Jonah and ISIS

jonahTomb_slideArise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me. But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Jaffa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish… – Jonah 1:1-3

Is there a more singular, better known or more beloved prophet that Jonah? In him, we recognize both the humanity in greatness and the greatness in human frailty. Called by the Lord to speak to the people of Nineveh of their wickedness, Jonah does not rise to the great challenge of godliness like some Hollywood hero. Instead, he responds with the fullness of human frailty; that is, he tries to avoid the call by fleeing.

But it is not his resistance to his calling that makes him unique.For a Hebrew prophet to resist the call of the Lord is di rigueur in our tradition. Even Moses, the greatest prophet of all, tried to “beg off” from the call, suggesting that perhaps his brother Aaron was more suited to the task. No, trying to refuse the role of prophet is not unique to Jonah. What is unique to him and his calling is that he is the one and only Hebrew prophet that was called to preach to the Gentiles of the world!

One might think that this universal calling might diminish him in the eyes of the Jewish people. After all, why should we concern ourselves with the failings of the Gentiles; we have more than enough failings of our own! Yet, his prophecy and story, a mere forty-eight verses in length, is publicly chanted throughout the Jewish world during the most sacred hours of the year, on Yom Kippur afternoon. So valued are his words that there are Jews who donate thousands and tens of thousands of dollars to their synagogues or other charities just to have the privilege of chanting this most renowned of hafarotMaftir Yonah.

Jonah’s words capture the fullness of Yom Kippur’s message – that God is the Supreme judge of all. He judges each individual and each nation, Hebrew and Gentile.

At first glance, this message of absolute judgment seems harsh and frightening. After all, we all cherish our secrets, our sins that we would not want to have anyone know. Yet, as we learn from Jonah’s experience, there is no place to protect those secrets, no place to escape, not even in the belly of a whale beneath the surface of the sea! Jonah could not hide from God any more than Adam could in the Garden.

While God’s judgment can seem relentless, it is tempered by optimism and hope. That is, ultimately, the message that Jonah is sent to convey – even to the sinners of Nineveh. There is hope! There is another breath of air to breathe and, with it, the spark of teshuva to be ignited. Yes, God judges but His judgment is that of a loving father who longs only for his child’s quick and safe return.

God awaits man to perform teshuva – return. God longs for man to come home to His embrace. Judgment and embrace – this is the tension of God’s message and of Jonah’s prophecy. Maya Bernstein’s words capture this tension, “…between the cities of Nineveh and Tarshish, land and sea, sleep and wakefulness, up and down, an embracing  of God and an evasion of God, an embracing of mission and an evasion of mission, good and bad, compassion and detestation, desire for mercy, desire for truth, Jews and non-Jews.”

One cannot hide from God’s judgment but, ultimately, the prophet’s message is a positive one. God awaits! But who would want to step into the “lion’s den” of sin and inequity to deliver that message? Who today would walk into the boardroom of our self-described “masters of the universe” and deliver the message that, for all their millions and billions of dollars, they too must answer to God? Who will carry the Yom Kippur message to the world, that 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 the Jews is overwhelming enough. But to carry it to the Gentiles? Particularly to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to the very people responsible for expelling the Ten Tribes? How could poor Jonah tell these people that 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.


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Jonah fled. He hid. He sought his own destruction. But to no avail. No one and no thing, not the wind, the kikayon plant, 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 every one! 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 who had not heeded to 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, send a worm to kill the tree? To teach Jonah a further lesson about His mercy. Jonah had taken pity upon, “…a kikayon for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow… shall I not take pity on Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120 thousand 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, all sins must be paid for. But understanding how God calculates the price was beyond him for, as Pikei DeRabbi Eliezer notes, Jonah is the child who Elijah revived in Kings 1:17. There was an absolute purity to him, breathed into him by God’s most eminent emissary.

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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.

We cannot fathom God’s judgment or mercy. We can only take heart in knowing that He “pardons and forgives”; that He is “the gracious One who repeatedly forgives.”  In the Shmoneh Esrei blessing asking for forgiveness we refer to God as our Father, reminding God, the Tur explains, that a father does more than punish, He forgives, loves and guides His child. He shows the child the way to return. This is the lesson that God insists Jonah convey to mankind for all time, even to Nineveh.

Is it any wonder then that Jonah is held in such regard?

We embrace his humanness, his weakness, even as we cling to the message he delivered. All mankind is called to teshuva. All mankind can seek God’s mercy.

To destroy Jonah’s tomb is to rail against God’s mercy and message. And yet, that is exactly what the Islamists ISIS did. As the Gaza fighting drew the attention of the world, distracting our thoughts from other areas of the world while Israel did battle against ISIS’s fellow Islamists, Hamas, ISIS cut large swaths of violence and destruction in Iraq and Syria. However, more cruel than their medieval beheadings; than their crucifixion of children and denigration of women, destroying Jonah’s tomb seeks to destroy the hope that God brings to the hopeless. That the tomb had been located in Mosul, the modern name for Nineveh, adds poignancy and irony to the wickedness of these people. Even more, it is good to bear in mind that Jonah’s tomb was a shrine to Muslims as well as others.

Certainly, ISIS would have preferred to have killed the prophet than just his tomb, but even these murderous barbarians cannot destroy God’s message and hope.