Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

Dedicated as a merit for the refuah sheleima of Shimon ben Miriam.

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It’s Yom Kippur and we’re reading the book of Yonah. We’ll read about a non-Jewish city, Nineveh, that was so sinful that its “evil arose in front of Hashem.”[1] We’ll read that Hashem commanded Yonah to travel to Nineveh, to guide it towards teshuva.”[2] And we’ll read that Yonah distanced himself from that command – and from Nineveh – by “fleeing …on a ship.”[3]

It’s not clear what problem motivated Yonah’s “flight.” Was he concerned that helping Nineveh do teshuva would strengthen Nineveh – our historic enemy – and also Nineveh’s ability to battle us?[4] Or was he concerned that Nineveh’s teshuva would malign us by highlighting how we Jews – who also needed teshuva – weren’t repenting the way Ninevites were?[5]

Whatever the problem, it wasn’t addressed by Yonah’s retreat.

Quite the reverse. That retreat, just increased everyone’s problems.

It increased Nineveh’s problems. Why? Because Yonah’s flight deprived Nineveh of a prophet who would have guided them towards teshuva. And it increased our problems. Why? Because Nineveh’s teshuva, had it happened, could have modeled teshuva for us.

It also created problems for everyone who interacted with Yonah. That included those who happened to be Yonah’s shipmates when he “fled.” That’s because Yonah’s punishment – which was “a great storm upon the sea on which Yonah travelled that threatened to destroy the ship”[6] – also punished his shipmates.

And of course, it increased Yonah’s problems. And that’s because retreat turned Yonah into a sinner deserving of a “great storm” punishment.

And Yonah’s retreats – and the problems those retreats caused – just kept increasing. Indeed, the story’s next incident – where we read that Yonah responds to the storm by “descending into the bottom of the ship”[7] – is about additional retreat. And that’s because descending into an enclosed ship-bottom – a place that offers no chance of escape upon ship-sinking –increased Yonah’s chances of drowning.

Yonah is – seemingly – deliberately embracing death by drowning. Why? Perhaps because death would release him from his responsibilities to Nineveh. This retreat, then, wouldn’t just be a retreat from responsibilities. It would also a retreat from life itself.[8]

Why, though, would Yonah continue retreating after having just seen that such retreats lead to divine punishment like a “great storm?” It may be because past retreats so habituated Yonah to retreat that he can’t not retreat. This habituation may also explain the story’s next incident.

That’s where Yonah asks the sailors: “throw me into the sea.”[9] Yonah clearly realizes that unless he’s heaved overboard, the ship will sink and all will die. That heaving is, then, absolutely necessary. If so, why doesn’t he heave himself overboard? Why foist this murderous act on the sailors?

Perhaps because Yonah’s continuing retreat from life quelled the energy that would have propelled him to act.

That happens, doesn’t it? When we retreat, we diminish our energy, our resources and our other “life spaces” – which further incapacitates us and causes additional retreats. Yonah’s retreats, then, created a vicious cycle. Each retreat diminished his resources which then necessitated further retreat which then further diminished resources – leading to that inability to throw himself overboard.

That cycle may also explain the story’s next incident where: “Hashem designated a fish to swallow Yonah. And Yonah remained in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights.”[10]

This story of being confined in a fish belly’s small space may convey that continuing retreats had shrunk Yonah’s life space to unimaginably small dimensions. And that shrinkage may have intensified – which may explain the following Midrash: “the male fish that swallowed Yonah … spat Yonah into the mouth of a pregnant female whale …and Yonah was constricted there.”[11] Yonah, we are told, went from a male fish’s small belly into a pregnant female fish’s even smaller – because of the space consumed by the fetus – belly. Which may be a Midrashic way of saying that Yonah’s life spaces became ever smaller.

This may also explain why it was specifically a fish that swallowed Yonah. Fish, which don’t “speak,” are paradigms of silence. Being swallowed into a fish’s world of silence may convey further retreat – not just from activity but also from discussion.

And so, the retreats continued. Until Yonah realized that he can’t keep retreating and that he must travel to Nineveh.

Yes, his mission to Nineveh may fail and may cause destruction.

But retreating and not traveling to Nineveh – and not offering Nineveh a chance at teshuva – will certainly cause failure and destruction.

Yonah, therefore, travels to Nineveh.

Yonah’s pleas for teshuva are heard by Nineveh’s residents. Nineveh repents. And that teshuva, since then, has been a beacon for everyone, everywhere.

We’re so like Yonah, aren’t we?

Like Yonah we’re afraid.

We don’t reach out to an estranged friend because we fear that such overtures will cause more pain. We don’t commit to learning because we fear the angst of a failed commitment. And we don’t invest in a business because we fear that our efforts will be fruitless.

And so, like Yonah, we retreat.

And like by Yonah, our retreats, only increase our problems by allotting space to problems when that space could have been allotted to solutions.

Yonah reminds us that while we don’t know that effort will foster success, we do know that a lack of effort will foster failure.

Yonah reminds us to address – and to not retreat from – our problems

Rabbi Weber is founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org to sign up for his weekly email message, for information on his live or zoom shiurim or his Montebello shul. Rabbi Weber is scholar in residence at the Hudson Valley Hotel for Sukkos. For information, please email or call (845) 794-6000. Rabbi Weber is scholar-in-residence in Richmond, Va. on Nov 11 & 12. Please email to have him as scholar in residence in your community.

 [1] Yonah 1:2

[2] Ibid.

[3] Yonah 1:4

[4] Metzudas Dovid, Abrabanel loc. cit.

[5] Rashi, Mahari Kera loc. cit., Yerushalmi , Sanhedrin 11:4

[6] Yonah 1:4

[7] Yonah 1:5

[8] Malbim ad loc. See Mechilta Pesichta 29

[9] Yonah 1:12

[10] Yonah 2:1

[11] Rashi, Yonah 2:1, quoting Otzar Midrashim, Yonah