Gmar chatima tovah.
I would like to dedicate this Dvar Torah to Eldad Regev, Gilad Shalit and Udi Goldwasser, the three Israeli soldiers taken captive by terrorists over the summer. I pray for their health and safety and a speedy return to their families.
In a few minutes we will hear Wendy chant the book of Yonah. Before we do, I hope to offer some food for thought about this wonderful little book. I would like to look briefly at two aspects of this story: irony and theology. I believe that through the use of irony, Sefer Yonah has much to teach us about theology, in particular divine compassion and our hope that God will extend a little to us on Yom Kippur.
More than any other biblical book, Sefer Yonah seems to employ irony throughout the story. The first time this literary device appears is early in the 1st chapter when Yonah receives the divine command to “call out” against the great city of Nineveh and instead of heeding the call chooses to flee to the other end of the earth. It is ironic because one would think that he would feel honored by the task bestowed upon him by God. Later, on a boat bound for Tarshish the gentile sailors cry out to their gods to stop a storm which threatens their boat while Yonah sleeps in the ship’s hold. It is ironic because one would think that Yonah, too, would call out to his God and ask him to show some compassion for the ships passengers and save them.
It is highly ironic that both the ships sailors and the people of Nineveh (all gentiles) are more open to God than Yonah. Again, it is ironic because one would expect that as God’s chosen messenger, Yonah would be more open to God than he actually is. Furthermore, it is quite ironic that Yonah is upset when the people of Nineveh repent and he wants to die when God relents from destroying them. One would think that Yonah would swell up with pride that sinful people would actually change their ways as a result of his prophecy. Finally, isn’t it ironic that Yonah feels more compassion for the kikayon than he does for the people of Nineveh?
The presence of irony in the story serves a larger purpose than to puzzle readers who may wonder why we read this strange book on Yom Kippur. I would like to suggest that all of this irony is bound up with Yonah’s personal theology and his view of divine justice. Yonah’s theology, it seems, emphasizes divine justice. He seems much more comfortable when God is punishing people than when God is showing compassion for people. This is why he despairs and wants to die when the people of Nineveh repent and God spares them. This also explains why Yonah just sleeps when the ship heading to Tarshish begins to break up because of the great storm caused by God. Why should he bother calling out to God? He knows he has spurned God and fully expects God to mete out the appropriate divine judgment on him…he may as well sleep through it.
That also explains why, once awakened from his sleep, he asks the sailors to throw him overboard in order to calm the storm, instead of just asking that God show some compassion for him and the others. It isn’t that Yonah doesn’t believe that God can be compassionate, though. It seems he’s just uncomfortable with that idea. Yonah clearly recognizes God’s compassion when he is in the belly of the fish. He acknowledges that God sent the fish to rescue him from drowning. The question is: Why isn’t he thankful for God’s compassion when he sees the sinful people of Nineveh repent?
The reason is: he has difficulty reconciling divine compassion with the existence of sin in the world. Instead of being happy or appreciating the opportunity to help the people of Nineveh who have repented, he says to God , “I knew from the very beginning that your compassion was going to get in the way of my prophecy from becoming a reality! Now if you are truly a God of compassion, kill me! I’d rather die than see them live.” (That was my own colloquial paraphrase.) The irony here is that Yonah is essentially asking for God to be compassionate by just taking him out of the picture so he doesn’t have to see the sinful people of Nineveh being spared - a thought he finds too problematic to bear. At the same time, it is equally ironic that Yonah’s notion of what, in his own mind, would count as an act God’s compassion, killing him, is completely anathema to God’s sense of compassion. God gives us second chances…all the time. This is the point of reading Sefer Yonah at this time on Yom Kippur. The effectiveness of Sefer Yonah’s irony is in its situatedness in the liturgy of this day – the day on which we seek God’s forgiveness even though we know we probably really deserve punishment.
Ironically, Yonah is the last person to really understand that.
Clearly, Yonah wrestles with two attributes of God: compassion and judgment. In his worldview, sin should be punished. Period. He is uncomfortable with divine compassion. In his view, God should deal with sinners through his attribute of judgment, not compassion. He never considers any other possibility.
In a final ironic twist, Yonah’s story ends with a mysterious plant that grows overnight and dies almost as quickly. When the kikayon grows over Yonah to shade him, it, too, is an act of divine compassion, but Yonah can’t see it that way. When the kikayon dies, he again wishes to die himself. He can’t understand why God would have the same kind of compassion for the repentant people of Nineveh that Yonah had for the kikayon. Yonah seems crippled as his concept of divine justice is challenged by God himself. He can’t seem to find a place for divine compassion in a world of evil and sin.
Yonah seems to walk through the world with a very rigid and inflexible view of God – God should punish all sinners and not leave open the possibility of teshuvah as a means to earn divine forgiveness and compassion. Ironically, it is precisely this point that was so challenging for Yonah – that teshuvah can serve as a means to earn divine forgiveness and compassion - that we are counting on this Yom Kippur minchah. May God’s compassion shine down upon our sincere work of teshuvah and grant us a year of blessing. Gmar chatima tovah.