Disowning Jonah

Rabbi Amitai Adler
September 5, 2012
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By all rights, I really ought to be more sentimental about Jonah. My name is Amitai, and the original Amitai was the father of Jonah– that’s the only time the name appears in Tanach.

But I don’t feel sentimental about Jonah. I really actually can’t stand Jonah.

I know that the book of Jonah is supposed to teach us valuable lessons about teshuvah (repentance) and embracing our responsibilities. And I can’t deny that those things are true. But I am always overwhelmed by what an enormous jackass Jonah is.

Not a lack of gratitude or in running away from his duties as a prophet– that, I totally understand. Relating to God can be scary, responsibilities can be scary, and put the two together…anyone might get on a ship bound for Tarshish instead.

But in being utterly unsympathetic to the teshuvah of the people of Nineveh, Jonah shows himself to be petty, shallow, and bloodthirsty. In becoming annoyed with Hashem for sending him to get the people of Nineveh to do teshuvah when what he (Jonah) really wants is for God to smack down on them with the heavy-duty smiting, Jonah shows himself to be (again) shallow, and cruel, and free of real compassion. In being more concerned with the plant that Hashem causes to grow than with the people, it’s not just that Jonah shows more empathy for a plant than for humans, it’s that he shows more interest in his own comfort than in the lives of others.

The only one of our prophets I like less than Jonah is Elisha, and that’s only because Elisha misuses his God-given powers to cause a bear to kill some children who taunt him for being bald.

I suppose a case can be made that we read Jonah on Yom Kippur davka to teach us that God can and will forgive anyone– not just the Ninevites who do teshuvah, but, presumably, Jonah also, whom God appears inclined to try and teach lessons in hopes of curing his persistent arrogant and narcissistic behavior. And I suppose that if the object lesson is “God forgives,” great reminder. But for the rest of us, and the rest of the time, that doesn’t help us deal with the fact that we human beings ought not to tolerate Jonah’s attitudes in anyone, but doubly so anyone who claims to speak for God.

One of the most enduring problems of human society is that we seem to have a knack for appointing leaders who lack empathy, compassion, and basic decency. We sometimes find this in religious leaders, also– often in other religions, where the religious authority is intertwined with mechanisms of social and political power; but it can be found in Jewish communities’ leadership, too. Perhaps God is and should be endlessly willing to forgive us, and endlessly patient to try and teach us to be better, but that does not and should not mean that we should be similarly patient with authorities who lack empathy and common decency.

Teshuvah is a wonderful thing, and I truly believe that all those who sincerely do teshuvah ought to be forgiven and given another chance. But only after actually having done teshuvah. I would feel infinitely better about Jonah if the book had ended with Jonah himself learning the Ninevites’ lesson and doing teshuvah for how he had acted. But the book does not end with that. It ends with Hashem’s object lesson to teach that very thing to Jonah, and we are left to guess whether Jonah was smart and empathetic enough to take the hint and shape up– and his behavior up to that point in the story doesn’t really give us much hope that he is, in fact, either smart enough or empathetic enough to do so.

I admit, that may be cynical of me. Perhaps Hashem could teach me an object lesson by helping some of our leaders recognize the error of their ways and do teshuvah?

It never hurts to ask….

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