Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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It’s Yom Kippur and we’ll be reading the book of Yonah.

That book tells us about the non-Jewish city Nineveh, whose “evil arose in front of Hashem.”[1] It also tells us that Hashem commanded the Jewish prophet, Yonah, to travel to that city to exhort its residents to spare themselves from destruction by repenting.[2]

Yonah, strange as it sounds, evades that mission. Instead of travelling to Nineveh, he: “got up to flee…..from in front of Hashem …and found a ship….and boarded on it….”[3]

Yonah’s evasion mission makes it clear that he assumed that performing this mission would create problems.

And, yes, that mission would have created problems.

It would have created problems for Yonah.

How? By endangering him.

In fact, just such dangers arose on an earlier, similar mission to the Israelite Kingdom. Also on that mission, Yonah was commanded to share his prophecies with the community’s residents. There, too, the prophecies foretold the punishments that awaited a sinning community. And there, too, the prophecies detailed how repentance would suspend punishment.

That mission succeeded and the Israelites heeded Yonah’s warnings and repented. And they were forgiven.

Surprisingly enough, that reprieve created problems. And that’s because the reprieve fostered assumptions that the Israelites hadn’t ever been consigned to punishment – that Yonah had been falsely prophesizing all along. No, the Israelites didn’t punish Yonah for false prophecy. Punishment, though, may have been withheld only because the Israelites were kindly disposed towards Yonah, who was a co-religionist.

Yonah feared that if similar accusations were levelled in Nineveh then he – as a foreigner – would be executed.[4]

A mission to Nineveh, then, would create problems for Yonah.

It would also create problems for the rest of the Jewish community.

And that’s because a successful mission would foster Nineveh’s repentance. That would strengthen Nineveh. And that was a problem because Ninevites – our historic enemy – would use that strength against us[5] in the wars that eventually destroyed the Israelite Kingdom.

Nineveh’s repentance would also malign us. That’s because, like Nineveh, we were being exhorted to repent. But we weren’t repenting. The contrast between our stubbornness and Nineveh’s repentance would have tarnished us.[6]

Yes, a mission to Nineveh would create problems.

That’s why Yonah retreated and got “up to flee.”[7]

But retreating didn’t minimize any problems.

Quite the reverse. It just increased any and all problems.

It increased Nineveh’s problems. And that’s because Yonah’s flight deprived Nineveh of prophecies that could have fostered repentance.

It also increased our problems. And that’s because Nineveh’s repentance, had it happened, would have inspired us. Yonah’s retreat was, then, problematic because it denied us some sorely needed inspiration.

It also created problems for Yonah’s shipmates. Their problems arose when Hashem punished Yonah for fleeing by sending a “great storm upon the sea that Yonah travelled that threatened to destroy the ship.”[8] That storm was, obviously, also problematic for Yonah’s shipmates.

Most of all, though, that retreat increased Yonah’s problems. And that’s because it made Yonah a sinner.

And Yonah’s response to those problems? At first, it’s just an intensification of his retreats! That started when he faced the first problem caused by his retreat, the “great storm.”[9]

Yonah responds to that by “descending into the ship’s bottom.”[10] An enclosed ship-bottom offers no escape from a sinking ship. Yonah’s descent there seems, then, to be a deliberate embrace of death. But death – and the retreat from responsibility that it offers – may have been what Yonah sought.[11]

And the retreats just continue. The next retreat occurs when Yonah acknowledges that to his ship-mates that he’s to blame for the storm and that “heaving me into the sea”[12] will quell the storm.

You read this and you wonder: If Yonah must be heaved overboard then let him heave himself overboard! Why does he ask the sailors to do this? Why does he foist a murderous act on others?

It may after so many retreats, Yinah had grown accustomed to not taking take action himself. It may have been that his continuing retreats had quelled his energies.

That happens, doesn’t it? Retreats diminish energy, resources and “life spaces.” Those diminishments weaken us. And that necessitates further retreat.

It’s a vicious cycle, then. Retreats diminish resources. Once our resources are diminished, we must retreat further. And that retreat further diminishes resources.

All this may explain why: “A fish to swallow Yonah. And Yonah remained in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights.”[13] That confinement in a tiny space may signify that Yonah’s continued retreats locked him into a tiny life-space.

And, as per the following Midrash, that space kept shrinking: “after the male fish swallowed Yonah … it spat Yonah into the mouth of a pregnant female whale …and Yonah was constricted there.”[14]

Going from a small male’s belly into a smaller – because of the space consumed by the fetus – pregnant female’s belly means retreating into even tinier spaces.

And so it went until Yonah realized he can’t keep retearing. Yes, his mission may create problem. But retreating from his mission is creating greater problems.

So Yonah travelled to Nineveh.

Yonah’s pleas were heard. Nineveh repented. That mission addressed Nineveh’s problems. And that mission addressed the Jewish people’s problems because Nineveh became a beacon for us.

And therein lies a message for each and every one of us.

Like Yonah, we retreat when we fear that our efforts won’t succeed.

We don’t reach out to an estranged friend because we’re afraid that our overtures will cause 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 worry that our efforts will be fruitless.

And like by Yonah, our retreats allot space – that could have been allotted to solutions – to problems. And that just increases our problems.

Yonah reminds us of a simple fact.

Our efforts only create a possibility of success.

But our lack of effort create a certainty of failure.

Isn’t it far better to aim for the possibility of success than it is to live with a certainty of failure?

[1] Yonah 1:2

[2] Ibid.

[3] Yonah 1:4

[4] Midrash Tanchuma Vayikra 8

[5] Metzudas Dovid, Abarbanel loc. cit.

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

[7] Yonah 1:2

[8] Yonah 1:4

[9] Ibid.

[10] Yonah 1:5

[11] Malbim Ad loc. See Mechilta Pesichta 29

[12] Yonah 1:12

[13] Yonah 2:1

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