Midrash Tanchuma explores the psyche of the sinner. What better place to start than Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus) which discusses sacrificial offering for wrongdoing – purposeful and accidental. What is soon apparent is that one’s real motives are not always apparent. In Midrash Tanchuma, one of the paradigms for blurring the lines between pure and less than pure motives is Yonah. No wonder the Book of Yonah is read in the synagogue on Yom Kippur.
Yonah’s motives to safeguard the Jews
Although it is difficult to understand why anyone would think they can run away from God, Yonah’s motives were always considered pure. He was running away from God because he was afraid that the People of Nineveh would indeed repent. The commentaries say that these are the very people (The Assyrians) that would go on to exile the Northern Kingdom and exile the 10 tribes. Ironically, the reason the Jews were exiled is because, unlike the people of Nineveh, the Jewish People did not repent. Despite the continuous warnings from powerful and passionate prophets.
The story of Yonah that you may not have heard before
The Torah relentlessly pursues the truth no matter where it takes you. No one is spared, not Moshe, not the Patriarchs, and certainly not Yonah.
To that end, the Midrash provides a fascinating backdrop to the story. Nineveh wasn’t the first mission that Yonah was sent on. Yonah’s first mission went as planned. He prophesied that the King of Israel, Jeroboam the son of Yoash would regain territory lost to the enemy (see Kings II -14:25) and that’s what happened. However, according to Midrash Tanchuma, he then prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jews repented so God canceled the decree. This was great news for the Jews of Judaea. However, there was an unexpected consequence to the reputation of Yonah. Instead of gratitude, it seems some people only remembered that he prophesied doom and it never happened. Therefore there were those among the Jews who thought that Yonah was a false prophet.
According to the Midrash, this was a factor in Yonah fleeing from his mission to warn the people of Nineveh. Yonah realized that the people of Nineveh would also repent and his prophecy about their destruction would be annulled. Now his reputation as being a false prophet would spread beyond Judea, to the nations of the world.
Can you disappear from God’s radar?
Midrash Tanchuma infuses yet another unknown factor into the story. Yonah knew that God reigned in the heavens and on earth just as much as on the high seas, but he thought that you could not get a prophecy on the high seas. You could somehow lose the signal and be out of range for God to communicate with him.
When Yonah was looking for a passenger ship to make his getaway the closest ship he saw on the horizon would have taken 2 days to arrive at the dock. God wanted to show him that He would always be by his side so God brought a strong wind that brought the ship ashore in a matter of minutes instead of days. It seems that Yonah misread this sign from God.
וְרָאָה יוֹנָה וְשָׂמַח בְּלִבּוֹ, וְאָמַר, עַכְשָׁו אֲנִי יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁדַּרְכִּי מְיֻשֶּׁרֶת לְפָנַי. וְהוּא לֹא יָדַע כִּי הַקָּבָּ”ה מְסַבֵּב הַדָּבָר לְהוֹדִיעוֹ שֶׁשָּׁם כְּבוֹדוֹ
“When Yonah saw the ship coming in he was filled with joy, saying to himself: ‘now I know that I have taken the correct path.’ He did not know that God arranged it to let Yonah know that God’s presence was to be found there as well.”
Yonah took this miracle as a sign that he was doing the right thing by running away.
God throws you a lifeline that’s really a test
Midrash Tanchuma says that Yonah was so excited about this propitious sign that he paid for the voyage upon boarding the ship when you normally pay upon leaving.
What does this all mean for us? Perhaps the message is that lightning doesn’t strike a person when they choose to run away from God. Quite the opposite, things may go well for you. That’s God’s way of saying “I haven’t left you, I still want a relationship with you.” But it can be mistaken as an encouraging sign that you’ve chosen the right path.
It’s fair to say that Yonah was blessed with tough times. The storm hit. Yonah understood that the fact that everyone on the boat was in danger, was all his fault. He quickly realized that although he abandoned God, God did not abandon him, and he repented.
What is the lesson we are supposed to get on Yom Kippur
When Yonah’s concern for his reputation got in the way, he temporarily lost his moral bearings. Perhaps we read this story on Yom Kippur as a prayer to God to forgive us for such human frailties. On the day of self-reflection we have to sort out our own motives for our actions, especially the ones that we thought were coming from a place of high moral standards.