On the holiest day of the year, at the most auspicious time of the day, the afternoon, we read “The Story of Jonah and the Whale.” Our sages tell us that every minute and every second of Yom Kippur affects all days of the coming year. Why would we take up so much precious time on such a holy day to read this story on the day of forgiveness?
The story comprises the entire Book of Jonah, one of the 24 Books of the Bible. The story imparts a valuable life lesson and contributes significantly to the experience of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Jonah, the son of Amitai, is asked to go to Nineveh and tell the people there, “If they do not repent, God will destroy their city.” Jonah decides to run away to Tarshish on a boat. While on the ship, other people realize they are being singled out for a tempest, for they can see that the storm is just around the boat, so they try to determine who is the reason for this storm. Jonah declares he is to blame and suggests they throw him in the water so the storm might calm.
In the water, a big fish swallows Jonah. Jonah finally accepts his mission and is delivered to Nineveh. Nineveh takes the message seriously, and the city is spared. Although Nineveh later returns to its old habits, at this moment, the regret is sincere, and for the time being, they are spared.
Immediately, we learn an important lesson from this story: A person should never say, “There is no more hope for me. I have sinned and regretted and sinned again.” God has infinite mercy and never tires of forgiving. If at this moment, with every fiber of our being, we are on the proper path, sincerely dedicated to the proper ideals, and we have put the past behind us, that is all that matters.
The power of repentance (in particular, Yom Kippur) is one of God’s greatest gifts to the human race. In God’s eyes, a person can turn his life 180 degrees in only one moment. As long as he turns toward the good, he is forgiven.
Jonah received his power of prophecy because of his special joy when serving God. Jonah in Hebrew is a dove and represents the soul, the portion of God within us that is always happy and blissful. The boat is the body with which God clothes our soul to go to Nineveh and bring purity and holiness. The boat in which we travel to complete our life’s journey many times encounters storms.
This mission is on water, which hides its world from the naked eye. Similar to the world inside the water, the world we live in, by its very nature, conceals the truth of all matters. It takes great effort to discover what is real and fake in this materialistic world’s glittering, blinking neon lights.
On this sometimes confusing journey, the soul wrongly decides to escape its mission and go to Tarshish, which represents the desires of the body. When encountering a storm, the soul throws itself further into the abyss of materialism by submerging itself deeper in the very storm waters which are the original cause of the problems.
That is when Jonah receives his epiphany that the answer has to be someplace else — there must be more to life — and finally decides to leave the water. He leaves this world of concealment for land, where one can see things clearly, and fulfills the reason God has put his soul into this world in Nineveh.
Nineveh (where and how we fulfill our life mission) in Hebrew means “beautiful.” To reveal and make known to everyone around us the true beauty and endless opportunity in this life is for everyone, notwithstanding the darkness, trial, and tribulations.
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