Honesty on our Journey

Matt Shapiro
September 30, 2012
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When my wife was pregnant, like many first time parents, we had a tough time picking a name for our son. We wanted to name him after my uncle, Jonathan, who had passed away somewhat recently. We wanted, in all honesty, a name that’s both deeply Jewish and “passable” as American (we had a strict no “ch” rule). And, of course, we wanted the name to be meaningful. Eventually, we picked Jonah as his name. Looking at the prophet’s story on first glance, Jonah seems to be fearful, grumpy and stubborn, not exactly an ideal role model for a child (even if he would then have much in common with his father).

Yet, I see a realness in the character of Jonah, in the great tradition of so many Biblical figures who we both revere and learn from. Even with his flaws, through Jonah’s story, we gain insight into how we ourselves can build a relationship with God in the world. This seems to be surprising, since Jonah’s initial response to God’s call is to flee ASAP. But how many other prophets over the course of the Tanakh run when summoned by God, only to eventually fulfill their mission? It seems, if anything, Jonah’s response is the typical one.  There is both fear and responsibility when God’s voice echoes in the world; I can only speak for myself, but when I am called to do something in my life that I know must be done, as often as not, my first impulse is not to embrace it, but to run from it. Our obligations, frequently, terrify us; this text examines how to take them on.

Even when we take on our duties in full, the results are not necessarily what one would want them to be. The book of Jonah ends on a question that we all must answer. It asks, in a sense, are we worthy of forgiveness when we repent, regardless of what we have done? The implied answer of the book, appropriately enough for Yom Kippur, is an unequivocal yes, in God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites, despite their initial wickedness. But, in our minds and our hearts, like Jonah, we know the answer is much more complicated, so it’s no wonder that he rails against God for the way things turn out. How do we know the people of Nineveh won’t just turn around and go back to their old, evil ways now that their decree has been lifted? How do we know we won’t go back to our old habits, our destructive paths once Yom Kippur is over and the books are sealed?

The truth is, we don’t. We can take action to do our best, and we may still fall short, which is infuriating. But the message at the end of the book, within God’s question, is one of forgiveness and love. Aren’t we all worthy of forgiveness? I hope giving my son the name Jonah encourages him to ask hard questions, like Jonah; I also hope the difference is that, unlike the biblical Jonah, he’s able to hear that loving answer. After all, hearing a loving answer can be tougher to hear than a punishment. Hopefully we will be able to bring with us the honesty that Jonah shares every step along his way to bring us, individually and as a community, into a closer, more truthful relationship with God.

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Matt Shapiro lives in Los Angeles, California and works as a spiritual counselor at Beit T'shuvah, a Jewish residential addiction treatment center. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, with a BA in Jewish Studies, and is working toward his ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

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