Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before me. But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Jaffa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish… – Jonah 1:1-3
Is there a more singular, better known, or more beloved prophet than Jonah? In him we recognize both the humanity in greatness and the greatness in human frailty. Called by the Lord to speak to the people of Nineveh of their wickedness, Jonah does not rise to the great challenge of godliness like some Hollywood hero. Instead, he responds with the fullness of human frailty; that is, he tries to avoid the call by fleeing.
But it is not his resistance to his calling that makes him unique. For a Hebrew prophet to resist the call of the Lord is di rigueur in our tradition. Even Moses, the greatest prophet of all, tried to “beg off” from the call, suggesting that perhaps his brother Aaron was more suited to the task. No, trying to refuse the role of prophet is not unique to Jonah. What is unique to him and his calling is that he was the only Hebrew prophet called to preach to the nations of the world.
One might think this universal calling would diminish him in the eyes of the Jewish people. After all, why should we concern ourselves with the failings of other peoples when we have more than enough failings among our own? Yet his prophecy and story – a mere forty-eight verses in length – is publicly chanted throughout the Jewish world during the most sacred hours of the year, on Yom Kippur afternoon. So valued are his words that there are Jews who donate thousands and tens of thousands of dollars to their synagogues or other charities just to have the privilege of chanting this most renowned of hafarot – Maftir Yonah.
Jonah’s words capture the fullness of Yom Kippur’s message – that God is the Supreme judge of all. He judges each individual and every nation.
At first glance, this message of absolute judgment seems harsh and frightening. After all, we cherish our secrets, our sins we would not want anyone to know. But as we learn from Jonah’s experience, there is no place to protect those secrets, no place to escape, not even in the belly of a whale beneath the surface of the sea. Jonah could not hide from God any more than Adam could in the Garden.
While God’s judgment can seem relentless, it is tempered by optimism and hope. That is, ultimately, the message Jonah is sent to convey – even to the sinners of Nineveh. There is hope. There is another breath of air to breathe and with it the spark of teshuvah to be ignited.
Yes, God judges – but His judgment is that of a loving father who longs only for his child’s quick and safe return.
God waits for man to perform teshuvah, to return to Him. God wants man to come home to His embrace. Judgment and embrace – this is the tension of God’s message and of Jonah’s prophecy. Maya Bernstein’s words capture this tension: “…between the cities of Nineveh and Tarshish, land and sea, sleep and wakefulness, up and down, an embracing of God and an evasion of God, an embracing of mission and an evasion of mission, good and bad, compassion and detestation, desire for mercy, desire for truth, Jews and non-Jews.”
One cannot hide from God’s judgment but, ultimately, the prophet’s message is a positive one. God awaits. But who would want to step into the “lion’s den” of sin and inequity to deliver that message? Who today would walk into a boardroom of our self-described “masters of the universe” and deliver the message that, for all their millions and billions of dollars, they too must answer to God?