And he found a ship and gave its price…(1:3)
As we begin to explore Yonah’s flight, we discover that the prophet’s interaction with the sailors, the captain and ultimately the men of Nineveh cannot be separated from a consideration of his personality. Careful reading reveals to us a truly remarkable man, a person of great inner nobility and truth, an enormously charismatic leader, and a man of impressive strength and resilience. Yonah made an impression and without appreciating this fact, much of what is described in the book remains mysterious and difficult to fathom.
Before we do so, however, it is worthwhile to think for a few minutes about prophecy in general.
How does one become a prophet; how are Divine messengers chosen? A cursory examination of Tanach reveals no clear pattern. On the one hand, some of the greatest of prophets suffered from physical deficiencies or came from modest means and circumstances. Moshe, the greatest of the prophets, stuttered and Amos says of himself: “I am not a prophet nor a son of a prophet for I am a herdsman and inspector of wood (Amos 7,14).” As a matter of fact, quite often we get an impression that G-d plucks a man out of obscurity and endows him with supernatural gifts to use on His mission. On the other hand, some prophets, and Eliahu and Isaiah come to mind, appear before us fully formed; in no way average human beings, perhaps angels more than men.
R. Saadia Gaon (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, III: 4) maintained that as a rule G-d did not select outstanding individuals for prophecy, for had He done so, the message could be ascribed to the genius or giftedness of the messenger. One could confuse the messenger with the message; the genius of the prophet could obscure the genuineness of the prophecy. Maimonides (Guide II,32), on the other hand, adopts the view that prophecy is a natural attainment of a pure human being at the pinnacle of moral, spiritual and intellectual perfection. Any person possessing the requisite achievements will receive prophecy, unless G-d denies it for some reason. This is certainly a more philosophically satisfying formulation and it appeals to a certain contemporary sense of egalitarianism. It is important to realize, however, that it detracts in some measure from Divine omnipotence.
There is, however, also a middle way. As the Malbim in the beginning of Amos points out, both impressions can be reconciled. Prophecy can be personal, that is restricted to the prophet himself or a close circle of prophets, or it can be communal, destined for the nation as a whole, perhaps even for all humanity. The former kind of prophecy would only come to a recipient worthy of it. The latter kind may even be sent to an average man. The very fact that he is average and the least expected to voice inspired content or perform miracles and signs, validates the Divine origin of the prophecy.
The Sages clearly saw Yonah as being a remarkable individual. They comment: “The Holy One Blessed be He does not rest his presence except on one who is strong, wealthy and wise… How do you know that all prophets were wealthy? From…Yonah for it says: ‘and he gave its price…’ R. Yochanan said ‘The price of the entire ship.’ R. Romanos says: The price of the ship was 4000 gold coins” (Nedarim 38a).
Now, imagine for a moment that you were a New York City driver and a well- dressed man of obvious sophistication and influence rushes into your vehicle, pushes 4000 dollars into your palm and breathlessly asks you to immediately drive him to Mexico. What would you think? What would you wonder? What would you do?
Let us consider this scenario for a week and let us begin to examine the relationship between Yonah and the sailors in the week to come.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.