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As Yom Kippur approaches, Jews are involved in self-reflection and self improvement. We navigate our way from the Day of Judgement (Rosh HaShana) through the Ten Days of Repentance, until we reach the pinnacle of human self-awareness and humility — then we atone for twenty-five hours on Yom Kippur. We separate ourselves out from ordinary human activity: eating and drinking, washing, the wearing of comfortable shoes and from intimate physical relationships. We stand alone before God and we beg for forgiveness, for our very lives and for the opportunity to try again. We spend the day deep in prayer and we attempt to repair our relationship with God, as well as our relationships with others.

And, amidst the spiritual devotion, we read the Book of Jonah.

This short biblical narrative contains several messages, relevant not only to the penitent, but to anyone who likes a great story. Jonah is asked by God to speak to the people of Nineveh, to warn them of their inevitable destruction and to encourage them to repent for their misdeeds — a common theme amongst the prophets. But Jonah isn’t happy. He is frustrated by God’s mercy and forgiveness, and is scandalised by the fact that Nineveh’s inhabitants do not receive their appropriate punishment, because they do indeed repent. Moreover, Jonah is upset because his prophecy of Nineveh’s destruction is not fulfilled, and he feels he has been made to look a fool.

Biblical commentators discuss the plethora of homiletic material about the creation of the world, and particularly relevant here is their exploration of the balance of justice and mercy. Without justice, the world would be chaotic and anarchic — doomed to violence and corruption; but without mercy human beings would never believe in reparations, forgiveness, in another chance. God tries to inculcate in Jonah this ambivalence, the inconsistencies of human beings, and thus the need to encourage them to think again, indeed to try again.

The emeritus Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks suggests that Jonah ‘knew’ God would eventually forgive Nineveh, because, ‘there is always room for human repentance and divine forgiveness’, and it is precisely because of what he considers imperfect justice, that Jonah runs and hides. And he runs as far from the face of God as he can, into the depths of the sea. In Genesis (Chapter 1, Verse 2) we are told, ‘The land was empty and void, and there was darkness on the face of the abyss, and the spirit of God hovered over the waters.’ Over the waters, but not in them. And so Jonah seeks to hide from God under the sea, to avoid confronting the philosophical and theological ideas that so disturb him, that ‘G-d has mercy on all the creations’ (Psalms: Chapter 145, Verse 9).

Notably then, the Book of Jonah presents to Jews the righteousness of Gentiles. Both the people of Nineveh who heed Jonah’s warnings and repent, and most poignantly, the sailors who pray during the storm which God sends to lid Jonah from his slumber below deck. It is these sailors who recognise there is a problem and it is these sailors who are hesitant to throw Jonah overboard when he tells them that he is the cause of the storm. Once overboard, he is swallowed by a great sea creature within whose belly he is truly isolated and alone. There is a sense then that the Gentiles in this story recognise and fear God, whilst the Jew Jonah runs, trying desperately hard to find a place where he does not have to recognise God, to see God or to hear God.

Jonah is the extreme human being in this story. He knows God intellectually, but cannot live with God’s requirements. And although he ‘remembers’ God in the fish, when returned to land he continues to struggle with the way in which God runs the world. Yet God persists — sending message after message, lesson after lesson — but Jonah remains pained. And, perhaps this is reminiscent of the human condition: the not understanding of why we are here, the incomprehension of how it all works — does indeed cause us all distress.

So we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur to try to learn to live with the fact that we are not in control; we submit to God’s design and we try to come to terms with not understanding the machinations of Divine justice and mercy.

Perhaps we could call the Book of Jonah a book of love – God is desperate to share with Jonah how great is the love for the creations of the world, all of them. As Rabbi Sacks comments, ‘there is a relationship with God we share with others, and there is a relationship with God unique to the Jewish people. At times Jews have tended to forget one or other of these truths but they are both true.’[1]

This eternal spiritual parable then, reminds us of a God of love and mercy, specifically at the pinnacle of profound justice meted out on Yom Kippur. It reminds us that we share the world and this shared existence requires us to imitate this precarious balance of mercy and justice in our own lives — a message even the prophet Jonah found difficult to heed.

Lindsay Simmonds

CCJ Scholar-in-Residence


[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (2003) The Rohr Family Edition Yom Kippur Machzor; publ. Koren; p.1007