I’M OUTTA HERE! – a Yom Kippur message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Only a prophet can expect a direct communication from G-d. Right? And when he gets one, he needs to follow instructions. But what if he doesn’t?
A special privilege in our synagogues on Yom Kippur afternoon is the honor of reading Maftir Yonah, the famous story of Jonah. Not just Jonah and the Big Fish, maybe not a whale but certainly the best known contact Jonah had. We get to read the whole book. This is the story of a prophet who flees from his task. His own faith is tested four times in this short book, and he fails every time – until he finally succeeds. We hope.
Told to announce the imminent destruction of Nineveh, he takes fright and runs. Face it, Nineveh is the capital of an empire. What might happen to him if he brings them such bad news? So he finds a ship heading the other way and buys passage. No sooner underway, the ship is buffeted by a gale. The crew of that ship includes various types of pagans, all of whom are equally terrified of the storm. All the sailors pray for relief, each addressing his own deity, and the captain finds Jonah – fast asleep. Knowing that Jonah is fleeing from the Hebrew G-d, the crew proceeds to pray to the Hebrew G-d. And throw Jonah overboard. Immediately, the sea calms. So the ship’s crew accepts G-d. And the fish swallows Jonah. Still Jonah lives. He even prays to be saved and promises to fulfill his mission.
After the fish coughs up Jonah on the beach near Nineveh, Jonah continues to accept his mission and sets out on foot into the city. He makes his fearful announcement. The people believe him as delivering G-d’s message. The king proclaims a fast and puts on sackcloth. He decrees a Day of Atonement, and his people observe it, vowing to stop their violence and their evil. Their prayers are heard. Their city is saved.
Happy ending? Not for Jonah. His dire prediction did not happen. He is still fleeing. So in effect he tells Nineveh “I’m outta here” and goes out of town to die. The sun is hot enough to kill him, maybe, but G-d provides a gourd to give him shade. He enjoys the shade and seems to be changing his mind about death. Maybe even “choosing life” as we are all urged to do in our Torah. And then a worm eats the root of the gourd, the sun beats down, and Jonah gets angry and prays to die. The Divine answer he gets can be our message too: “Are you doing well to be angry about the gourd? You did not work for it; you did not raise it. It grew overnight, and it perished overnight. Should I not spare Nineveh, that great city of more than 120,000 people?”
Four tests: The ship’s crew turned to G-d, the fish transported Jonah safely, the people of Nineveh turned to G-d, and the gourd saved Jonah. Four failures for Jonah. And at the end of the book we still don’t know if Jonah learned his lesson.
But we can learn ours. Jonah is presented as a prophet who runs away from a mission. Jonah is each Jew who runs away from a Mitzvah.
This Yom Kippur, let’s learn from Nineveh.