On Yom Kippur afternoon, tired and hungry, we will gather to read the enigmatic story of the prophet Jonah. For something that seems like a simple child’s tale, this is an immensely complex story. Legions of commentators have struggled to wrest lessons from it and have found in its very mystery many meanings. Do we read Jonah because the Ninevites, who enjoyed the unenviable reputation as the most brutish nation of the ancient world, repented? Surely, if they can repent, we can. Or are we supposed to focus on God’s mercy in forgiving the Ninevites? If God can forgive them, surely God will forgive us. Is the story — all of only 47 verses! — meant to rattle our cages and teach us that success and failure are not measured in heaven as they are on earth? Jonah thought he was a failure, yet the Ninevites repented. Perhaps the message is that we need to re-examine our priorities. Or perhaps Jonah is the model of someone who does the right thing even though he abhors the idea and initially tries to evade it. Or perhaps Jonah comes to remind us that just as God is everywhere, so our concern for the welfare of others should extend well beyond the safe borders of our families, friends, and communities.
Biblical scholar and psychologist Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes, “The book of Jonah invites interpretation from the first verse to the last; but its elusive meanings are never fully netted. There is no conclusive answer to its questions." (The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious)
What are the questions to which there are no conclusive answers? At the core, Zornberg tells us, this is a story about the human condition: we live every moment with existential uncertainty. We are not firmly planted in life because anything could happen at any time. Who among us has not experienced the shock of an unexpected tragedy? The prayer Unetaneh Tokef boldly reminds us of this unavoidable reality. In the coming year, who will live and who will die? Think about Antoinette Tuff.
Jonah is the ultimate liminal character: like all of us, he stands between life and death, not firmly lodged in either. He is a prophet, but he is neither God’s advocate nor the advocate of the people of Nineveh. He tries to flee, though he knows it is impossible to evade God. His moment of realization comes when he is neither on land nor at sea; he is inside the big fish — liminal space, doing the Big Fish Limbo.
Jonah is not alone in his liminality. When the storm erupts at sea, the sailors stand between life and death; they know that their fate hangs in the balance. So, too, the Ninevites after Jonah delivers his message. They have been condemned, but they are not yet doomed to destruction. They, too, hang in the balance. So did the lives of the children at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur.
In a far less dramatic way, we are no different. We become acutely aware of the fragility of life during these Ten Days of Awe, and especially throughout Yom Kippur, during which we rehearse our deaths. (We wear the white of burial shrouds and some wear the actual kittel in which they will one day be buried; we abstain from drink and nourishment, which sustain life, as well as the comforts and pleasures of the living.) The liturgy of the machzor expresses this through a stark and frightening metaphor: we dangle in the air between ketivah (inscribing) and chatimah (sealing). Our fate, determined by our deeds, is never really a done deal. We need not subscribe to the theology of a God who judges, writes, and seals, to know just how uncertain life is.
Jonah is angry because he doesn’t know anything for certain. In his mind, things should be clear. Evil people should die; good people should prosper. Yet the world does not work this way, and Jonah cannot live in the world as it is. On two occasions, he says he wants to die, both before and after his three liminal days in the big fish. In Zornberg’s words, Jonah is “allergic to standing in uncertainty.”
Jonah is all of us, standing between life and death in every moment; because we cannot know the future, we cannot have certainty. Like Jonah, we have a choice to make. Will we run away, flinging ourselves into the sea? The alternative, Zornberg says, is to stand before God, or stand in the presence of God. It strikes me that Jonah never stands: he runs away, he sleeps in the boat, he floats in the fish, he walks to Nineveh, and he sits in the shade of the kikayon tree. But he doesn’t stand, which for
Jonah and for us means to live in the place between life and death, to live with the tension of uncertainty. That place is a life lived fully, enthusiastically, and compassionately.
Jonah lives in fear and anxiety. The best part about Jonah is that he succeeds in the mission God laid out for him; indeed Jonah is the only prophet in the Bible who succeeds! The worst part about Jonah is that because he cannot “stand before God” and live with existential uncertainty, he lives in fear and anxiety, and is incapable of compassion. You might be thinking that he has compassion for the sailors, but as the story comes down to us, it seems that Jonah realizes he will soon be discovered to be the cause of the storm, and in any case he wishes to end his life. He certainly has no compassion for the Ninevites, or even for their animals — not for any living, breathing creature. His only attachment is to the kikayon, a little bush. Antoinette Tuff listened to the would-be killer. She told him, “We all go through something in life” and “We not going to hate you, baby.” She told him she loved him, and I have no doubt that at that very moment, she did. Antoinette Tuff saved many lives that Tuesday with compassion.
Unable to live with mortality hanging over his head, Jonah can experience only judgment, fear and despair. But not compassion. Perhaps this is the most disturbing aspect to the book: Despite all he experiences, Jonah does not grow, or change, or evince any understanding.
Dennis Shulman, MD, published an article to refute Zornberg’s reading of Jonah. He writes:
…the meaning of the Book of Jonah is clear. Psychic unity requires that we face our objects—God and conscience, Nineveh and storm and mother, self and other—struggle with them, stare at them, allow them to breathe and live in the same room. As God, Jonah's “psychoanalyst,” argues, it is only then that we can find our way to where… Jonah never quite arrives—forgiveness of the self and of the other.
I think Shulman’s interpretation dovetails beautifully with Zornberg’s thesis. Isn’t Shulman’s description what it means to “stand before God” as Zornberg explains it? To face the existential reality of our lives, the uncertainty of both how long we will live and how well, to know we are always in limbo, always in a liminal state between life and death — not just during these Eser Y’mei Teshuvah / Ten days of Awe, but always. Think Antoinette Tuff.
Here is how I weave the ideas of these two scholars and psychologists, Zornberg and Shulman, together.
- The very nature of life is that we must learn to live with existential uncertainty. Time and energy spent fussing about what we have and don’t have, worrying about what we cannot control, and making excuses for what we do or fail to do, is time and energy that could be spent making our lives meaningful and fulfilling.
- What we need most of all to break out the all-too-natural, but unproductive prison of self-absorption and self-pity is compassion: look around and see what’s happening to others. What can we do for them? How can we enlarge our lives to include them?
- When we learn to operate through compassion, we will then be able to truly forgive — the real, genuine article — both ourselves and others.
- And when we do that, we will have found a measure of shleimut (wholeness) and shalom (peace).
May the coming year be for you one of compassion, forgiveness, and peace.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman