On Yom Kippur, before the conclusion of the day, we read the story of Yonah, who is summoned by God to travel to Nineveh and warn its residents to repent of their sins or face divine wrath.
Instead, he boards a ship and runs away. Caught in a storm, he orders the terrified sailors to cast him overboard, and a giant fish swallows him. Three days later, Yonah agrees to go to Nineveh, and the fish vomits him onto the shore. Yonah convinces the entire city of Nineveh to repent and regretting his mission, attempts to die in the desert. God grows a mysterious plant to shield him, then causes it to wither. When Yonah complains about the plant’s removal, God rebukes him.
What is this story’s particular relevance to the themes of the day?
R’ Jonathan Sack notes that the story tells us to recalibrate who we think is capable of teshuva. Pagan sailors could do teshuva, and even Israel’s enemies could – the people of Nineveh.
When the input changes, the output changes – which is why repentance, prayer, and charity avert an evil decree. Yonah ran away specifically because he knew that God forgives when people listen.
God prefers mercy over justice, as Yonah himself says – כִּי יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה אֵל-חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַל-הָרָעָה.
The nature of a warning prophecy is that it’s not supposed to come true. It is a call to action, warning against continuing in the current direction. A prophecy is a fork, showing the end of one road – a successful prophecy is one that doesn’t come true. The story is about hearing a call to action and taking it seriously.
Teshuva happens when we tune in and listen.
With just five words – עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם, וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת – he made an impact on the people of Nineveh that a lifetime of serving his own people had not. He knew what would happen if the people of Nineveh listened when the Jewish People would not – they would attack Israel, because the Jewish people had rejected the option of mercy, and would instead receive justice.
Yonah knew what would happen when Nineveh listened – God would forgive.
Depressed, Yonah went into the desert hoping to die, so God grew a plant overnight 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 spoke to Yonah, and pointed out the egocentric solipsism of his selfish inability to understand a perspective other than his own:
אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל-הַקִּיקָיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָמַלְתָּ בּוֹ וְלֹא גִדַּלְתּוֹ: שֶׁבִּן-לַיְלָה הָיָה, וּבִן-לַיְלָה אָבָד: וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס, עַל-נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה–אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ-בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים-עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע בֵּין-יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ, וּבְהֵמָה, רַבָּה – You worry about a little plant, which you did not grow or cultivate, which came and went in a single night – should I not worry for the enormous city of Nineveh, home to 120,000 people who don’t know their right from their left, and all their animals? (4:10,11)
It is selfish and hypocritical to want mercy for ourselves but justice for our enemies. We cannot ask for forgiveness for ourselves, yet deny it to others.
With these provocative thoughts, we move into the crescendo of Yom Kippur’s finale.
It is the final opportunity to ask for mercy, not justice. For everyone, not just ourselves.