Understand the book of Yonah through the lens of the personal story and struggles of Yonah himself. This Yonah Reader approaches the Yom Kippur haftorah from a deeply personal and reflective perspective.
Introduction: Rediscovering Yonah
I discovered Yonah three months too late. Last year, like most years, I was quite unfocused as Yonah was read on Yom Kippur. My annual lack of focus during the reading of Yonah sadly obscured a story that later resonated with me more than I ever could imagine.
Three months after Yom Kippur, at NCSY’s Yarchei Kallah, I learned Yonah in depth for the first time. Yom Kippur at that point was just a memory, but I was struck by how strongly I identified Yonah as a character. We typically explain the connection between Yonah and Yom Kippur by viewing The Book of Yonah as a story about teshuva and forgiveness. When I learned Yonah on my own, however, I discovered a fascinating tale of someone struggling with God, struggling with his role in God’s world and struggling with their purpose in life. In Yonah, I found a very real and very raw emotional individual. Yonah is so honest and so emotional that he feels he must hide, run away or simply sit in silence because he refuses to say or do things that he does not genuinely feel.
I have come to Yom Kippur with these feelings before: feelings of confusion, anger, frustration and an inability to say what I really want to say. In the past, though, I have never felt like I had an anchor for these feelings. Studying the book of Yonah from Yonah's perspective provides validation for some of the more confusing and often unspoken emotions we have in our struggle to build a personal relationship with God.
I know that this year, as I read Yonah on Yom Kippur, I will be better equipped to identify with Yonah’s struggles, conversations and approaches to God. I hope that after you read the approach presented in this work, you, too, may find validation and encouragement to have your own real and honest conversation with God.
Chapter 1: Ups and Downs
God gives Yonah a task which, for reasons unclear, he finds objectionable. Yonah's response: run away. There are several repeated words in the text (highlighted above) which demonstrate the complicated emotions that Yonah was feeling as he decided to run away from God’s command to assist the people of Ninveh in doing teshuva.
God opens his command to Yonah with the word “קום” – get up. This word emphasizes that God expects Yonah to rise to the occasion and do His bidding. The sailors implore Yonah to get up (קום) and pray to God when the ship becomes perilous. Despite all the language of קום (rise), the verb used most often concerning Yonah is ירד – a verb of descent. Yonah is slipping deeper and deeper away to escape God, until he falls into a sleep to purposefully avoid his calling.
The word גדול is repeated multiple times to describe the city, the wind, the sea, the fear and the storm. It means large, vast and overpoweringly and overwhelmingly massive. Yonah’s perspective is that all these things are overwhelmingly large, they are beyond him and his ability to cope with them. So he descends, he runs away out of his fear – “ירא.” Yonah’s fear is a reaction to the power and majesty that God displays. Instead responding to all the vastness with action or inspiration, Yonah responds with fear and descent.
In the story Yonah tries once to climb up, to rise to the occasion, but his fear overpowers him and he begins to fall.
Chapter 2: #SorryNotSorry
After the sailors cast Yonah into the ocean, he is immediately saved by being swallowed by a giant fish. Yonah sits in the fish for three whole days and nights before he says one word to God. His silence speaks volumes; he cannot or will not speak. Finally Yonah is able to communicate and he begins to pray. His prayer, however is not what we would expect.
Yonah speaks to God from the depths of his soul, he calls out to God from a place of pain, distress and anguish. He recognizes how God has saved him from the storm, how he was almost completely lost, and how he sees he will be saved. Yonah recalls how deeply he has sunk, how painful it has been and how he hopes to be able to once again connect with God in the Temple. What is strikingly missing, what is strangely absent in this book of repentance that we read on Yom Kippur, is a distinct lack of an apology. Is Yonah not sorry?
Yonah connects with God, he says what he feels and expresses a desire for the relationship to be repaired, but right now, he doesn’t say sorry. The desperation to communicate is still there, and despite his lack of apology, he is spat out onto the safety of dry land.
Chapter 3: Fine!!
This third chapter contains very little of Yonah’s personal story. Yonah is once again commanded to get up, rise and approach the big city and warn the people of God’s message. This time, Yonah indeed rises and follows God’s command. He walks into the city, makes a five word proclamation and then promptly disappears from the narrative. Instead of focusing on what the people of Ninveh did, let us focus on what Yonah did not do.
How does Yonah fulfill God’s command?
He stomps into the land, mumbles this message and stomps away. A minimalist approach to completing the task, Yonah maintains his annoyance and dissatisfaction at his involvement in this task. Yonah does in fact do what God asks but there is something strikingly missing in his approach. Yonah almost reminds us of a child who finally gives in with an ungracious “FINE!” While there is a response, it lacks genuine feeling and the task is done out of fear and not love.
Chapter 4: Unresolved and Unfinished
This final chapter follows a mass repentance of the great city of Ninveh and God’s decision to overturn the decree of their destruction. Yonah, once again finds himself trapped in his own anger and emotional despair. The evil that Yonah perceives is overwhelmingly big, so large that his anger threatens to boil over and drown him in misery. Yonah is frustrated that what he was running away from, and trying so desperately to avoid has now actually happened. Yonah is so overwhelmed that he talks about dying to give himself relief. There is a real sense of anxiety and pain. The chapter describes a conversation between God and Yonah; how God tries to explain to Yonah His ways and His compassion. God illustrates the importance of compassion with the message of the Kikayon tree and explains that He has compassion over all His creations.
We now want to turn the page and find Yonah’s acceptance and response but we do not find it. This is where the book ends, seemingly unresolved and unfinished. The dialogue is left open, God makes His point but we do not find out if or how Yonah makes his peace with it.
Concluding Thoughts: Discovering Your Personal Story Through Yonah
Yonah’s story in the book of Yonah has different messages than some traditional approaches.
Instead of me giving you my personal conclusions, I will share some questions that the text prompted me to ask myself.
Looking at the first chapter, Yonah’s response to God’s directive by running and descending, we can ask ourselves the following questions:
- Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the massiveness of a task or role? How do you respond to it?
- Have you used sleep to escape from something?
- What are you afraid of? What are your big fears? Are you facing them or are you running away?
- If you find yourself falling, how do you pick yourself up again?
In Chapter 2, we see Yonah’s beautiful and raw prayer, we also find no apologies.
- Is it possible to connect back with God without apologizing for specific things?
- What was Yonah trying to say to God in this prayer?
- Was God satisfied with what Yonah said?
- Is it right to say sorry if you aren’t truly sorry?
Chapter 3 contains the least narrative about Yonah, so normally we look at the theme of the city of Ninveh repenting. But if we look at Yonah, we can sense his emotions; frustration, resignation and compliance and a stubborn refusal to do more than he absolutely must.
- Have you ever done something because you had to - not because you wanted to?
- Is God satisfied with Yonah’s approach to the task?
- Is there anything positive we can learn from the way Yonah completed his task?
The final chapter is perhaps the most confusing. The messages and explanations God offers to cool Yonah’s anger are rational and clear, yet we do not find Yonah’s placated response. The chapter ends with no response… and we are left wondering – what did Yonah say next? Perhaps it is left open for us to consider our own responses.
- Is there anything left to say?
- What would you like to confront God about?
- What are you angry about?
- Are you listening to what God might be saying to you?