Who will carry the Yom Kippur message to the world? “There is no escape and time is short; your day will arrive and your fate will be sealed.”
For a Hebrew prophet to deliver this message to Jews is overwhelming enough. But to carry it to non-Jews? Particularly to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to the very people responsible for expelling the Ten Tribes? How could poor Jonah tell these people Nineveh was doomed lest they repent?
That Jonah was reluctant is an understatement. So determined was he to avoid this calling that he had the sailors throw him overboard so that they might be saved and he would not have to face His God. But God ensures that he survives. He has a mission to fulfill and there is no escape from one’s life mission.
So, brought back from the belly of the whale, he goes to Nineveh and, still hesitant and resistant, staggering only one-third of the way into the city, never approaching the king, he manages to utter five words to the city, “Od arbaim yom v’Nineveh neepachet” – “forty days more and Nineveh will be overturned.”
Jonah fled. He hid. He sought his own destruction. But to no avail. No one and no thing, not the wind, the sea, the whale, or a prophet is beyond God’s control. Ultimately, Jonah delivers God’s message – which is not the destruction of the city but its salvation. God’s message is mercy. Come to me. Repent. Repent and you will be saved.
To Jonah’s astonishment, Nineveh listened. Nineveh repented. If Nineveh can repent, repentance and return is available to everyone. As God bestows mercy on Nineveh, He makes His mercy to all clear: “Would I accept the repentance of the people of Nineveh, and not yours?”
Was Jonah pleased with Nineveh’s redemption? Hardly. How could Assyria be forgiven? What of Israel, which had not heeded the prophets’ warnings? Jonah begged God to take his own soul so that he would be spared seeing Israel’s destruction. Disgusted, he left Nineveh and went to seek some peace, solitude, and shelter under the shade of a great kikayon tree.
The tree’s shade, protecting him from the harsh sun, made him well aware of God’s compassion but then God sent a worm to eat through the tree and kill it. How Jonah mourned for the tree and for his own relief. Now he had no sanctuary from the awful sun beating down on him.
Why did God do such a thing? To teach Jonah another lesson about His mercy.
Jonah had taken pity upon “a kikayon for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow.” God asks, “Shall I not take pity on Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?”
All deserve the opportunity to repent. Jonah perhaps could not fathom God’s mercy in this regard. After all, sins must be paid for. But understanding how God calculates the price was beyond him for, as Pikei DeRabbi Eliezer notes, Jonah was the child whom Elijah revived in Kings 1:17. There was an absolute purity to him, breathed into him by God’s most eminent emissary.
The prophet Jonah, through his message and his humanity, became a symbol to all of God’s mercy and our own conflicted humanness. Jonah is the son of Amitai, a name derived from emet, truth. Truth, like God’s judgment, can seem harsh and unforgiving. But Jonah’s own name is derived from the Hebrew word for “dove.” Like the dove saved from Noah’s flood, Jonah was saved from a watery tomb.