Yom Kippur: Jonah – a Davar Acheir

One of the biblical texts traditionally read on Yom Kippur is the book of Jonah in its entirety. This only seems daunting; Jonah is four chapters long, and the chapters are really quite short in comparison to the typical chapter in the Torah.

Most people probably know Jonah as the guy who was swallowed by a whale (though the text uses the Hebrew word dag, which means “fish”). But the “point” of Jonah is not the fish tale.

The text tells a story whereby Jonah receives instruction from Yahweh to go to Nineveh and tell the people there that Yahweh has seen them sinning and will punish them; this is kind of like telling a country bumpkin to go to New York City-cum-Washington, D.C., and tell everyone how bad they are, expecting them to repent. (Spoiler alert: they do. But that’s not even the only point of the story!)

Jonah decides that he doesn’t want to do this. Instead of going to Nineveh, he hops a boat to Tarshish (someplace far, far away). But, Yahweh being all-powerful, this doesn’t work; Yahweh causes the sea to roil the boat until it seems like the boat will sink. Jonah eventually fesses up about running from his duties, and has the sailors throw him into the sea.

But before he does this, even as the boat is being tossed and seems ready to be torn apart–as the crew is praying, each person to his nation’s god–Jonah does something odd.

In chapter 1, verse 5, Jonah descends into the ship’s hold and goes to sleep.

I hadn’t thought much about this bit–it’s only five verses into the text, and Jonah strikes such an unsympathetic figure throughout the story that it’s easy not to give it too much thought. And long story short, Jonah remains an unrepentant jerk even at the end.

But today, for whatever reason, I was reading closely enough to catch that little detail and wonder about it. What did the author of the text think Jonah was doing at that moment? The text is so laconic–we know only that Jonah was a prophet–that it’s hard to know what to think.

Popping open the volume of Mikraot Gedolot that includes Jonah, I found (in my edition) only one commentator who mentioned this part of the verse. Ibn Ezra noted this oddity, too, and commented:

“He laid down and went to sleep”: on account of the troubled and raging sea; perhaps [the water] would not enter below in the boat.

This is not really an explanation. I mean, okay, if you’re taking a nap above deck and it starts to rain, sure, go below deck. But that’s not what is happening here. Jonah–knowing the boat is troubled, knowing the sailors are crying out to their national gods, and knowing (for purposes of the narrative) who is making this happen–heads below deck to take a nap.

Ibn Ezra’s explanation, frankly, falls flat. This isn’t a period where Jonah is hanging around on the Love Boat and would be a hindrance to efforts to keep the ship seaworthy; this is a wood boat, made with tar and pitch, traveling on an open sea somewhere. The sailors throw merchandise overboard to avoid sinking.

Jonah is nowhere to be found. Rather, he is; but he’s decided to take a snooze, knowing what’s going on!

So, davar acheir – another interpretation. From a literary perspective, Jonah never develops as a character; he remains remarkably selfish. We can see the nap as of a piece with his existing character.

But it’s of a piece not only with Jonah’s bad character, but also of the apparent reason he refused to travel to Nineveh in the first place. For, as we discover reading further on, Jonah doesn’t want the Ninevites to repent and bemoan’s Yahweh’s decision to save Nineveh. This is not a small point in the story; it’s actually more or less the purpose of the whole thing, to show that atonement is widely available. Jonah’s refusal to travel to Nineveh would have deprived the city of its chance to repent and avoid Yahweh’s wrath.

So, let’s consider again. Yahweh tells Jonah to go save the Ninevites from sin; rather than do so, Jonah flees to Tarshish. Knowing the boat is in trouble, he goes to sleep without telling anyone why the boat is troubled–something he clearly knows a few verses later. (And if we assume the text’s author didn’t believe in the efficacy of any other god, we can probably assume that Jonah in the author’s mind would have had the same opinion). Jonah doesn’t say anything to anyone until the ship’s captain–the guy who should be coordinating the efforts to save the boat–has to wake him and ask Jonah to help. As a reader of this narrative, imagine what happens if no one wakes Jonah.

Another davar acheir: Jonah’s not just a jerk. Jonah as a character is willing to die to see Nineveh punished, and is willing to see others die in aid of his efforts. It is only when he fails in this effort that he does what, from the author’s perspective, he was supposed to do.

I could wrap this up by suggesting that we always remain aware of the pull of the particular against the universal, and to be mindful of when we should lean one way or the other. But I think we can take something more direct, and more personal from Jonah’s example: selfishness and parochialism have the potential to be so destructive that they erode not only the outside, but the inside as well.

A consideration I put out into the ether as many of our fellow Jews shuffle back to synagogue once more for the closing Ne’ilah service of Yom Kippur.

L’shana tova.

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