Yona’s extraordinary story, his flight from before God, and his dogged determination to undermine Nineveh’s repentance, raises significant questions about our assumptions on leadership, prophecy and repentance. To raise these questions on the last moments before Ne’ilah should put us over the edge. Really? A prophet fleeing from God, refusing the mission, undermining the people, who has seemingly lost his will to live? And this is just the start of the questions we should have when reading this epic book. Here are some other that immediately come to mind:
- How could it be that Yona, identified in the text as a prophet, refuses to listen to God’s instructions?
- How is it that he sleeps through the deadly storm on the boat ignoring the obvious wrath of God?
- How does Yona resist using the prophet’s most effective tool, prayer, for three days in the belly of the fish?
- When Yona has no other choice, he walks into Nineveh and, without pizzazz or charisma, informs them in five words that their end is near, and seemingly doesn’t stay to help them repent? What kind of prophet doesn’t want to bring people closer to God?
- Why is Yona’s story included in Tanach, and highlighted on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year?
It might just be that the story of Yona isn’t about any of these ideas; it’s not a story about prophecy, nor is it about repentance but rather, what if it is God’s ode to one idea, the responsibility and commitment of an educator. What if God uses the story of Yona to highlight the unique dedication a parent has for their child? If this is indeed the core theme of Yona’s story, then in the waning moments of Yom Kippur we can begin to make sense of why we read this unique and challenging story.
To explore this thought further, we wanted to share some reflections about the dedication and commitment our beloved father, Rabbi Ian Shaffer, has had to us his children, and to over 40 years of students, as he marks this week his 70th birthday.
Thirty years ago, our father was turning 40 years old, and we decided to celebrate the moment with a surprise kiddush luncheon for his closest friends. It was going to be simple to maintain the surprise because our father offered a Shmirat Shabbat Kehilchata shiur each Shabbat following Hashkama (a shiur that still meets, causing our father much joy!) followed by a Chavruta with fellow hashkama attendee, Dr. Lawrence Lovitt. It would have been simple had everything gone to plan but the beloved Rav of the community, Rabbi Dovid Cooper zt”l, a righteous and awe-inspiring man, shared his plans to participate in the private Kiddush. Rabbi Cooper never attended private Kiddushim but out of respect for my father he would come by following Shul’s conclusion to enhance the celebration. The task now at hand was to delay my father at his Chavruta until after Rabbi Cooper arrived. With Dr. Lovitt on board, the plan was not to extend their Chavruta long past their usual 30 minutes, until he received word that it was safe to send our father home.
Rabbi Cooper offered on Shabbat morning his usual 45 minutes drasha, delaying his arrival and requiring Dr. Lovitt to keep the chavruta going on for long after its usual conclusion time. While Dr. Lovitt’s new list of questions and curiosity may have tipped off the average person, our father was so absorbed by the discussion he didn’t think twice about the extended time they were spending together. Upon his arrival, our father was overwhelmed by the surprise and in particular by Rabbi Cooper’s attendance. Often our father gave us clear explicit lessons but more often than not, the lessons he taught us were subtle, intrinsic, and modeled by his dedication and commitment to Torah study and the people of our community. We will never forget the respect shown by Rabbi Cooper for our father, and what it meant to him to have friends and this giant of Torah in our home celebrating his birthday.
Our father, Rabbi Ian Shaffer, was born October 7, 1952 in the United Kingdom and will, please God, be celebrating his 70th birthday. Throughout his life he studied Torah with many of the most well-known teachers in Europe and Israel. In his own right our father has had an illustrious career, teaching thousands of young women at Stern College, supporting many students during his decades working in kashrut on the Barnard Campus, and teaching thousands of people in every community he and our mother have lived in. From his first moments studying with his rabbi as a teenager in London, to later aiding in the building of Immanuel College, to a 20-year commitment to teaching students at Stern College, our father has been constantly driven by the ideas, and thoughts about Tanach’s most compelling characters.
As our parents recently realized their life-long dream of returning to live in Israel, watching them integrate into their new community has created for each of us an opportunity to reflect on the values they have lived their lives by. Our father often shares stories of many of his mentors but two stand out in his reflections: Professor Nechama Leibowitz z’l and Rabbi Isaac Bernstein z’l. Both master teachers who taught their students the discipline of studying Tanach, they shaped the Torah learning and teaching of many, including our father. Their dedication and commitment to the souls they were cultivating through their teaching, left the most indelible mark that brings us back to their content year after year. Our Father has too, in his own way, taken the ideas of Tanach, and used modern context to tease out the core ideas and values. Whether he was exploring the life of Dovid HaMelech, or his son Shlomo HaMelech, or he was writing up a Torah thought on the Siddur, or an idea taught by Rabbi Bernstein, our father has a unique ability to discover and celebrate the humanity in the subject of his teaching.
