On Yom Kippur, towards the end of the day, we read the story of Yonah. What is Yonah’s particular relevance to the themes of the day?
Yonah is striking for it’s themes of disobeying God and repentance. Yonah refuses to betray the Jewish people by aiding their enemies, and flees. He run specifically because he knows that God forgives. His prophecy is that Ninveh has forty days til it is destroyed, yet he knows this is only true on the current facts. When the facts change, the results change. This is why we say that repentance, prayer, and charity can avert the evil of the decree.
Perhaps Yonah’s themes indicate a good model for how we think about teshuva. The sailors, who would do anything rather than cast an innocentt overboard, could do teshuva. The people of Ninveh, Israel’s enemies, could do teshuva. Even for pagan simpletons, teshuva is accessible.
Are our standards of what teshuva is, and who it is available to, overly complicated?
More importantly, they listened. Someone told them they had to step up, and they took this call to action seriously. Yonah knew what would happen when people listened. If Ninveh could do teshuva, at a time when the Jewish people would not listen to him, he knew they would attack Israel. He said just just five words, and the impact just five words made on Ninveh, and the impact on history, was massive. Five words that were listened to were more effective than a lifetime serving his own people, who wouldn’t listen, the reason he received his mission in the first place.
Our understandings may be sophisticated, but do we take calls to action so seriously?
Curiously, God never tells Yonah off for disobeying Him by running away. The nature of a warning prophecy is that it’s not supposed to come true. It is a warning not to continue the current path; the prophecy is a fork, showing the end of one road. A successful prophecy is one that doesn’t come true. This shows something powerful. Yonah’s prophecy shows that God doesn’t want to show justice. God wants to show mercy.
Yonah rejected his mission, because he foresaw that if he succeeded, the Jewish people would get justice for it’s sins and evil ways. When forced to complete the mission, he laments this.
God doesn’t tell him he shouldn’t have run. God uses a metaphor to teach Yonah a powerful concept called solipsism – a selfish point of view, where everything revolves around the view holder’s perspective.
Yonah was dying in the desert and wanted to die. A plant grew to shelter him; at which Yonah recovered, and rejoiced. The plant then died as quickly as it grew, and Yonah lamented his situation, and wanted to die again.
God then speaks to Yonah, and calls him out on his solipsism. God shows how selfish Yonah was being, and the same is true for us. It’s selfish and hypocritical to want mercy for ourselves on the one hand, and justice for our enemies on the other. To ask for forgiveness, yet deny it to our enemies is solipsistic.
Today is an opportunity to ask for mercy, not justice. For everyone, not just ourselves and those we love. This also poses a significant challenge about how we judge others; would our assessment be different if the tables were turned?
In all, the story leaves us with many pertinent challenges. Do we understand how easily everyone can improve? Do we take calls to action seriously? Do we judge others as favourable as ourselves?
With these provocative thoughts, we move into the crescendo of Yom Kippur’s finale.