The whale part of the story is easy. It's Jonah and the way he acts that is the real mystery. Most people in the bible are easy to understand and very easy to sympathize with. But not Jonah. Is there any other book of the bible in which the hero is so rebellious and so unrepentant?
Jonah is just a man living his life until, one day, God orders him to go to the great city of Ninevah to warn the people to repent or God will destroy them. Instead of obeying God, Jonah flees to Tarshish.
Later, as Jonah languishes in the belly of the large fish, we think, maybe, he sees the error of his ways. He sings God's praise and promises "What I have vowed I will perform."
Jonah keeps this vow. He goes to Ninevah and warns the people to repent. The response is breathtaking. The people of Ninevah instantly put on sackcloth. They fast and vow to turn from their evil ways. So sincere is their change that God spares them.
Clearly, Jonah was a man with talent. He could have been a great prophet, maybe the greatest of prophets. Think of all the prophets in the bible who preached repentance to the Jews. When we talk about voices crying in the wilderness, we're referring to them.
But Jonah is not happy with his new calling. He is deeply troubled that he has helped these people do t'shuvah/repentance. He complains to God that this is just what he had predicted and this is why he fled to Tarshish. He asks God to kill him because he is so unhappy.
When God refuses, Jonah goes to live in the desert to watch what will become of Ninevah. While in the desert, a plant grows over his hut, and Jonah loves the plant. God sends a worm and a hot wind to kill the plant in one night, and Jonah grieves for it.
God tries to use the plant and Jonah's feelings for it to make Jonah understand that God cares for the people of Ninevah. The story ends there. Jonah never gives any sign that he has changed.
To the end, Jonah and his motivations remain a mystery that is hard to unravel..
The first key I tried to unlock this story was to think about the significance of Jonah's name —Yonah/Dove. There is one other important dove in the bible -- the dove in Noah. That dove also lives in a large vessel surrounded by water. That dove too is sent forth on an important mission that will determine human survival.
I thought, perhaps, understanding the dove can help explain Jonah. What is there about the dove that could shed light on Jonah? At first, there seems to be no help. The dove never speaks. We never know the dove's feelings.
We can guess that the dove didn't know or understand that it was being sent on an important mission. It was just a bird. Human motivations were a mystery to it. All it could know was that it was taken from the safety of the Ark and thrown into the air, forced to fly over an enormous ocean. In the end it found a plant and some security for itself. It brought a message of deliverance to the people on the Ark.
How could Jonah be like the dove? He was a man. He speaks. God told him what he was to do and why. Jonah hears God and argues with God. Jonah is not an animal who could miss this clear message. But, then again, Jonah does behave as if he has no more understanding than did the dove. What can this mean?
In Num.XII, 6-8, God chides Aaron and Miriam for claiming that they are prophets of equal status with Moses. God punishes them for this. God tells them that they are not prophets in the same way Moses is. God says that, when he talks to most prophets, he makes his wishes known in a dream or a vision. With Moses, however, he speaks "mouth to mouth" plainly and not in dark speeches.
At the end of the Torah and at the end of his life and leadership, Moses told B'nai Israel how to live a good life. He said:
Surely, this instruction which I give you today is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say—Go up to the heavens and get it for us. It is not beyond the sea that you should say—Who can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us that we may observe it. No the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
It was easy for him. He heard the word of God plainly -- mouth to mouth. No one else does.
Obviously Jonah's story is told from God's point of view. That's why the instructions seem so clear and why Jonah's behavior seems so odd. Putting ourselves in Jonah's position makes it easier to understand.
This is Jonah's version:
Jonah began having odd and frightening dreams. He dreamed God wanted him to go to Ninevah to tell the people there to repent. Ninevah? The greatest military power of the age? Ninevah—no friend of the Jews. He thought he must be going mad. He tried to act sanely, tried a change of scenery.
Finally, after the miraculous storm, the stay in the fish's belly, Jonah is a defeated man. He decides to give in to this calling knowing people will jeer at him. They will not repent, and the city will not be destroyed in forty days. Then Jonah will have proved to himself that the voices are only in his head. He will have proved that he shouldn't listen to the voices. He will be able to go home -- to ignore the voices even if they continue.
