Teachings from a Reluctant Prophet

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September 3, 2012
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Susan Laemmle

Over the centuries, the book of Jonah has generated many meaningful interpretations. We draw upon them each Yom Kippur. Midrash has always been able to generate spiritual sparks when rubbed against biblical stories. Today, we mine those lessons that speak to the pressures and conflicts we struggle with personally. Here, I offer eight teachings that have come to me after decades of studying and thinking about this book.

1) It’s better to face a difficult situation directly than to try to evade it. Real responsibilities cannot be easily ignored or escaped. Passive-aggressive behavior is at its core aggressive — filled with anger, cruel and dangerous. Not expressing feelings directly to others, or figuring them out for oneself, creates great pressure, both within and beyond oneself.

2) Jonah’s words and actions give us permission to doubt. We don’t fully understand the process of teshuvah (repentance) even when we value and engage in it. Jonah, in effect, voices our doubts about self-transformation just as Yom Kippur is drawing to a close. Almost all of us have some of Jonah within ourselves.

3) Letting depression take one to the depths can be a choice, though often it is not. Affirming life requires moral courage, more for some people than for others. Reaching out, though difficult (especially to someone who is depressed) can help a great deal. Jonah’s loneliness — which is generated by his flight from God and human beings — takes him down, down, down.

4) For most people, in most situations, there is no depth of despair from which we cannot arise and return. Life often gives us second chances to do better. In Chapter 3, God’s direct intervention grants Jonah another chance to accept his prophetic role. For us to actualize second chances, we need to take risks and stretch ourselves.

5) It is dangerous to take oneself too seriously and identify too zealously with any particular role. If problems arise in performing that role, one’s life loses purpose and meaning. Jonah lost hold of who he thought he was (a God-fearing person) when he fled; even more, when God pardoned Nineveh. We should know that nothing we do or don’t do, nothing we take on or fail to take on, nothing we believe or disbelieve, encompasses all of who we are.

6) We need to defend not only our
personal and national interests but also larger humanist values. God’s great statement at the end of the book rejects narrow parochialism. Jonah divides his world into two camps: us and them, the good guys and the bad, Israel and everybody else. The lessons of universalism and global caring need to be constantly reiterated.

7) It is easy to tire of our endless, less-than-perfect, compromised existence. It is easy to run out of words, patience, and pity for the Ninevahs and the Jonahs of this world. But Judaism teaches us to “choose life” — to choose it in a manner that is both realistic and idealistic, to keep choosing it even when there are no definitive victories. This is a lesson that God learns during the flood, and that we need to keep relearning.

8) In God’s speech that concludes the book of Jonah, we learn the value and power of children and other living things. Children depend on competent adults to lead the way; they demand that we make sacrifices and
hard choices.

Jonah eventually fulfills the job for which he was drafted. But he grows into the prophetic role more slowly and imperfectly than towering figures like Moses and Jeremiah. Thus, he’s far more of an “everyman” than they, which enlarges our capacity to identify with him and learn through him.  To echo Melville, “Call me Jonah.”

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Rabbi Susan Laemmle is editor of the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, a publication of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. She served as dean of religious life at the University of Southern California from 1996 to 2008, and she was USC’s Hillel director from 1992 to 1996. Laemmle holds a doctorate in English.

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