Prophets are a grumpy bunch, always scolding their neighbors and warning of divine punishment. However, Jonah, whose story we read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, stands out.
Not only does Jonah argue with God — as Abraham and Moses were prone to do — but he also refuses his mission and walks off the job after being commanded to warn the people of Nineveh that they face annihilation for their sinful behavior. After being sentenced to three days and three nights in the belly of a large fish, Jonah gets with the program and delivers the warning to the Ninevites, who wisely waste no time in repenting and then are spared.
Few prophets if any could boast of such an instant success story (oh, what Isaiah or Jeremiah would have given for the Israelites to have heeded similar warnings). Yet, as Rabbi David Lieber has noted, instead of filling Jonah with a sense of elation, Nineveh’s immediate turnaround sends him right back into his funk.
“Oh, Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was in my own country,” Jonah laments, according to the Jewish Publication Society translation. “That is why I fled beforehand… for I know that you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” Soon after, Jonah again states his desire to die, only this time because a divinely inspired worm kills a sapling that had been supplying him with shade.
What can explain Jonah’s death wish or the moral absurdity of his mourning a small plant even as he despairs the salvation of tens of thousands of human beings?
The biblical narrative offers little insight, as it begins with God’s dispatching of Jonah to Nineveh and provides virtually no information about his life before that point. An important clue, however, can be found in a midrash that identifies him as the unnamed baby who is resurrected by Elijah the Prophet in Kings I 17:22.
If this is indeed Jonah’s identity, then his depression can be understood as otherworldly angst: He is an angel, trapped in flesh and bone, confounded by a world where the moral order is frequently undone by repentance and forgiveness. It’s not that Jonah values plants more than he does people; it’s that above all else, he values justice. From the perspective of the celestial orbit to which Jonah longs to return, the people of Nineveh were sinners who deserved to feel God’s wrath. This is in sharp contrast to the sapling, which had done nothing wrong. In his own life, as well, Jonah displays a consistent willingness to accept his fate, taking no steps to ask for a heavenly reprieve, even in the face of seemingly certain death.
In his thirst for a strict accounting, Jonah is like the angels who are said to have danced in celebration after Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the Red Sea during the Exodus from Egypt. And just as God rebukes the angels for not understanding a father’s love for even his most evil creations, He tells Jonah: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow…. Should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left.” The story ends without any clear indication that Jonah has abandoned the view of repentance as a corruption of the laws of righteousness. Yet the reader is left with an uplifting message: Repentance is God’s gift, not only to the children of Israel but to all people, as well — whether they behave like angels or not.
Ami Eden is the executive editor of the Forward newspaper and the editor of Forward.com. This piece was inspired by a lecture delivered last Yom Kippur by Rabbi Yosie Levine of New York City’s Jewish Center.