But the worst happens. The people listen to Jonah. Jonah is so frightened he runs away to the desert. He can never go home. He has really heard God's voice and can never live a normal life again.
From God's point of view, there was a very clear message of caring/ rachmim and an assurance that we can make mistakes and repent. From Jonah's point of view, there were only these confusing voices commanding him to do the oddest things. Here is a man who could have been the world's greatest prophet, but the job was too frightening.
We are so like Jonah and so unlike Moses. The thing we have to do might as well be in the heavens or across the seas. The commandments may be simple and in our mouths and in our hearts, but we don't know how to tell which are the true commandments and which are distractions.
What does it mean to do g'milut chasidim/acts of loving kindness? It seems kind to make certain that the poor have enough to sustain them each day. But, perhaps, this only breeds dependency and, in the end, is unkind. How can we choose? How can we honor our fathers and mothers when they are so imperfect, so undeserving of honor? How can we refrain from stealing when, from one point of view, all property is theft and we should give until there are no poor—but, from another point of view, we deserve what we work hard for. How can pay for work be theft?
We are faced with these insoluble complexities at every moment. Life always appears in shades of grey. Moral absolutes provide no solution.
What can Judaism offer? As Jews, we are given many small commandments. Most are not too hard to do. If we do them, then we can consecrate each moment and each space. There are so many commandments that to pay attention and to do them requires enormous concentration.
Perhaps what this means is that we should live our lives like a walking meditation, concentrating on these small mitzvot/commandments/blessings so that we do not step off the path. The kabbalists say we live in a shattered world. The path is hard to find. Every step is likely to be a misstep.
Each misstep is a chet—translated as sin but meaning literally, only that we have missed the target. Then we must do t'shuvah/repentance, or more literally: we must return. We must return ourselves to the path. The normal way we have to live our lives is as a continual effort to return. In meditation, when attention wanders we must return to concentrating, without judgment or condemning our weakness. Judgment and regret become distractions. When we are distracted, we cannot return. When we truly return, we get a new chance to hit the target. The chet is wiped out.
Abraham Avinu was told that he must "lech l'cha." This has two meanings in Hebrew. The most common translation is that he must go out of his country, leave his family and leave their ways of idol worship. The other translation is that he was to go into himself, his true self.
R. Adin Steinsaltz tells us that the Torah is a system of knowledge and insights to guide the individual Jew to reach his own selfhood. Halachah is not only the law, its root word shows us it is a guide for walking, for living. It guides us in our aloneness and searching so that we can find ourselves. When we do t'shuvah we turn from a fixation on other objects to a concentration on God.
But even when our focus is elsewhere, God is not in the heavens or over the seas. We need no one to get the divine message and bring it back to us. We need to turn and to return, to go into the people we truly are.
Just as with Jonah, there is a constant answering in those moments of clarity. There are brief flashes when we do the right thing. And then the next moment we wander from the path, from our true selves. But then, in the next, we may find the way back.
If we could only see our lives from a cosmic vantage point, we would see that we spend most of our time running away, even—and especially—when we know what is right.
Steinsaltz says that t'shuvah is a lifelong journey, not guilt, but a sense of spiritual disquiet, a feeling that we are no longer the right person in the right place, that we are outsiders in a world whose meaning escapes us.
Torah is an eitz haim hi l'machazikim ba. V'tomcheiya meushar. Darcheya darchei-noam, v'kal-n'tivoteiha shalom. Hashiveinu, adonai eleicha, v'nashuvah. Hadash yameinu k'kedem. Torah is a tree of life for those who grasp it. Those who cling to it are happy. Its ways are pleasant, and all its paths are peace. Return us to you, Adonai, and we will return. Renew our days as you have before.
Do not say after you have sinned, "There is no restoration for me," but trust in the Lord and repent, and God will receive you. And do not say, "If I confess, I shall be disgraced," but hold position in contempt, humble yourself, and return in repentance.