Our father’s enthusiasm for how much more can be learned from the people in Tanach when you see them as real people pushed us to think about the lessons of Yona’s life, and the struggle and challenges he presents to us.
Yonah receives a prophecy, and in the most basic reading of the story, flees from before God because he is unwilling to fulfill God’s mission. While offering us little context regarding Yona’s background, the next three chapters deepens the discomfort for the reader. Yonah seems to prefer to die rather than perform God’s assigned task, and when God doesn’t let him die by making a large fish swallow him, Yonah reluctantly heads to Nineveh and offers a 5 word speech and then leaves. There is no great oratory, nor any plan to support their transformation, rather Yona’s disinterest in supporting the transformation of Nineveh’s remains loud and clear. The acts of another leader in chapter 3, the King of Nineveh, and his embracing of Yona’s message, litigation of repentance and modeling it himself, creates immense contrast with Yona and his attitude to the target audience for his prophecy.
This story doesn’t conclude with the repentance of Nineveh. Surprisingly, there is a fourth chapter that occurs after Yonah’s encounter with the large fish, and after the people of Nineveh have been forgiven by God. The fourth chapter sets Yonah beyond the Nineveh city limits, looking back at the transformed city, awaiting its inevitable destruction. Like Lot’s wife turning back to Sodom, Yonah seems to have his eyes fixed on the city and its destruction. Perhaps believing their repentance to be insincere, Yona may be waiting for justification of his indifferent attitude. He wasn’t moved by the sailors, nor by the fish, and certainly was not impressed by the repentance of Nineveh.
In this final chapter, Yona finds himself alone, outside of civilization, and vulnerable to the elements. Unlike Avraham, who sought out guests, Yonah sits in the oppressive heat and is focused on his own anger and discomfort. In a moment that we would expect to find in the story of Iyyov and not Yona, God quickly grows a kikayon tree, offering Yonah shade, only for the tree to shrivel and die within a day. Yonah is distraught over the loss of the tree and not for the first time in our story, seeks his own death.
It is worth noting how passive Yona is throughout the story. He insists the sailors in Chapter 1 throw him overboard, he doesn’t jump off the boat himself. The fish swallows and regurgitates Yona, with Yona never even asking for either. When Yona requests that his life comes to an end, he doesn’t ever consider ending his own life but rather asks God to intervene. Yona runs from before God, and seeks to be a passive participant in the story at every turn.
The final verses of Sefer Yona offer no resolution, nor conclusion but rather God presents a question, to Yona, and to the reader. In the absence of a response, this story concludes with God’s unresolved question insisting that we confront it as much as Yona must.
“וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל־הַקִּיקָיוֹן אֲשֶׁר לֹא־עָמַלְתָּ בּוֹ וְלֹא גִדַּלְתּוֹ שֶׁבִּן־לַיְלָה הָיָה וּבִן־לַיְלָה אָבָד,”
“Then the LORD said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.”
וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל־נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ־בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים־עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יָדַע בֵּין־יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה
And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well! —Yona 4:10-11
This question of God offers us an opportunity to reframe how we approach the story. What if this story is God setting expectations for what it means to be a parent, or caring for the vulnerable.
If the final question of the book triggers us to consider Sefer Yona as God setting expectations for parenting, where else might we find this message in the story?
God identifies Himself as the Creator of the city of Nineveh, “Ha’ir Hagedola,” which might be read as the city God raised. In chapter three the role of God as creator and care-giver for Nineveh is stated much more explicitly. When describing Nineveh the verse says:
וַיָּקִּם יוֹנָה וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל־נִינְוֵה כִּדְבַר יְהֹוָה וְנִינְוֵה הָיְתָה עִיר־גְּדוֹלָה לֵאלֹהִים…
Jonah went at once to Nineveh in accordance with the LORD’s command
Nineveh was aLit. “a large city of God.”an enormously large city
The city of Nineveh was an, “Ir Gedola Le’elohim,” which is a phrase that is hard to understand, that the Ibn Ezra uses to suggest that Nineveh was a city that had monotheistic values. Alternatively, we could translate “Ir Gedola Le’elohim,” as a city raised by God, with the Hebrew root word, g-d-l, meaning either ‘great’ or ‘to raise’.
God rejects the idea of destroying Nineveh, and it may even be possible that he never intended to do so. The prophecy Yona shares with the people of Nineveh is that the city will be ‘Nehepachet’ within 40 days. This prophetic word, ‘Nehepachet’ could be as much about Nineveh’s transformation as it is about it being turned over.
