Second Chances

JonahArise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2)

This is not the first time Jonah makes an appearance. During the reign of Jeroboam II the son of Yoash, it says Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet from Gat-hefer, prophesied that Jeroboam the king of Israel, who reigned in Samaria, would restore the periphery of Israel from Lebo-hamat as far as the Sea of the Arabah[1]. Jonah is further accredited with the prophesy in 2 Kings 10:30 and anointing King Jehu at the bequest of Elisha who was terminally sick at the time[2].

This means the book of Jonah doesn’t represent his first or only rodeo; he previously has experienced navua[3]. However, this time, Jonah commits two atrocities:

  • He withholds his prophesy from the intended recipient.
  • He flees from the Presence of Hashem[4].

Fleeing from G-d may seem foolish considering these passages:

  • So she called the name of Hashem who spoke to her, “You are a G-d of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen Him who looks after me.[5]
  • These seven are the eyes of Hashem, that range through the whole earth[6].
  • If they dig into Sheol… if they climb up to heaven… if they hide themselves on the top of Carmel… if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea… if they go into captivity before their enemies… …I will fix my eyes upon them…[7]
  • There is no gloom or deep darkness where evildoers may hide themselves[8].
  • Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there[9].
  • The eyes of Hashem are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good[10].

Jonah flees from the Presence of Hashem, but the method by which he does this is rather unique. He charters a schooner to cross the Whale Road[11]. Whatever possessed Jonah to consider this mode of transportation? Jonah was from Gat-hefer, which is in the region of Zevulon. Specifically, Gat-hefer is a coastal town, so Jonah should be more than familiar with nautical transportation. This also afforded him the ability to flee in the exact opposite bearing to Nineveh.

Why did Jonah flee from before Hashem?

  • According to R’David Kimchi (the Radak), Jonah was running from the presence of Hashem to get away from Israel to end his navua.

There is a passage in the Mekilta, which can shed a bit of light on this: Before the land of Israel was especially chosen, all lands were suitable for divine revelations. After the land of Israel was chosen, all other lands were eliminated. Before Jerusalem was especially chosen, the entire land of Israel was suitable for altars. After Jerusalem was selected, all the rest of the land of Israel was eliminated…[12]

I bring up this passage in order to set the groundwork for the following idea: a prophet is given navua only in the Land of Israel. This is why the Radak suggests Jonah fled the Land to subdue the voice of his navua[13].

  • In slight opposition to the Radak, Isaac Abarbanel seems to indicate he was running from G-d for a slightly different reason. He, like I, believe Jonah was looking for a more permanent solution, and the story will continue from this understanding.

Jonah flees to Joppa to catch a steamer to Tarshish. He climbs aboard and finds himself a hammock and promptly falls asleep[14]. G-d caused a terrible storm, Jonah is found sound sleep at the waterline, permitting him perfect peace and security. Finally, the sailors wake him so he can petition his G-d [as they were doing], because they assume someone’s god is bound to listen if the petitioner prays strong enough. When nothing stills the waves and the wind, the sailors cast lots to determine whose impiety warrants such a storm.

I have to ask myself, “Why?” Why were the sailors convinced the storm was celestial punishment? Was it because the storm was out of season? Was this particular cloudburst a strangely isolated storm that centered itself over the boat? Whatever caused the hysteria, lots were cast and Jonah was fingered to be at fault. In what appears to be a selfless act of courage, he does not hide. He admits he is the cause. Targum Yonah continues the narrative by stating, the men knew he was fleeing before he would prophesy in the Name of Hashem, because he informed them[15].

He was running from the G-d of Heaven who made the sea and the dry land[16], and this further frightened them, for they understood Jonah’s G-d was more than a member of a pantheon of deities who had to ask permission to interact in the domain of another G-d – Jonah’s G-d was the all-powerful G-d. They tried to row to shore but the sea curtailed their efforts and the storm intensified. In spite of their honorable attempts to get him [and them] back home, the sailors finally listen to the words of Jonah: “Pick me up, hurl me into the brine, and the sea will become tranquil for you.[17]

In no uncertain terms, Jonah was saying, “Kill me.” “Throw me in so I can just die.” Jonah was committing suicide by sailor. He wanted to escape his life. Radak says Jonah attempts to escape his prophesy. As a career prophet, Jonah is fully aware when and where and how prophesy occurs and under what circumstances. By looking for a more permanent solution, Jonah was desperately trying to keep from taking this prophesy to Nineveh. If he died at sea, Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days and Jonah would, in fact, be saving the Jewish people.

Two possible scenarios can be devised from the text

  1. If Nineveh turns from their sin, their teshuvah[18] will be weighed against the lack of teshuvah on the part of the Jewish people. To phrase this differently: if a pagan and idolatrous nation who does unthinkable things, even to their own animals, turns from their wicked ways, how much more will that be seen as righteousness in comparison to a people who have the Torah of G-d and the Temple in their midst yet will not turn from their sin?
  2. If Nineveh turns from their sin, in 50 years or so, Assyria take the northern kingdom captive and almost overthrows Jerusalem. Tens of thousands will be killed and even more will be displaced. Whether he knows this future event or not is open for debate, but it could explain why he was so adamantly against bringing the prophesy to Nineveh.

