Jonah’s Story

Today’s afternoon haftarah is Jonah’s story. His name means dove. A millennium or two before Jonah’s time, Noah sent out a dove also, on a mission. The dove went seeking and Jonah went AWOL. He probably expected the reception usual on any mission that tries to make bad people good: the stake, the fire, if you’re lucky, only the rope. To his surprise, when he finally got around to doing his job, he received a profound response. Tarshish’s people accomplished a full repentance. Tarshish, by the way, is mentioned several times in the Tanach, but seems to mean something like a place so far away it’s half fantasy. Back to repentance.

Repentance is what connects the haftarah reading to the Torah reading and to the holiday of Yom Kippur, one of only four commanded by the Torah. Repentance is a relatively new emotion, not to be confused with regret, sadness, or frustration, but when you consider how old the religious emotions are: awe, fear that contemplates death, desire for justice, and the need to understand forces more powerful than one can control, it’s a surprise to see Repentance in the crowd at the altar. The older emotion is indignation: I said the prayers. I stopped stealing. I sacrificed enough animals to make a zoo. Where’s the pay-off? I praised You, now make with the grain and wine and oil. Come up with answers or cancel my subscription. The supernatural gumball machine has swallowed my quarter and produced no gumball. Therefore, there is no god, or God’s no good.

Sincere awe is a difficult emotion to maintain. The human tendency is downward; the agonized tears shed by Mary Magdalen filter down to give us the word maudlin. Selig, the old Saxon word for holy, eventually yielded the word silly. Tougher than awe to maintain is gratitude.

Jonah brought the city of Tarshish to repentance, when he himself was far from gratitude. This sends the message that a person doesn’t need to be perfect to do or be called upon to do great things. God doesn’t always pick from the top of the pile.

Elie Wiesel once told me that God should have informed the Jews that the mission he was sending them on was a suicide mission. I replied that given that the death rate stands at a steady 100 percent, I’d rather go on a suicide mission than not have any mission at all. The conversation ended because he was on the TV and I wasn’t, but as we now contemplate people actually making suicide missions, we realize that there are immense differences in those missions. Jonah’s mission, which he thought would be a suicide mission, was for the purpose of bringing repentance and life. The modern practitioners of the suicide mission want only to bring death.

The idea of bringing life is what links the afternoon haftarah to the present Torah portion: choose life. The mission is to give and bring and promote life and blessing, not death and the curse. Awe, gratitude, repentance, and forgiveness are the Yom Kippur emotions. Incantation, death wish, indignation, and the need for perfection in the form of complete unanimity have no place in our requests, or in the case or some of us, demands.

As Jonah was a very imperfect human being, we, listening, are a bunch of very imperfect people. We are on a thousand missions. May we succeed in our attempts to be a generous people: menshes in the trenches.
Thank God.