If the message God is imparting to Yona and us, is about parenthood, and the unshakable commitment a creator must have for their creation, then we can also begin to understand why we read this story on Yom Kippur. On a day when we identify God as Avinu Malkeinu, we also reflect on how we have impacted others in our lives, and the responsibility we have towards treating others with kindness. Having power and influence over someone vulnerable needs to be explored, and framed within the context of having tremendous responsibility. Yona refuses to accept this responsibility, and his reaction to it being thrust upon him becomes far my understandable if we compare him to the experience of a brand new parent.
Like any new parent, when Yonah is asked to care for the wellbeing of Nineveh, he seems daunted and overwhelmed. The thought of fleeing responsibility, may be a fantasy for the newly exhausted parent, challenged emotionally and physically by the vulnerability of their dependent. Yonah doesn’t accept the responsibility of being the care-taker for Nineveh, in fact throughout the story Yona behaves more like a child needing to be cared for, than the caretaker.
Rashi at the beginning of chapter 2, quotes a remarkable Medrash that highlights one of the ways God may be trying to mature Yona in his attitude. After noting that the fish is initially called a Dag and later called a Dagah, Rashi suggests that Yonah is actually swallowed by two fish! At first he is swallowed by a male fish, and Yonah finds the experience relatively comfortable. In response to Yonah’s comfort, the Medrash states that Yonah is regurgitated by the male fish and swallowed a second time by a Dagah, a female fish, who was pregnant. All of a sudden Yonah has to share space inside the fish with a host of fish fetuses and his discomfort grows. In that moment, inside the female fish, Yonah is confronted by parenthood and the responsibility to care for a dependent. He can’t find any space because he is inside a fish who will soon itself be transformed into a parent for its new baby fish.
After he prays, God instructs the fish to regurgitate yona onto dry land. This speaks to the importance of prayer for an educator or parent. While parents and educators are fundamentally committed to the wellbeing of their dependents and students, there is an inevitable moment where every care-giver recognizes that the child’s development is out of their control, and that is when parents and teachers alike begin to pray, just like Yonah.
Unlike Avraham, who walks for three days to sacrifice his son, and we are left with the impression that every step he takes is filled with his prayers, Yonah doesn’t pray for three days, until he is in the female fish, and notices she is expecting children. He doesn’t want to speak to God until he is confronted by the expecting fish, and begins to understand what caring for another looks like.
After Yonah is regurgitated, we might think he is now ready to become the “parent” of Nineveh but we are left baffled when reading his limited role in Chapter 3. Yonah walks a day to Nineveh, offers a short, five-word long speech, predicting Nineveh’s doom, and quickly leaves. Yonah offers Nineveh no words of comfort, and certainly no plan for reversing the decree. The “parent” of Nineveh in Chapter 3 ends up being the King of Nineveh, who Chazal interestingly identifies as the Pharaoh of Exodus. The same leader who recklessly led his soldiers to their death in the Yam Suf, is plucked from the sea by God to care for a new city and its people. The people of Nineveh begin repenting after hearing Yonah’s message but it is only once the King of Nineveh makes repentance law of the land, and removes his royal clothes and sits on the floor, does God announce his forgiveness of Nineveh. The King demonstrates that a parent creates boundaries, and lives by them himself, as a role-model, while Yona is long gone.
In the concluding chapter, it is time for God to drive home his message about what He expects of care-givers, to Yonah. While Yonah sits outside the city waiting for its failure, the sun beats down on him and Yona seeks relief from the elements. Rather than going back into the city, and receiving hospitality from the newly righteous people of Nineveh, or asking God to make the day cooler, Yonah becomes more aggrieved and angry. Only to make the point further, God provides Yonah with relief in a kikayon tree that grows overnight, only to destroy the tree and the shade it provides within 24 hours. For the third time in this book, now in far more explicit terms, Yonah requests his own death. Rather than go back to Nineveh to seek out their care for him, or ask God for relief, Yonah still chooses death. In a rebuke, God tells Yonah that he mourns over a tree he did not cultivate but can’t see a city waiting for his help?
At this moment God offers us the most remarkable assessment of Yonah and Nineveh. God shares with Yonah that there are over 120,000 souls, who don’t know their right from their left, in Nineveh. Are these souls to be destroyed with the city? Is that what Yona had hoped for? Reminding us of Avraham pleading for Sodom’s salvation, God identifies this group of 120,000 people that save the city. In trying to understand who these people are, we might conclude, like Rashi, that this is referring to children. If the sailors, and the fish, and citizens of Nineveh didn’t make Yonah embrace his caregiving responsibilities, God concludes the book by stating simply to Yona that he should think of the children.
