The Education of Yonah
They said to him, "tell us because of this, evil has come upon us. What
is your occupation? From where have you come? What is your country? From
what nation are you? And he said to them, "I am a Hebrew and the L-rd G-d
of heaven I fear, He who made the heaven and dry land (1:8-10)."
After the sailors ejected Yonah, a "great fish" swallowed him. Three days
in the belly of the fish and Yonah finally opened his mouth and praised
Hashem. That psalm of thanks giving is one of only three places where we
find Yonah actually saying something of personal nature; the first place
is here and the last when he complains to G-d at the conclusion of the
We might have expected that inside the fish, the reluctant prophet finally
realizes where he had gone wrong, acknowledges his sins and repents fully.
What a conventional writer would do at this point is have Yonah confess
and Hashem save him because of his repentance. But, this is not how the
Bible works; life is more complex than that and so is also the Scripture.
To our surprise, Yonah admits nothing and asks for nothing (you may
quickly read through Chapter 2 to confirm this fact). He elaborately
praises G-d but does not speak to Him. The "poor fit" between what we
would expect at that juncture and what actually happens provoked much
deplorable critical activity in recent times.
To understand the function and nature of this psalm, which we will, G-d
willing, discuss at greater length later, let us focus on what Yonah says
now and what that teaches us about his situation at this point in time. It
appears that he learned certain truths from his experience and we find
them expressed in response to the sailors' queries.
What was asked of him is, in truth, the kind of questions that the world
asks all of us. The view out there is that people are products of their
environment, education and conditioning. The mariners met in Yonah a kind
of man they have never encountered. They assumed that he must have come
from some race of spiritual giants of which they heretofore simply had not
known. Perhaps he was a clergyman of some kind and his work made him what
he was. Or, may it had been the surroundings in which he grew up, some
enchanted land of mysticism and spirituality, some sort of holy city or a
mountain on which gods reside. From where have you come? What is your
country? From what nation are you?
It is a tribute to how deeply Yonah affected the sailors that even at this
time of extreme danger they are more interested in who he is than in how
to save their own skins. "Who are you, the man of splendor and mystery,
and what are your powers that have changed us so?"
Whatever the answer, it would obligate them to nothing. After all, they
did not come from that land and did not do his kind of work. He was what
he was because of how he grew up and we are what we are because of our
antecedents. At least, that is what they hoped to hear from him.
Yonah understood all this and he did not answer them as they expected. He
did not even tell them that he was a Jew, for that would play right into
their pre-existent assumption. Instead he described himself in terms of
the general region, a Hebrew, or as one would say these days - Middle
Easterner. He told them that he became who he was became he worshipped the
One Maker of the world. They could also do so and become great. Right
away - "And the men feared a great fear (v. 10)", "and the men feared a
great fear of Hashem (v. 16)."
The point of this answer was not to explain that he was running away from
G-d. That he told them shortly thereafter, "for the men realized that he
is escaping from Hashem for he told them (v. 10)." That verse
demonstrates that his words to the sailors were not about "why has this
evil come upon us" but an answer to another question, implied but not
stated. As he responded, Yonah was still engaged in attempting to better
them. At the same time, he summarized what he himself had learned.
What had Yonah learned?
He thought that he could escape G-d at seas. Now he realizes that G-d
made "the sea and the dry land". He thought that he could leave Hashem
behind. Now he knew that he will always fear and revere Him, for that is
who Yonah is. He thought that he could melt into the international
community of sea-men. Now he learned "I am a Hebrew".
Yonah understood that he is essentially a religious man who can never
separate himself from his spiritual roots. We might say that he embarked
on the classic path of religious discovery - form within outward. His
experience at sea changed him. He no longer had illusions of escaping from
himself, of joining the great heaving masses of undifferentiated and
materialistic humanity. He knew now well that his portion in life was to
serve the Creator - only, he still did not understand Him and did not agree
with His management of this world. How can one serve a Master with who he
disagrees? How does one love a woman who angers and provokes him? Is it
not by marshalling all the memories of the sweet times in the past, the
love that was and all the good that his spouse still deals him. That is
the central thread of prophetic literature in books such as Hoshea and
Yirmiah and there we find G-d alternating between His wrath over Israel's
wickedness and His recollection of their faithfulness in the past. True,
within the belly of the fish Yonah was reborn. Yet, he still did not
understand why and for what purpose. He still felt compelled and still not
of the same mind as the One who sent him. Yonah opened his mouth and
praised Hashem's kindness and thus had the re-approachment began. So also,
G-d responded to Yonah's efforts and He commanded the fish to spit him
onto the dry land but he did not respond in words. Yonah will go on
Hashem's mission but not yet with a full heart. The Wise One will also
wait for the right moment to open his prophet's heart.
Yona's education has just began. It is only at the end of his mission when
he confronts G- directly that he receives an explanation. At this point of
the story, however, Yonah is becoming ready to listen for he now
recognizes that for him there is no other way.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.