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Parshot/Festivals

Jonah’s whale of contemplation

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If we didn’t know the book of Jonah so well, (or have vague memories of it on Yom Kippur afternoons – pre-COVID-19, of course), the second chapter would catch us by surprise.

Think about it: the first chapter is filled with movement and excitement: Jonah running away, the ship and the sailors and the storm, with a grand conclusion as we see in our mind’s eye Jonah being thrown off the ship into the heaving waters.

Then it all stops in chapter two. Suddenly, there’s no movement. One could say that Jonah is in lockdown. In a fish. While the dag is called a whale in children’s stories and there are arguments about what sort of fish it is, whatever marine species it was, it couldn’t have been very pleasant. As a Biblical narrative, we need to consider what the reason for this chapter is.

The first two verses have Jonah sitting in the fish for three days, before he begins to pray. Why does it take him so long? Israeli bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz explained that this fits with what we know of Jonah up until now. He is running away. He gets on a ship, descends into the hold, and goes to sleep. Each of these movements constitutes an escape from reality. So being in a still, dark place – even if it smells fishy – is where Jonah prefers to stay, away from the turbulent waters and the demands of a G-d who he doesn’t agree with.

But then something changes, and he begins to pray. What sort of prayer is this?

Given his position, one would think it’s a request – and in fact, most people assume that this is so – as we said, it’s rather fishy, so it would be logical that he prays to leave the belly of a fish. But if we read it carefully, we see that isn’t so. Let’s take a look at some of the wording.

He said, “In my trouble, I called to the Lord, And He answered me; from the belly of sheol, I cried out, and You heard my voice.”

And then, When my life was ebbing away, I called the Lord to mind; and my prayer came before You, Into Your holy temple.”

Notice the past tense, as well as the theme. It resembles many of the thanksgiving psalms found in the book of Tehillim. But how is it possible that while he is still in the fish, Jonah is giving thanks for being delivered?

Some modern scholars feel that this chapter was placed here from elsewhere in order to fill out the story. But this doesn’t make sense, after all, if you’re going to choose a psalm, you’d choose one that asks for deliverance, to fit your story. Therefore, it seems more reasonable to assume that this is part of the narrative, and we must ask rather, what is he thanking G-d for at this point in the narrative?

To answer this, we must consider Jonah as a character.

When Jonah asks the sailors to throw him into the sea, he is asking to die. He’d rather die than go to Nineveh, it seems, and then the story could end there. But it is possible that, while he was prepared to give up his life (for reasons that are unclear in the book), now as he thrashes in the water, struggling to breathe, he realises the stark fact of death that stares him in the face, and perhaps it doesn’t seem as great an idea as before.

Suddenly, Jonah is swallowed by a fish. There’s air, silence, darkness, and he sits there, hour after hour, waiting to drown. Three days and three nights pass, and finally it dawns on him that he is, in fact, saved. At this point, he realises that G-d hasn’t given up on him even if he gave up on himself. At this point, he sees G-d not as a strict commander of prophecy, but as a saviour and a G-d who cares about creation and creatures, something that G-d says directly in the last verse of the book. But it takes time alone, time without movement, to contemplate and reach this conclusion.

Each stanza of this poem reflects this reality, as Jonah speaks of a yearning to return to the presence of G-d. The poem then is one of thanksgiving, at his joy in being saved and being given the chance to return and begin again.

This then is the chapter perfectly positioned to inspire us on the afternoon of Yom Kippur when we may feel a little dwarfed by the immensity of the distance between mortal and creator, wondering if our teshuva has been enough. It’s then that we are called upon to consider that even someone who actively ran away – to the bottom of the ocean – can change and is forgiven. It becomes our own thanksgiving for the opportunity to rebuild a relationship with the almighty.

  • Ilana Stein is head of education of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning, where she also lectures on Tanach and Jewish environmental ethics.

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