One of the highlights of the Yom Kippur experience is the reading of Jonah, a book containing profound lessons for the holiest day of the year. God calls upon Jonah to implore the city of Ninveh to repent. Jonah refuses to do so, and believes he can escape God by sailing out to sea. Why should this prophet have found that mission so objectionable?
We must remember that Ninveh was the capital of Assyria, then the archenemy of Israel. Indeed, Assyria defeated the Ten Tribes, sending them into exile. Jonah cannot understand why God is interested in Assyria’s repentance. After all, as long as the Jews have more merits than the Assyrians, the chances of an Israeli victory in battle are far greater.
A raging storm develops at sea, and the sailors on Jonah’s ship determine that Jonah is responsible for the storm [Jonah 1:4-7]. It is fascinating to note that water is both the major symbol of the Book of Jonah as well as the major symbol of this Tishrei month of festivals.
Water is both the symbol of life, as well as destruction; no life can survive without water. The Bible begins, “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” [Genesis 1:2], as well as “there was darkness on the face of the tehom,” with “tehom” usually translated as the depth of the cavernous waters of the netherworld. And it was, after all, the waters of the Flood that threatened to destroy the world.
At the same time, the Mishna tells us that the Festival of Sukkot is when God judges our merit for the life-giving rain that enables fruit and vegetation to provide sustenance for the coming year [Rosh HaShanah 1:2]. Rain is a symbol of God’s gracious bounty.
As the Prophet Ezekiel says in words that we repeat during the Yom Kippur prayers, “And I shall sprinkle upon you the waters of purification and you shall become pure” [Ezekiel 36:25]. On Shemini Atzeret, when we thank God for rain, we acknowledge that God’s waters bring physical sustenance as well as spiritual purity; the combination of the two brings Redemption.
It goes even one step deeper. It is on Shemini Atzeret when we begin praising God as the One who “causes the winds to blow and the rains to flow.” These words of praise are incorporated into the Amidah blessing about God, “Who causes the dead to live again.” God’s purifying waters can even revive us from death and bring us eternal life.
Jonah is cast overboard into the raging waters. He has challenged God, endeavoring to escape his Divine mission, and is therefore worthy of death. God, however, in His infinite compassion, sends a whale, a creature of the water, to follow Jonah and bring him back to life. As Jonah says, “I called, in my distress, to God and He answered me. From the belly of the grave, I cried out. You heard my voice. You cast me into the depth of the heart of the sea… your waves passed over me… yet You lifted my life from the pit, O Lord my God” [Jonah 2:3-7].
God’s waters almost destroyed Jonah, and God’s water-creature saved his life.
Assyria, which has been so evil and destructive, can and must make a complete turnaround if the world is to be redeemed. God is teaching that He is willing to overlook the evil Assyria has committed if she will indeed repent.
Jonah refuses to accept this. He is, after all, the son of Amitai, a name derived from emet (truth). Truth demands that evil never be overlooked; evil must be punished.
This is precisely how Jonah explains why he refused God’s mission: “…for this reason I hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil” [Jonah 4:2]. After all, God describes Himself as being “abundant in lovingkindness and truth” [Exodus 34:6].
It seems that Jonah has forgotten that his first name (“Yonah”) means dove, and that just as the dove was saved from the Flood so was Yonah undeservedly saved from the raging waters. The Compassionate One thus teaches the vital lesson that anyone who truly repents (returns) from his sins can benefit from God’s life-giving purity.
May we all merit to earn that gift this Yom Kippur.