On Yom Kippur, we read the well-known story of Jonah and the whale….well, at least the title of the story is familiar to most of us…. But do we really know why the Haftorah portion of Yom Kippur tells this tale?
Jonah was a prophet during the time of Jeroboam II. Jeroboam’s great grandfather - still living at the time his great grandson was king - had been ordained by Jonah. Jeroboam II returned land his father had taken from Judah and the Children of Israel. He even recognized the mutual benefit of a relationship between the two peoples, and the Children of Israel experienced great economic and political security during his time.
The wealth and power led to corruption and exile from a flourishing spiritual life. The prophets of the time appealed to the people to no avail. Jonah, who was one of those prophets, was asked by G-d to redeem the non-Jews – the Assyrians – the enemies to the Children of Israel.
Jonah could not envision such assistance to his foes and attempted to hide from G-d. He set sail on a ship that soon found itself in the midst of a storm. While his shipmates prayed desperately to their gods, Jonah went to sleep.
Jonah realized the storm was caused by his refusal to do as G-d asked. He convinced his fellow sailors that they must throw him overboard, and – in the last minute of their lives- they did. The storm immediately ended.
Jonah was then swallowed by a “big fish”, which we have come to translate as a whale. He spent three days in the belly of the whale, and then Jonah returned to G-d. Jonah prayed, and G-d answered by having the whale deposit Jonah near the town of Nineveh. In Nineveh, Jonah carried out the task of G-d and convinced the people to change their ways.
Countless lessons exist within the story of Jonah before and after he sat in the belly of the big fish. The first being that all people – even those who do bad things – are important and essential in G-d’s world.
Jonah’s complete shut down (going to sleep on the ship in the middle of the chaos) resembles our world and our lives in crisis today. We are choosing to sleep through it. We continue to focus on material things – the wealth and the power – and we have forgotten the essence of life.
While many of us may balk or even shun at the thought of prayer – the question I ask is – what can it hurt? To set aside some time each day to be – grateful for the food on our plates, thankful that we woke up for another day of life, to send our longings for our children out into the world, or to spend time in contemplation evaluating our behavior and our goals for doing better – will not serve us poorly. Jonah’s tale is telling us that our connection to G-d is there whether we acknowledge it or not and that, really, our lives will be better when we actively pursue a relationship with the Almighty.
Were the Shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah enough to awaken you? If not, pay careful attention to the words of Jonah’s story as they are read on Yom Kippur. Before that final blast at the end of Yom Kippur, signaling the sealing of our fate for the upcoming year, we still have an opportunity to redeem ourselves and make a commitment for a better year.