This afternoon, our haftarah will be the book of Jonah. It's a book we don't usually think deeply about. How DO we take it seriously? It is the biggest fish story of all!
It's a great story for kids, especially since we seem to focus on the most unique part of the story: Jonah is swallowed by a big fish.
It makes for a fun, entertaining story,
great opportunities for kids to draw fish pictures
and now, there's an app. The app is a game with a simple challenge: Jonah must outrun God.
In Sunday school, the kids had a great time playing. And they happily bragged about how many cubits they managed to run. But when asked if they could outrun God -- of course they couldn't.
That made created a great launching point for them to learn Jonah's story. But the game isn't just for children.
The game challenges us all. Do we find ourselves a bit like Jonah -- trying unsuccessfully to outrun God?
After all, book of Jonah sets the tone for the afternoon and evening of Yom Kippur. For Jonah, even when events seem comical, we have a profound story that resonates with meaning.
Jonah's story opens starkly: 1 And the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.
Jonah son of Amitai is a known prophet. He is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. Therefore, we would expect him to obey God. He might not be happy about his mission -- a number of prophets expressed reluctance to God. But prophets don't flat refuse. And when they had misgivings, they express them to God.
Not Jonah. He has no answer. He simply ... fled -- 3. to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord...
Where was Tarshish? Scholars don't know the exact location, only that it was in the opposite direction of Ninevah.
Jonah -- a prophet no less-- tried to run away from the Creator. God said arise, but instead he went down to the port city of Jaffa. He immediately found a boat going to Tarshish, paid his fare, and boarded.
As we read Jonah's story, we shake our heads. That poor man, so misguided, what was he thinking? Didn't he know that:
God is everywhere
that He always pays attention
and that He is all-knowing, which means we cannot possibly hide from His presence...'
Just in case we didn't already know this, we'd learn it from a mishnah, which teaches: "Consider three things and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you: an eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in the Book."
But ... we know this, we hear this ... but how many of us really believe it?
DO WE act as if God is watching us? Do we even care?
Are any of us different from Jonah? Sure, God wanted him to go to Ninevah. But Jonah didn't want to. He did as he wished. End of story?
Obviously, it's not the end of the story because Jonah's story takes more than three verses. But for many of us, that's as far as it gets. Or ... as far as we think it gets.
Jonah denotes a critical nexus between the doctrines of free will and Gods commands. Yes, the Kadosh Baruch Hu endowed us with free will but, at the same time, does make demands on us. For instance, briefly,
taking care of ourselves
while being kind to others, and helping as needed
and never forgetting that we are integral parts of a community.
Next to Jonah's mission, this seems easy. Doesn't it?
Jonah's story really didn't end with his escape. The same is true when we try hiding from God's teaching. Our stories also go on ... and our consequences arise from our own behavior.
Now, back to Jonah. The ship to Tarshish was pretty quickly rocked by major storms. We can guess Who sent the storm and why. The sailors scurried around trying to keep the ship from capsizing. Jonah simply went down into the hold and fell asleep.
This is the second time the story tells us that Jonah went down. In his attempt to flee, he keeps going downward.
Meanwhile, Jonah has no real goal. His ONLY motivation: escaping God. His sleeping hints that he has no goals ..... and no real wish to live.
Finally, the ship's captain woke up the traveller. Everyone aboard had tried everything they knew to save the ship. They did everything possible and then cried out and prayed to their gods. Maybe Jonah could get up and at least pray to his own god?
Just as Jonah didn't answer God, he didn't answer the captain. So the men reluctantly used the surest way possible to knew to determine the cause of the storm and if someone had brought it on. They cast lots. They determined that the fault lay with Jonah.
Today, we don't blame random events of nature on either God or people. This story takes such license -- because Jonah is clearly avoiding God and duty.
The sailors asked Jonah who he was, where he came from, why this was all happening. He told them he was a Hebrew, that he feared Adonai, the creator of sea and dry land.
The men asked what they could do to calm the seas. His answer was calm and simple: "Lift me up, and throw me into the sea; then the sea will calm down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great tempest is upon you."
Take a moment and digest that. Jonah would rather drown then face God!
The men tried their best to avoid taking Jonah's advice, and finally, they reluctantly threw him overboard.
And let's go back to the language and events. Jonah didn't offer to jump overboard. He told the men to lift him. and the throw him into the sea. And for the third time, Jonah went down -- into the sea.
In Scripture, up and down show more than physical direction. They carry deep spiritual meaning. The more Jonah tried escaping, the deeper his descent.
Was this a man calmly submitting to certain death, or a metaphor of a person trying to escape coming to terms with his own true nature?
God could have been angry and washed His hands of this troublesome process. Instead, He sent a big fish to rescue Him.
Finally, after three days inside the fish, Jonah the prophet thought to pray. He said: 8 When my soul fainted inside me I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. 9 Those who pay regard to lying vanities forsake their loyalty. 10 But I will sacrifice to you with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation belongs to the Lord.
As a result of Jonah's prayer: 11 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
Jonah will go on to fulfill - reluctantly - his mission, openly quarrel with God, and in the end, better understand God. Because of Jonah, the people of Ninevah will repent.
We look to this story and see that just as Ninevah repented, so can we. But even more important than the city's teshuvah - we must look at the relationship between God and Jonah.
Jonah's initial beef with the God resulted from God's compassion! In Jonah's eyes, justice had to include punishment. Jonah feared that warn Ninevah to repent -- and they would. And further, God would treat them with compassion and they'd face no punishment at all. Jonah was right. That's exactly what happened.
But we have a less than explicit component of Jonah's story. God never punished Jonah.
Jonah - who should have known better -- thought he knew better than God how to treat Nineveh. So he ran away. And the further he ran, the more he spiritually descended. He was even willing to die, until he found himself trapped in a fish - not fully also be, but not dead - in a spiritual netherworld. In his distress, Jonah finally cried out to God.
IF the Kadosh Baruch Hu wanted to punish sinners, he could have easily done so to Jonah. Here we had God's own spokesman in open defiance!
In our liturgy, we describe God as waiting patiently for the sinner to change his ways. Here, the prophet Jonah sinned egregiously.
God did not punish but waited for Jonah to recognize his own obligations and Gods presence.
Jonah wanted God to punish Nineveh but was slow - very slow -- to recognize his own wrongdoing.
Just as WE can recognize Jonah's sins as well as the sins of Nineveh, so must we recognize our own wrongdoing - and just as importantly, that we do wrong without realizing it...
Like Jonah, we all have to stop running from God. Instead, we can run to Him!
Today - on this holy day - let us celebrate Gods love and compassion so that we may face Him with gratitude for His desire to forgive - and with our souls renewed.