Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sefer Yonah

The Quest for Mercy over Justice

On Yom Kippur, we read the Book of Jonah. This short book is a gripping struggle between the prophet and God over the extent of God's nature.

To begin with God gives Yonah a mission: "Go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim against it, for their evil has come before Me" (Yonah 1:2).

Basically, Yonah has to persuade the people of Nineveh to repent or they will be doomed, Yonah refuses to carry out his orders. He is against the mission. He wants Nineveh to be doomed; and so, he flees to Tarshsih, the opposite direction of Nineveh.

But God has not given up on Yonah. He sends him a message by casting a "mighty wind into the sea" (ibid 4) so that the ship cannot get to Tarshish.

Yonah sees this storm but continues his fight with God by going "down to the ship's hold, lay down, and fell fast asleep" (ibid 5). He believes that the storm will not affect him if he is in a deep sleep.

So God sends the captain to wake him (note how Yonah was in "yarketei hasefina" – the edge of the boat – a place he did not expect to be found). The captain tells Yonah to pray to his god, but he refuses. He will not surrender in his fight with God.

The sailors cast many lots to discover who is responsible for the storm. Each lot falls on Yonah – another clear message to him. Yet, Yonah still does not surrender. "Pick me up and cast me into the sea" (ibid 12). Yonah would rather die than follow God's instructions. It is the ultimate rebellion.

Even once Yonah is released from the fish, he still does not obey his command. God has to command him again. At that point, Yonah surrenders begrudgingly. He does the minimum he needs to do: "In another forty days Nineveh shall be overturned!" (ibid 3:4). He doesn't even tell them to repent!!

As soon as he has finished, he goes out of the city and "made himself a hut and sat under it in the shade until he would see what would happen in the city" (ibid 4:5). He does not know that God has forgiven Nineveh. He wants to see if Nineveh will yet be destroyed. In fact, he is hoping it will be.

Why? What is Yonah's problem?

Yonah himself answers this question, but in order to help us understand his answer, we need to look at another mission he once had.

In Sefer Melachim, we see that Yonah is ministering to King Yeravam II of Israel. Yeravam was an evil king who was successful. "He restored the boundary of Israel from the approach to Hamath until the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel which He spoke through his servant Jonah the son of Amittai the prophet...For the Lord saw the affliction of Israel becoming increasingly severe, with neither stored property nor free property, and no one to help Israel. And the Lord did not speak to eradicate the name of Israel from under the heavens, and He saved them through Jeroboam the son of Joash. (II Melachim 25-27)

Essentially, even though Israel was evil, God still had mercy on them. The result: they continued to be evil.

Yonah had already seen evil rewarded. He wasn't prepared to see it again. "This is the reason I had hastened to flee to Tarshish, for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, with much kindness, and relenting of evil (Yonahh 4:20).

Yonah knew that God was merciful and would therefore, forgive Nineveh. He did not want that to happen, because the people needed to learn their lesson. In Yonah's eyes, God is a sucker who always ends up forgiving. Yonah wants God to be just, to give Nineveh what they really deserve, and then people would be faithful to Him.

Notice that when Yonah lists God's traits, he misses out one: Emmet – truth or justice. In Yonah's eyes, God is not just. He is merciful. If God was just, He would give Nineveh what they deserve. Indeed, Yonah is "ben Amittai", a person of justice.

In the end, Yonah gives up on God: "take now my soul from me, for my death is better than my life" (ibid 3). Yonah would rather die than live in this unjust world.

But God still had not given up on Yonah. He tries to teach Yonah him by sending him the kikayon, the fast growing plant that gave shade and relief from the heat. God then sends the worm that attacks the kikayon's roots, causing it to wither. God explains to Yonah that just as Yonah cared for the kikayon, that he did not work for and existed for just one day, how much more so does God care for Nineveh a city of more than one hundred and twenty thousand people.

In the fight between Justice and Mercy, God always wants mercy to succeed. We just have to show Him that we are worthy of that mercy.

That's Sefer Yonah's message for Yom Kippur.

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