Dov Lerea
Dov Lerea

Sefer Yonah: The world rests on empathy

Yom Kippur


I have thought about the relationship between Sefer Yonah and Yom Kippur for years. It is such a compelling story. A human being fleeing from God. Pagan sailors filled with awe and trembling before the Creator of the Universe. A giant fish. An entire city sitting in sackcloth and ashes, wailing for compassion, joined by their domesticated animals. I am feeling now that Sefer Yonah teaches lessons the world needs deeply right now.

When God sends Yonah as an emissary to Ninveh, Yonah flees towards Tarshish in the opposite direction. He boards a ship, descends to its bowels, and falls asleep. The verbs yarad/descend, and yeradem/fall asleep, alliterate. Yonah is not napping. He has returned to a primal state of preconsciousness. He is asleep with the same verb that described the condition of the adam/first human being in the Garden of Eden when God removed a rib and birthed Chava, the isha. Already within several verses, Yonah has re-entered a womb, the bowels of the ship now surrounded by waters that are about to break that ship apart. The grammatical form of the phrase, chishev lehishaver, “about to break apart,” is striking, and catches the reader’s eye intensively. This is a birthing tale, a story about the potential for change as rebirth. Lest this imagery is lost on the readers, Yonah is cast again into a second womb, the belly of the fish, and he says, explicitly, “Swirling waters have surrounded me,” and then, after three days, he is literally born again as the fish spits him out onto dry land. 

If this reading resonates as plausible, then I suggest that Yonah’s rebirth holds both a mirror and lamp to the parallel story of the potential rebirth of the city of Ninveh. God is interested in the people of the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, the archenemy of Israel. Nineveh is described in hyperbole. From my reading, there was no city in antiquity that was so large that it would have taken a sojourner three days to traverse. The population sat in mourning to a person, joined not only by the king himself, but by their animals as well. The king decreed that the animals, too, should fast; “Let no animal graze!”  Yonah was inside the fish for three days. Nineveh had an expanse of three days. The king of Ninveh declared, “Let us all return from our evil ways. Who knows? Perhaps God will change the divine decree and we will not be killed.” (3:9) This pronouncement echoes a similar sentiment expressed by the sailors of Yonah’s original attempt to flee. In the midst of that terrifying storm, the captain of the ship, parallel to the king of Ninveh, implores Yonah to awaken. He uses the same phrase, “perhaps we will not be killed,” as the king of Ninveh. Most significantly, moreover, both the king of Ninveh and the captain and crew of the ship, all call God by the name, Elohim, i.e., the God of Din, of strict justice. This association was established already in the Tanach. For example, in Psalms 82, God, Elohim, presides as judge over a heavenly council. In legal biblical sources, the word, elohim, is often interpreted to mean, “judges.” The sailors, during the storm, throw ballast overboard in desperation, each one “praying to his own god,” ish el elohim.” The captain urges Yonah to pray to his god, elohecha. (1:5-6) The king of Ninveh uses the same language. Astoundingly, all of the pagan characters assume that the natural world is animated by the divine, and serves as a barometer of their moral behavior. If the ship is caught in a hurricane, it must be that the men have sinned, and this is their just punishment. When the crew casts lots, identifying Yonah as the source of the storm, he tells them to throw him into the sea as ballast. The sailors, terrified of committing further sin, row towards shore, but to no avail. When they comply, the raging waters abate. 

Here is a world filled with consequences of human decisions and behavior. Furthermore, this is a world in which human beings reflect on their behavior, and feel deeply connected to the natural phenomena around them. Whether on the sea or in an urban setting, the world is not chaotic and random. There is a moral universe aligned with the natural order of things, and humanity has the capacity to recalibrate themselves, overcome their dysregulation, and regain access to the balance of the creation. Only Yonah refuses.

When the sailors ask Yonah to identify himself, he answers, וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ם עִבְרִ֣י אָנֹ֑כִי וְאֶת־יְהֹוָ֞ה אֱלֹהֵ֤י הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ אֲנִ֣י יָרֵ֔א אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הַיָּ֖ם וְאֶת־הַיַּבָּשָֽׁה׃ / I am an Ivri (a “boundary-crosser”) I am in awe of the God of Rachamim, the One who judges with Din all the heavens, the One who created the ocean and the dry land. (1:9) This is a fascinating response. Yonah identifies God as both the God of judgement (and this becomes a Yom haDin) and the God of mercy and empathy and compassion, of rachamim. Yonah sees God as Creator exercising both capacities. When Yonah is alone in the belly of that fish, he prays with the same fervor as the sailors, with complete kavanah, and appeals to the God of compassion, to Hashem. He wishes for empathy and compassion for himself. Compassion nourishes life, and the fish births him out into the world. It is in this world of balances, moral rebirth, self-judgment, introspection, judgment and empathy, that Yonah confronts God.

Reflecting the first rebirth narrative of the flood in the time of Noach, God responds to Ninveh with the same words used to describe humanity in that early, primordial generation. The word, nicham, means both, “to regret” and “to change one’s mind and comfort.” In the Genesis narrative, “God regretted having created humanity,” a terrifying statement of divine pathos. Here, in response to the city of Ninveh, God “changed God’s mind” and renounced the decree of punishment. (3:10) Yonah witnesses this moment, and asks to die. He describes God as the God of mercy with the language of the thirteen attributes of divine compassion and empathy. He declares, “I knew this would happen, which is why I preempted Your divine command and fled to Tarshish.” The word, “preempt” qidamti, also alliterates with the word, qedem, “east.” That word appears again a few verses later, when Yonah sits “miqedem,” to the east of the city to watch. The sun is hot; Yonah sits inside a sukkah, and then God provides a tree. These are Garden of Eden images: a place in the east, a tree, even the sukkah evokes an image of a contained, safe environment under the protective shade of God’s presence. (The minhag to pray with the lulav and etrog inside of a sukkah also reflects the Gan Eden imagery of bringing a tree of life into the garden itself. From that perspective, we are all reborn again as we leave the sukkah, re-entering the world after a creation cycle of seven days in the Garden of Eden, ready to continue to nourish God’s world.) That tree suggests the s’chach of that primal sukkah as well. The protection shrivels, and Yonah again wants to die. The confrontation between God and Yon becomes clear in this final scene. Essentially, God turns to Yonah and exclaimed: You cared about that tree. You did nothing to grow it, tend it, care for it. Yet, you say I should not care about humanity and the creatures I have created to inhabit the world?” 

This is a profoundly optimistic monologue. The world rests on the eternal possibility for rebirth. All human beings, regardless of the modes of worship, need to feel a deep sense of the Creator’s presence, and with humility, remain in awe of a power beyond humanity. These were pagans whose spirit was aligned with God’s vision for the world. Indeed, human health is nourished by the free, natural flow of consciousness of God’s presence, and of the reality that human behavior elicits dire consequences for ourselves, for the natural world, and for all creatures. Once people realize that and assume responsibility for their actions, God, our of absolute love for humanity and creation, responds with empathy and compassion. That is the natural foundation of reality. It is built on love. Only Yonah refuses to feel that reality. He sees a world built primarily of Din, of strict judgment, for everyone and everything, except himself. Perhaps the optimism of the message, especially this year before Yom Kippur, is that God even believes in Yonah. Even someone as self-centered and narcissistic as Yonah, is capable of change, of taking responsibility for his actions, of realizing that one cannot run away from God, or from the impact of one’s behaviors with everyone around one, and become reborn to feel the nourishing power of empathy.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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