Would anyone want Nineveh to be destroyed with all the children that are found within its walls? This is the question we are left with at the end of the epic story.
On Yom Kippur afternoon, moment before Neilah, we read about Yonah and his prayerful sailor, faithful fish, and repentant Ninevites, to remind us that in the end of the day, Banim Atem LaHashem Elokeichem, we are children of God, who states Himself that He doesn’t want to be a punisher but a educator.
Being an educator and raising children requires resilience and investment. Be it the responsibility of caring for a vulnerable child, or the burden of having to do it all, educators, like Yonah, often experience many of his trials. The loneliness of holding a baby in the middle of the night is like Yonah, alone in the whale. The prayers offered by the parents of a child struggling in school, speak to Yonah’s prayers. Even the desire to run away, is an experience that may be relatable for the struggling teacher. And when Yonah finally has to confront his dependents in Nineveh, he is bewildered by how flippant they are with their changes. How many teachers grow exasperated with the seemingly absurd choices and opinions their young students make at the drop of a hat?
And God reminds us that at the end of the day it is all about the children.
It always has to be about the kids.
Our father has spent his life teaching and sharing Torah, and it feels like no coincidence that all three of us, his children, work in Jewish education in one way or another. The greatest tribute we offer our father, and his legacy, on his 70th birthday, are the professional lives we have each pursued.
It often happens to each of us that we find ourselves in a new place and someone inquires whether we are related to Rabbi Ian Shaffer. Through the thousands of Shiurim he has shared on YUtorah.org, and the many he has taught throughout his life, our father has impacted people across the globe, and in doing so, educated his children on what it means to live a meaningful life, and to contribute to build the world of Torah study.
Upon moving to Israel, our father was elated that he would now have the opportunity to teach Tanach in a seminary in Jerusalem. The thought of exploring the life of Dovid HaMelech, in the city Dovid selected as his capital, was an overwhelming and emotional thought. A life long dream for our father.
On his first day traveling from Modiin, their new home, to Yerushalayim, our father took the train that crossed on a bridge, high over the Ayalon valley in central Israel, bringing its passengers to Yerushalahim in 22 minutes. He called each of us while aboard the train, with tears in his eyes, noting that it was in Emek Ayalon that Yehoshua stopped the sun, and now he is traveling, as if on the wings of eagles, into Jerusalem, high over that same valley.
His joy, his passion, and his faith, has been the greatest gift he has has given us and his many students, and we pray that both our parents, live in good health and happiness in the Holy Land, continuing to care for the many people who learn with them, and are inspired by his passion for God’s Torah, people and land.
About 20 years ago, our father began to study a page of Talmud a day. Every decade or so we ask him how much more time is left until he completes studying the entire Talmud, to which he usually responds that he completed the Talmud another time a little while ago. With no fanfare, and a full soul, our father has taught thousands of students across the world what it means to be passionate about Torah study. For the three of us who have been blessed to have him as our father, we are forever grateful for his dignity, humility and grace and for his investment and commitment to us.
What might have been had Yona walked into Nineveh not as a prophet of doom but as a cultivator of souls? What might have been had Yona seen the opportunity to demonstrate for the people of Nineveh what it means to be connected with God and to have a relationship with him? What might have been had Yona stayed in Nineveh and supported their growth? Tragically the people of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire will later go on to destroy the First Temple.
We, and many thousands of his students have been blessed throughout the years to listen to the teachings, and lessons of our father and to be inspired by his quiet and resolute commitment to living an inspiring and meaningful life. If each of us had to identify a singular reason for why we work in Jewish Education today, it would likely be because of our father, our teacher, and his dedication to Torah study and learning.
May both our parents, Machla and Rabbi Ian Shaffer, go from strength to strength, birthday to birthday, and continue their vibrant, passionate work for many years to come.
The above was written in honor and celebration of the 70th birthday of, moreinu vrabeinu avinu, our father and teacher, Rabbi Ian Shaffer, ‘yibadeh lechayim tovim’
By his children, Elisheva Shaffer Levitt, Yaeli Shaffer Sokolic and Yechiel Shaffer
Elisheva Shaffer Levitt is a proud mother of three, and is the elementary school principal of Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore, MD
Yaeli Shaffer Sokolic is a proud mother of three, and is the director of admissions for Politz Academy in Cherry Hill, NJ
Yechiel Shaffer is a proud father of three, and is the founding campus rabbi of the Jewish Leadership Academy in Miami, FL