters of the book of our life, even if fail to notice the plot and character development at the time they are happening. God will send us opportunities from within wherever we are, and we get to make good choices there; we always get to choose small chunks of good, no matter what our situation. And that adds up and makes a difference.
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Now please note — I am not intending to imply that just because wherever we are, that is where we need to be, we should rest on our laurels and not try to improve. On the contrary, we read this story on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we want to try to be moving away from our flaws and into a better, more rectified state of living. George, Nora, and ultimately Jonah did want to rectify the place they found themselves in.
Jonah’s name in Hebrew, Yonah, means dove, and my friend Chaviva Speter pointed out the lessons we can learn from the dove in Noah’s flood. The first time that Noah sends the dove out from the ark, it fails to land. The second time, it does not fly far, returning with an olive branch. Only the third time does it fly free and not return. Just as the prophet Jonah failed initially in his mission, so did the yonah. Though even at the book’s end, the prophet Jonah is still very much in process, still spiritually turbulent and not at peace, his namesake the dove has ultimately succeeded in her mission and the world can now be at peace and move on to the next chapter.
These two “Yonahs” represent two different modalities in life: trying and succeeding, and trying and not (yet) succeeding. Both are real; and as for us, we can but try.