When you’re open to being surprised, you never know what might happen.
Noam Schuster Eliassi had this exact experience a few months ago. Noam, now a comedian, left her full-time work as a peace activist because she was tired of always being the person in the room trying to break down barriers, and of the limited progress she was able to make. Having grown up in a village in Israel called “Oasis of Peace,” where half the residents were
Jewish and half were Palestinian, she was fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, and was comfortable with a much wider range of Israeli society than most of her fellow Israelis, but found that expanding the work of bridge-building to be a daunting task.
Earlier this year, while on her way back to Israel from a fellowship at Harvard University, Noam caught coronavirus. Like many other Israelis, she was sent to a hotel where she could quarantine for the length of her illness and recuperation. And while she was there, she was astonished at what she found.
At first, the Corona Hotel was set up pretty much the way that Noam had previously experienced Israeli society. The hotel concierge, responsible for assigning roommates to each of the patients, carefully asked questions designed to pair like with like. Muslim with Muslim, secular Jew with secular Jew. After a pair of roommates needed reassigning over a heated dispute, he started asking Orthodox Jews if they were comfortable having a roommate who might watch tv, since some Ultra-Orthodox Jews are philosophically opposed to television. Like, the concierge said, gets along better with like.
Even so, all of the people in that hotel had something special in common with each other, something that people outside the hotel did not have. These people could do activities that nobody else in their country, or in ours, could do at that point– they could attend comedy shows that Noam presented bilingually, in Hebrew and Arabic. They could dance Zumba, led by another patient, in the same room as each other without masks. They could practice yoga together, they could eat together, they could hug each other! Although initially, people did cluster together with people from similar backgrounds, slowly over time, that began to change. Secular Jews, Arabs, Orthodox Jews, Bedhouins, they all started to mix. As the diverse residents of the Corona Hotel started to spend more time together, the dynamics shifted.
Then something unexpected happened. By the time Pesah came around, when the residents of the hotel arrived at the hotel ballroom for seder, they saw that the room had been set up with a divider. On one side would be the Orthodox patients, in a space where holiday observance would be strictly enforced, and the other side was for anyone else. The orthodox patients went straight to the divider, moved it to the side of the room, and sat down for seder together with everyone else. The entire group, including Jews of all types of religious background, and even people who weren’t Jewish at all, sat down to one seder, together. Despite their differences, they were committed to celebrating this occasion together, as one undivided group.
Noam left the hotel some time later having recovered, full of hope. For once, she said, I wasn’t the one taking down the barriers! Sometimes, when we let them, people can surprise us!
In our Haftarah reading today, the prophet Jonah knows exactly how he thinks the world should be, and he is not interested in being persuaded otherwise. In Jonah’s mind, people who do wrong deserve to be punished. God’s role is to be a strict arbiter of justice, with no mercy involved. Jonah doesn’t care if people change, because for him, only their past behavior matters. When God asks Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh and tell them to change their ways, Jonah recoils, as this command goes against his sense of strict justice. As Jonah sees it, the people of Nineveh deserve to be killed for their sins, so there is no way he wants them to have a second chance.
Jonah’s certainty and rigidity are on display throughout his story. In fact, it is notable that whereas everyone around him regularly asks questions, he unfailingly responds with declarative statements. When he runs aways towards Tarshish, and a storm comes up, and the sailors on his ship ask him all sorts of questions to try to understand who he is and why his presence might be the cause of a storm, he ignores their actual questions, and shares only what he believes to be relevant. “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land.” When they ask him how they can calm the sea, he again gives a clear and concise answer, which completely ignores the feelings of the sailors he is with. “Heave me overboard, and the sea will calm down for you; for I know that this terrible storm came upon you on my account.” This wasn’t the only option. Jonah could have considered asking them to turn around the boat, thus acquiescing to God’s command to go to Nineveh. He could have offered to jump off himself, thus saving the sailors the trauma of throwing a human being overboard. But no. Showing no consideration for the sailors, and with no thought to changing his mind, Jonah tells them to throw him overboard.
