Forget Jonah. What about that Fish?

Rachel Petroff Kessler
September 13, 2012
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It has been my experience that when studying the Book of Jonah, most of our attention falls on who else but Jonah himself? Like many of our Biblical characters, Jonah can serve as an enlightening and sometimes uncomfortable mirror on our own lives. It’s easy to read Jonah uncharitably (especially when we try to distill the text into a simple morality tale), but if we’re honest with ourselves (as we ought to be this time of year), Jonah’s behavior is likely to seem awfully familiar. It is true, I’ve never jumped on a boat or plane to escape a task I didn’t want to do, but I am skilled at putting off undesirable tasks, I am sometimes reluctant to speak out when I’m not sure how it will be received, and I have been known to be jealous of those who didn’t get the comeuppance I thought they deserved.

This year however, I must confess that my attention is pulled away from Jonah and diverted to a character that I have previously considered more as an object than a subject: the giant fish.  It probably comes as no surprise that at nearly 38 weeks pregnant I am captivated by a being who took Jonah deep within its belly, protecting him from the dangers of the sea until God determined it was time for Jonah to return to dry land. I wonder, was the fish aware of Jonah? Did he fit so snuggly within the fish that his presence was impossible to ignore and left the fish feeling heavy and sluggish? Or was it more like Disney’s imagining of Pinocchio and Gepetto inside the whale – so small that they simply drifted about and the whale hardly noticed them?

The fish protected Jonah while also placing limitations on his physical movement. The dark space, the days of quiet and constriction, all allow Jonah to reach a new level of emotional and spiritual maturity and carry out his God-given mission. Was the fish aware of the role she was playing in helping fulfill his mission? Was she aware that her role was sacred in its own right?

Sometimes I feel that, ironically enough, this time of year leads me to be a bit self-centered as I engage in reflection and commit myself to making better choices in the year ahead. I wonder what it would mean for us as individuals and communities to strive to be more like the fish: to be focused on creating spaces where others can be safe, where they can grow, where they can take just one step closer to fulfilling their purpose in the world.

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Rachel Petroff Kessler is the Family Educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland. Originally from upstate New York, Rachel has worked as a Jewish educator in a variety of settings, including Hillel at Binghamton, Kutz: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Rachel graduated from HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education in April 2010 with a Masters in Religious Education and was a summer fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in 2009.


  1. Rachel —
    Shana Tova to all of you … Mom sent us the link to your blog and it’s just beautiful.
    Awaiting your wonderful with warm thoughts for a sweet year filled with joy and blessings,
    Patty Liss Greenspan

    Posted by
    Patty Liss Greenspan
  2. My question is do we best accomplish this through tzim-tzum – making space for them by stepping back,or by stepping closer and enveloping them?

    Posted by
    iris koller
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