The Book of Jonah, which serves as most of the haftarah at mincha (the afternoon service) of Yom Kippur, contains one of the most puzzling stories in the Tanakh. Jonah is hardly the only prophet who was reluctant to respond to God's call. Even Moses, the greatest of all prophets, tried to persuade God to send somebody else (Exodus 4:13).
But Jonah goes a step further. Not only does Jonah disobey God's command to go to Nineveh, but he tries to run away from God, taking a ship to Tarshish. (Scholars have debated precisely where Tarshish was, but in the context of the story, only one thing really matters: it was far away.) Did Jonah really think that would work, that he could somehow escape God's presence?
After all, when asked later by the sailors from what people he came, he responded that he was a Hebrew and then added: "I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, Who made both sea and land." (1:9) If Jonah understood that God was indeed the Creator of the entire world, then how could he expect to run away successfully?
Logically, he couldn't -- and maybe that's the point. God was giving Jonah a mission, one that he desperately wanted to avoid. And in his desperation to run away from God's command, he tried to do what he had to know was impossible -- to find a place where God's command couldn't reach him. It's easy for us to criticize him, but don't we all, at least occasionally, do the same thing?
It's hard to live every moment of our lives conscious of God's presence, so all of us sometimes act as if we didn't know that God's presence is unavoidable. We may not flee as dramatically as Jonah did, but we too run away from God, trying to find some place that is, metaphorically, far away from His presence.
Jonah's answer to the sailors is noteworthy, for this is the only place in the Tanakh where a person is recorded as referring to himself as an Ivri (Hebrew). Commentators differ as to the meaning of the word Ivri, but one opinion is that it referred to those who came originally came me'ever hanahar (from the other side of the river) -- a reference to Abraham's origin in Mesopotamia. Perhaps Jonah uses the word Ivri ironically, meaning one who has crossed -- suggesting that he had in a sense reversed Abraham's journey, for while Abraham crossed the river to come closer to God, Jonah has sought to cross the sea in order to be further away from Him.
But when confronted by the raging sea and the innocent sailors whose lives he had endangered, Jonah, quite literally, reverses course. By telling the sailors to cast him overboard, Jonah transforms himself from one who was trying to pretend that God could be escaped to one who was placing himself completely in God's hands. In the prayer that he subsequently recites from the belly of the fish, Jonah recognizes his dependence on God: "In my trouble I called to the Lord and He answered me." (2:3)
It is that kind of transformation that we strive for in this season of teshuva. As part of his prayer Jonah says to God: "You cast me into the depths, into the heart of the sea." (vetashlicheini mitzulah bilevov yamim) (2:4) In the small section from the end of the Book of Micah that we append to the Book of Jonah to complete the haftarah, we use almost identical language about our sins: "You will cast their sins into the depths of the sea" (Vetashlikh bimetzult yam kol chatotam) (Micah 7:19)Thus, the connection between Jonah's journey and ours is highlighted by the haftarah itself.
The story of Jonah's journey is for us a story of hope. Jonah tried to run away from God's command, but in the midst of the storm, he changed course. We too have tried to run away from God's commands, and in the midst of the storms that so often seem to characterize our lives, we too can change course. That is what teshuva (repentance) is all about.
May the story of Jonah's journey remind us of the central message of Yom Kippur: however far we've tried to flee from God, we are but one small step away from returning to Him. May we all have the wisdom and the courage to take that step.
Gemar chatima tova.