On Shabbat Afternoon, at the beginning of the penultimate prayer of the holiest day of the year, we will read of the arayot, the forbidden relationships, and then we will subsequently hear the story of Yonah the prophet. Yonah’s story contains many strong messages; the intense futility of running from fate and G-d’s will, and the inspiring power of Ninveh’s meaningful teshuva. But, one part of the haftarah seems a little bit difficult to fit into these themes- the story of the kikayon which ends the sefer.
After the people of Ninveh do teshuva in the face of destruction, Yonah retreats outside of the walls of the city and sits there under a sukkah he built. Then,
וַיְמַן ה’-אֱלֹקִים קִיקָיוֹן וַיַּעַל מֵעַל לְיוֹנָה, לִהְיוֹת צֵל עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ, לְהַצִּיל לוֹ, מֵרָעָתוֹ; וַיִּשְׂמַח יוֹנָה עַל-הַקִּיקָיוֹן, שִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה.
And Hashem prepared a kikayon and put it on top of Yonah to be a shade over his head, to save him from his evil. And Yonah was very happy because of the kikayon. (יונה ד:ו)
Whether a kikayon is a shady plant (Rashi) or a gourd (most other commentators) is irrelevant, because, as Ibn Ezra writes, speculating on the kikayon diverts readers’ attention from the rest of the passuk, which is much more important. Hashem sprouts a kikayon to provide shade for Yonah- why? To save him from his own evil. But, as the well-known saying from Sefer Iyov goes, “G-d gives and G-d takes” (איוב א:כא), and,
וַיְמַן הָאֱלֹקים תּוֹלַעַת, בַּעֲלוֹת הַשַּׁחַר לַמָּחֳרָת; וַתַּךְ אֶת-הַקִּיקָיוֹן, וַיִּיבָשׁ.
And the G-d prepared a worm the next morning and it destroyed the kikayon and it withered. (שם ז)
And, as Yonah awakens to a hot desert wind and the sun pounding onto his head (note the subtle lack of sukkah that we read about earlier), he cries out to G-d, asking for death, claiming to be upset for the gourd. Then, Sefer Yonah ends with G-d berating Yonah for his misplaced mercy, caring more for a kikayon than for a city of twelve thousand. G-d is clearly not happy with Yonah’s reaction. But, then how did His sending the kikayon help the prophet? If anything, it seems to only have intensified Yonah’s wrongly placed mercy.
I believe that Yonah’s reaction reflects his deeper perspective on tikun olam and teshuva. When initially confronted with the prophecy to pass on to Ninveh, Yonah was told to urge the denizens to repent. However, he appeared to have been concerned that their teshuva would not be lasting or sincere (According to many midrashic sources, Yonah foresaw that they would be involved in the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash, and was reluctant to enable that). This fear of their insincere repentance, and possible misplaced compassion, led him to run away from the prophecy, and when circumstances inevitable forced him to Ninveh, he ungraciously delivers the warning and leaves.
While Yonah’s heart was definitely in the right place, and this could be a reasonable approach to teshuva, Chazal emphasized how incorrect this is by ending the haftarah with the 13 Midot of mercy from Micha- to show us that G-d doesn’t judge us based on our future misdeeds. He judges us, as the Gemara writes, “באשר הוא שם, as he is now” (ראש השנה טז:ב). Hashem, in His ultimate mercy, doesn’t take into account if our teshuva is temporary, if we will relapse in the coming months or years- He only investigates our immediate sincerity, and if we are worthy, we hope He will forgive us. Even the people of Ninveh, who would eventually kill many of our brethren and help destroy our Temple, were saved from destruction because of their sincere repentance. Teshuva is truly powerful, especially on the holy day that we read from Sefer Yonah.
We can now understand why Yonah was so displeased by Ninveh’s eleventh hour salvation, and why G-d’s message of the kikayon was truly “to save Yonah from his own evil.” Yonah was understandably upset when faced with Ninveh’s sincere teshuva– he had just sealed the future Jews’ unfortunate fate in the face of what he knew to be a not lasting repentance. But, Yonah could not grasp the extent of what he wished upon the people of Ninveh, the deaths of so many innocent souls for the sake of their possible future sin. So, G-d demonstrated the severity of this wish, in the form of the vague plant whose name only appears here and nowhere else in the Torah Shebichtav– to show us that we need to concern ourselves with the loss of innocent lives, even if they may sin in the future. The ends do not justify the means when it comes to teshuva, and we need to emulate G-d’s trait of “באשר הוא שם,” judging each of the people of Ninveh as if they are a kikayon, not thinking about future sin.
This idea helps us understand why Sefer Yonah is such an appropriate haftarah to Mincha on Yom Kippur. Sefer Yonah is read mere hours before the climactic end of Tefilat Neilah, where we cry out to Hashem, blow the shofar, and literally feel our forgiveness as the gates of repentance are closing. We will have already read about the avoda of the Kohen Gadol, repenting on behalf of the nation. We will have said enough “על חטא“‘s to lose feeling in the left sides of our chests. But, we will not have understood the power of sincere teshuva, the hope that turns into a bright future as we regret our misdeeds, even if we may eventually relapse into failure. This is the hopeful message for us as we approach the end of the scariest day of the world- that we are being judged by Hashem, the merciful G-d, by the lenient standard of “באשר הוא שם.” If the evil people of Ninveh could be saved through repentance, then we, G-d’s Chosen People, the ones who He promised never to destroy, certainly stand a chance of being sealed in the Book of Life.
With Hashem’s help, we will all merit a favorable judgment, at the very least באשר הוא שם, being sealed into the Book of Life.