Jonah’s conviction continues after he is thrown overboard, after he spends time in the belly of a great fish, an experience which we might have expected would lead him to rethink his worldview. He finally does go to Nineveh, and he proclaims throughout the city exact, clear directions for what the people need to do to avoid destruction, but he does not change his
beliefs, even when they repent. When destruction is averted, our prophet once again expresses his clear view of the world coldly. He is so angry at God for forgiving the people of Nineveh that he says “Please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” Jonah would rather die than see guilty people forgiven.
In Jonah’s world, there is always a clear right and wrong. He is not concerned with people’s feelings, except perhaps his own, and he is driven very much by a desire to see the world the way he thinks it should be. He accepts no compromise, and is not swayed by compassion.
Let’s shift to looking at the other characters in this story. Do they, too, espouse Jonah’s world view? The sailors on the boat with Jonah, who do eventually, after much convincing, agree to throw him overboard, start out by peppering Jonah with questions. Since they already know that the storm is on his account, they might have decided of their own accord to throw him off the boat. But instead, they ask “Tell us, you who have brought this misfortune upon us, what is your business? Where have you come from? What is your country, and of what people are you?” and, later, “What have you done?” and “What must we do to you to make the sea calm around us?” They refuse to go for the easy, quick conclusion. They instead try to learn everything they can about their passenger, and to carefully arrive at the best course of action. In their compassion, they try everything they can think of to avoid being guilty of murder, and after they do throw Jonah off the boat, they cry out to God, offer a sacrifice, and make vows in an attempt to atone.
And what about the people of Nineveh, who are supposedly such horrible people that Jonah cannot imagine them being worthy of forgiveness? When we look at them, we in fact see flexible people, open to changing their view of the world. They, like the sailors, signal their openness with a question. Not only do they change their behavior immediately in response to Jonah’s prophecy, but they explain their choice, saying “Who knows? Maybe God will turn and relent and turn back from God’s wrath, so that we do not perish!”
As Judy Klitsner shows in her book Subversive Sequels in the Bible, in contrast to Jonah, the rest of the characters in this story approach the world with an intense amount of curiosity and with openness to learning something new. Even God, who supposedly knows all, asks questions. When Jonah expresses his desire to die, first because God has forgiven the people of Nineveh, and next because of the death of the plant that was providing him shade, both times, God asks “Are you that deeply grieved?,” and waits for Jonah’s affirmative answer.
There’s something I didn’t tell you about Hotel Corona. When asked about his experience, the hotelier stuck to his original assessment. People do get along better with people who are like them. What happened here was special, but I don’t think it would happen again anytime soon. And in fact, he was right. That hotel wasn’t the only Corona Hotel. In fact, there were many others. But the kinds of interactions that I described above, the camaraderie amongst people from different cultures which went viral on social media when the residents of the hotel shared videos of their experiences, that was rare. Why was that? Well, many of the other hotels weren’t mixed in the ways that this one was. In order to make sure that Ultra-Orthodox Jews would agree to go to Corona Hotels, special hotels were set up only for them. People’s comfort with people like them was so strong that those setting up the hotels actually created a situation where they precluded the possibility of intermingling, of people being surprised by each other, and to form cross-group relationships. Of course, the other hotels did have other types of diversity, and still, they generally didn’t result in the same intensity of relationships.
In order to be surprised, in order to have the opportunity to change our minds and our actions, we need to be open to it. That is not easy. There’s a reason that most of us tend to spend most of our time around people who think and behave similarly to ourselves. It’s more comfortable, it tends to result in less conflict, and it’s easier. The residents of this Corona Hotel may not have been actively looking for cross-cultural friendships, but they didn’t avoid them either.
Jonah may be the protagonist of his story, but he isn’t the hero. He fails to absorb the message of his story, the message that the characters around him are constantly modeling. People can change, and people can make the world a better place. We don’t have to be stuck in our ways of thinking, our ways of doing things, – change is possible! In order to get there, we need to be open to being surprised! We need to be curious, we need to ask questions of ourselves and others, and we need to acknowledge that we may not always be the ones with all the answers.