In either case, Jonah appears to come from a line of good prophets who are willing to put their lives on the line for the Jewish people. Moses before him told G-d to remove him from His book if G-d was going to destroy the fledgling Israeli nation for the Cheit haEgel[19]. Jonah chooses to be hurled into the depths of the sea to die as opposed to harm the integrity of the Jewish people. In other words, Jonah was passive aggressively picketing against the Divine Conduct. In Jonah’s opinion, G-d’s Middah haRachamim[20] was being used counter to the interest of the Jewish people, and Jonah was not going to allow himself to be used as a pawn in this plan. This will be explained in a few minutes.

When Jonah disappeared under the seething waves of the sea, the sea calmed and the danger passed. This became a pivotal moment in these men’s lives. They promised dedications to Hashem and they took nedarim[21]. They became believers in the G-d of Jonah and their lives changed.

Jonah, on the other hand, didn’t walk on water[22]. He plummeted into the depths of the sea, knowing his life was lost. As he felt his life slip from his grasp, Hashem, the G-d of Second Chances, brought a designated fish to save his life. In the belly of the beast, Jonah composed a beautiful prayer. In these new piscatorial surroundings, he knew G-d had forgiven him, and Jonah was set to turn his life around. He said, “What I have vowed, I will fulfill. Salvation belongs to Hashem.[23]” Jonah’s teshuvah was complete.

As Jonah experienced G-d’s forgiveness, the fish spat him out onto dry land. He was probably back in Gat-hefer where our story began. There, the Word of Hashem came to him a second time and told him to speak the prophesy. G-d gave him a second chance to get it right.

Jonah proclaims the Word of Hashem and the people listen, even their king removes his regal garments and puts on clothes of mourning and the whole city turns from their sin. What a unique occurrence: G-d sends a message and people listen! Usually the prophet is tortured or killed, jailed or humiliated, and ran out of town.

G-d gave Nineveh a second chance. He reneged and stayed the destroying angel’s hand. The city was spared. This is the perfect example of how Biblical prophesy does not have to come true: negative prophesy can be averted through teshuvah or intercession by a tzaddik[24]. Positive prophesy, on the other hand, always come true.

The second chance G-d gave Nineveh angers Jonah. He even scolds Hashem by saying, “…is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? This is why I rushed to flee to Tarshish; for I knew You are a gracious G-d and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, Hashem, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.[25]

Jonah leaves the city of Nineveh, constructs a sukkah, and waits to see what happens on the 40th day. Apparently his sukkah was not sufficient give him comfort from the hot sun, so G-d designated a kikayun[26] to grow and to provide Jonah more adequate shelter. He waits, kicked back in his chaise lounge, umbrella boat drink in hand, delighted to be under his kikayun, hoping to see evidence that the teshuva he witnessed in Nineveh was not authentic.

G-d appointed a worm to blight the kikayun, and it withered. When the sun rose, an appointed hot east wind beat upon Jonah’s body and he deeply grieved over the kikayun. G-d asked, “Are you good and angry?”

G-d continued[27], “If you pity a plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which grew in a night and perished in a night, why should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, for which I labored, where more than 120,000 persons live who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many head of cattle? [28]

When we reread G-d’s message to the prophet into an easily recognizable kol vachomer, we see that G-d takes pity on all people and allows all people a second chance. In like manner, we need to give others a similar second chance. Equally important, we need to give ourselves a second chance. However, we need to temper this with two important aspects.

  • First, Jonah lost G-d’s mercy, he lost the kikayon, when he hoped to see G-d’s wrath [and not His mercy] beset against Nineveh.
  • Second, the text of Jonah says, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented…[29]

We can’t simply feel sorrowful, dump ashes on our heads, wear uncomfortable shoes for a day and call that being forgiven. When we realize we’ve been wrong and we take steps to correct our error[30], that is when we experience forgiveness.

 

[1] 2 Kings 14:25

[2] 2 Kings 9:1, Seder Olam 18-19

[3] Heb. prophesy

[4] Heb. mi-lifneh Hashem

[5] Genesis 16:13

[6] Zechariah 4:10

[7] Amos 9:2-4

[8] Job 34:22

[9] Psalms 139:7-8

[10] Proverbs 15:3

[11] I love that term; the whale road is an Old Saxon term for the sea

[12] Mekilta Pischa 1

[13] You could say there are prophets with whom He conversed outside the land of Israel. This is true, for He did speak with some outside the Land, but He did so after the destruction of the First Temple, as in the case of Daniel and Ezekiel [Re: Daniel 8:2, 10:4, and Ezekiel 1:3, 3:22]. Eliyahu [Elijah] stands as the lone exception because he heard the still, small voice when he climbed Mount Horev [aka Sinai] – and perhaps Mt. Horev is the reason this is the sole exception.

[14] cf. Matthew 8:24, Mark 4:38

[15] Targum Yonah 1:10

[16] Jonah 1:9

[17] Jonah 1:12

[18] repentance

[19] Heb. Sin of the Golden Calf

[20] Heb. His attribute of Mercy

[21] As a connection to Yom Kippur, vows we make accidentally or flippantly are addressed during the Kol Nidre service

[22] cf. Matthew 14:26-34, Mark 6:49-52, John 6:19-21

[23] Jonah 2:9

[24] Heb. a righteous man

[25] Jonah 4:2-3; as another connection to Yom Kippur, this declaration is very similar to the Declaration of the Thirteen Attributes we sing seven times during the Neilah service as Yom Kippur closes.

[26] Ibn Ezra says no one knows what a kikayon is, so stop wasting time trying to find out

[27] This is a rephrasing of the Biblical text

[28] Jonah 4:10-11

[29] Jonah 3:10

[30] this being a very basic understanding of teshuvah

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