Which Yonah?

Rabbi Dan Shevitz
September 19, 2012
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So, when I was asked to blog about Yonah, for some reason I thought “which Yonah?”  There’s Yonah the Prophet: morose, laconic, depressed, suicidal, insulated, as all the Shma authors have illustrated. But then there’s Yonah the Bird, the dove sent out from Noah’s floating Box (a better translation for tevah than “ark”).  Yonah the Bird is a happier figure. She is the sign of peace almost everywhere, and always has something ready to eat in her mouth.

That Yonah the Prophet should have some affinity for his eponymous avian is understandable.  Does not his book end with a nod to the worthiness of the beasts?  But more than that:  they share a fate. They are survivors.  They both have formative experience on a boat; they both had a vegetable prominently featured in their stories. And their stories are not finished.

Yonah the Bird lives for a year inside the belly of a man made sanctuary, saving her, inter alia, from the ravages of the flood. Outside is death, inside is cramped but safe.  She flies up to the window, looks outside and wonders, when will it end? But then back her columbary and mate (she must have had a mate) and routine. You can get used to this, she muses. Not much room to soar, but then, how much soaring do I really need? Safe is better than sorry.

Yonah the Prophet is also secure in his living sanctuary.  A favorite midrash suggests than he only started praying on the third day when he was ignominiously transferred from a male to a female fish (he started out in a dag, but prayed from a dagah).  For the first couple of days he was just happy to be dry. And alone. Away from people, away from God, away from work.  Only when his surroundings became cramped and putrid (as Rabbi Feinstein delightfully teaches) did he start to open up. But even then, he is not asking for escape. He offers thanks for the safety of his digs. Cozy but safe. How much room do I really need, anyway?

Both Yonahs are ejected from their safe retreat: time to get back to work. I bet they would have been happier to stay inside.  Yonah the Bird is instructed: survey the destruction, and bring evidence that wrath has been exhausted and that humanity can recover from its wicked paths.  She brings the twig back, and then she is gone.  First one off the boat.  She has learned to think outside the Box.

Brief digression: the Septuagint’s Greek translation of the Hebrew word for the bird’s twig is karpas, meaning fruit or vegetable. It’s an unusual word. By naming the Passover herb with this Greek term, did the rabbis evoke the story of the Flood to invite us to consider that we, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, are also survivors?

Yonah the Prophet has been has been saved from the jaws of the abyss, and does not like what he has learned: wrath is eventually exhausted and spirit is refreshed. Professionally, this is bad news. A prophet whose prophecy of doom is unfulfilled will be thought a fool. He has more to learn. The theology of punishment must yield to one of compassion. He learns this by loving and losing a vegetable, his sheltering vine.

Yonah the Bird plucks her vegetable to prove that wrath has been expended and life bounces back. But she does not stay with the boat. She leaves; to where?  We are not told; her story is unfinished. She knows her past is gone. She will not return to her columbary or mate or to any of her antediluvian familiarities. The world she inhabits now is forever changed. Rainbows notwithstanding, destruction, dislocation, and senseless punishment are real, and all promises are conditional.  Her future is with an unknown world blossoming with possibilities.

The story of Yonah the Prophet is also a cliffhanger. We shout at the book: what happens next?  Does he stay in Nineveh and become a blogger?   He too will not be restored to his antediluvian life. He will not return, I think, to be a prophet in Israel. He has discovered that not only God can change God’s mind, but people – archtypical villains line the people of Nineveh – can change, too.  This Yonah must find not only a new theology, he must find a new job. And he will have to learn new skills.

Both Yonahs have to retool. I like to think they will both have a propensity for gardening.

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Rabbi Dan Shevitz serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, California, just two blocks from the beach. He previously served Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City and as Hillel director and Jewish chaplain at MIT in Cambridge, MA. He teaches Talmud in the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism). Rabbi Dan is Av Bet Din (president of the court) of the Southern California Community Bet Din, a pluralistic community court for conversion to Judaism, and has served the community as a chaplain for the Los Angeles Police Department. He is a mesadder gittin – a rabbi trained to write and supervise Jewish divorce documents – certified by the Rabbinical Assembly and serves as Av Bet Din for the Pacific Southwest region. He is a licensed private pilot, motorcyclist, and has apprenticed as an auto mechanic with Tom and Ray Magliozzi in Cambridge (of "Car Talk" on National Public Radio). He has flirted with many instruments over the years, and still can be heard entertaining the children on the accordion every Friday at the Mishkon Tephilo pre-school. He is also a timpanist, which he studied with Aaron Smith, and is principal percussionist of the Palisades Symphony Orchestra, a community orchestra in Pacific Palisades. He lives in Venice, California with his son Noah and Humuhumunukunuku, a Moluccan Cockatoo.

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