After reviewing the story of Yonah with the insights of our Sages, I see it contains a fascinating and compelling message. So this year, I’ll be sure to fight my drooping eyelids and pay attention to the Haftorah of Yonah. Let me to share with you some of my findings:
The Prophet Yonah lived towards the end of the First Temple era. He was dispatched by G-d to go to Ninveh, a completely non-Jewish city to call upon them to repent for their sins. Yonah felt that if he succeeded in bringing the non-Jews to repentance, it would cast an unfavorable light on the Jews, who were continually warned by their prophets to repent, yet turned a deaf ear to them.
To avoid further instruction from G-d about this mission, Yonah boarded a ship and left the Land of Israel since prophecy is not communicated outside the holy land. A day into the trip, a massive storm enveloped his ship. The crew and passengers noticing that all other ships sailing around them were sailing peacefully realized that there was something or someone on board that was causing such rage.
They all began praying to their gods to no avail. The captain surveyed the belly of the ship and found Yonah fast asleep. He woke him and chastised him for not calling to his G-d. Yonah then admitted that he was running away from G-d and they should toss him into the sea. They were reluctant to do so. Upon his insistence, and after drawing lots and picking Yonah, they dipped him into the sea and the storm immediately let up. They withdrew him from the waters and the storm began again. After they tried this a third time and the same thing happened, they threw Yonah overboard.
G-d was not through with Yonah. A large fish, designated for this from the six days of creation, swallowed Yonah. Yonah still wanted to die, rather than pray to G-d for salvation. The Medrash relates that Yonah was kept alive in the belly of the fish like an embryo, sustained through Manna that was provided for the fish.
Through the fish’s eyes, Yonah was able to see all the ancient aquatic sights; the Red sea, the opening to Hell, and the super large Leviatan fish. They traveled through the inner waterways of the globe and at one point the fish told Yonah that they were currently directly beneath the Temple in Jerusalem. At this point Yonah asked the fish to stop and he prayed to G-d for assistance. G-d instructed Yonah to go to Ninveh and report that if they do not repent, Ninveh would be destroyed within forty days. Yonah agreed. At this point the fish spat him out and he landed at the port of Ninveh.
As he appeared, the ship that he had been traveling on docked and the travelers immediately realized the miracle that had happened to Yonah. They spread the word that Yonah was a miraculous person whose mission and word should be heeded. All of the passengers on the ship eventually returned to Israel and converted to Judaism.
The people of Ninveh, including the king, listened to Yonah and they all repented and were spared.
The story ends with Yonah becoming depressed and wishing his life to end so that he would not witness Israel’s penalty for not repenting in stark contrast to the repentance of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Ninveh. G-d chastised Yonah for not recognizing the power of the repentance of the 120,000 inhabitants of Ninveh.
The Medrash records that Yonah finally came around, and admitted to the power of G-d’s mercy and forgiveness.
A couple of lessons that can be gleaned from Yonah: If one tries to evade G-d, no matter how many miracles and messages He provides to wake him up, if he is determined to avoid G-d, he will be successful. However, there comes a point when something clicks and one is overcome by a feeling of connection with the Almighty. Yonah teaches us to seize that moment – which can positively change the course of one’s life. There is no better and conducive day to tap into this feeling than when we stand before G-d on the holy day of Yom Kippur.
Wishing you a meaningful and inspirational Fast!
Rabbi Dovid and Malki Saks and family