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Haftarah: Yom Kippur Afternoon: Jonah: Clarity & Confusion

A prophecy is a dream perfectly designed for the recipient. The dream is tuned to the mind and soul of the prophet so that the message will be received with full clarity.  There is no reason to assume that when God appears to Jonah at the beginning of the book that the vision was less than perfectly designed for the prophet.

The prophecy was intended to have Jonah run.  All that occurred; the escape, the storm, Jonah’s sleep, his being thrown overboard, swallowed by a fish, the speech in Nineveh and his frustration that closes the story are all one complex prophecy. Each and every step is part of Jonah’s message. Each stage is a powerful description of our struggles with the process of Teshuva.

Who was Jonah?  (2Kings 14:25-27) He was a prophet who received an unusual mission, even contradictory in its nature: to deliver a message of good news to a king who was sharply condemned for his evil deeds (2Kings 14:24) and had already been sharply attacked by another prophet (Amos 7:10-17). Jonah’s mission to King Jeroboam of Israel exists beyond the concept of Divine retribution. The king was a sinner. He deserved to be punished, but God “needed” him to save Israel.  “God saw that the distress of Israel was very bitter; there was no one left, bond or free, and no one to help Israel. But the Lord had not said that He would blot out the name of Israel from out of the heaven, so He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Joash.” 

Jonah is being asked once again to speak to the evil; Nahum, Isaiah, and Zephaniah, all describe Nineveh as an enemy of God. When Jonah was sent to Jeroboam he was on a mission to save Israel. He is again sent to the wicked, but this time, not to help Israel, but to save these enemies of God!

Jonah is the story of Israel in exile. We no longer live with the moral clarity that permeated the air of the First Temple era. God will use even the evil as instruments to express His Will. God will not only use them; God will see the good in them as well. The sailors; “called out to God, and said, ‘Please, God, let us not perish…for You, as You wished, so have you done.” The people of Nineveh believed God (3:5). Jonah addressed these people without mentioning God and concealing His role, yet they “believe God”.  Abraham is described as believing God, see Genesis 15:6. Ahaz, king of Jerusalem, which is under siege, is bid by Isaiah to avoid any political-military act, calm down and to believe, (Isaiah 7:1-9). The wicked Ninevites are described using the same term as Abraham and Ahaz. 

The contrast between good and evil will no longer be black and white. The exile will be colored grey. We will find good even in those who are evil. The evil will often accomplish good for God and Israel.

Is Teshuva different in an age of moral ambiguity?

Jonah desperately clings to the absolutes of truth and service of God. At least, he tries to hold on to his clarity. Once he runs from his assigned mission he runs as well into the mud and muck of moral confusion. Truth demanded that Jonah immediately leave for Nineveh and fulfill his mission. The truth was confusing. Jonah ran. He was forced to confront his own inner uncertainty.

His escape pod is tossed and turned by a storm that seemed to center only on the one ship. Jonah immediately understood that the storm was intended for him and he went to sleep, calm in his convictions: He was running from God. God was angry. There was nothing he could do.  The desperate captain of the ship forces Jonah to deal with the fact that all on board would die unless the prophet would pray.  The non-Jewish sailors acknowledge God. They fear God. They do not deserve to die. They may not have stood at Sinai. They did not have a mission to be a Kingdom of Priests, but they were people, men who feared God, men who did not deserve to die. Jonah’s moral clarity worked for him, but it was going to be at the cost of other people.

It is all too simple to maintain our own moral certitude when we ignore other people. It is easy to uphold absolute truths if we are unconcerned about the effects of our decisions on others. The demands of moral definition change; is it still moral if our decisions negatively impact others? 

How can we do Teshuva if the lines of truth are no longer clear?  Were there times that we upheld the absolute truth of not speaking during our prayers even at the cost of hurting another? Have we attacked the efforts of some to reach out to the unaffiliated even if it means that we will push some people away from Judaism? 

How can we know how to return to God if we do not fully understand where we stumbled or where we missed?  We live in confusing times.  Is Yom Kippur a day of absolutes? Or, is it a day on which we search for balance despite the confusion of our times?

The Sages taught that Jonah’s response, absent from the text was based on Daniel 9:9; “To Hashem, our Lord, are mercy and forgiveness.” The same unsatisfying answer that God gave to Moses on the mountain, “I will show favor to those I show favor, and I shall show mercy to those I show mercy.” At this point of Yom Kippur we turn to God’s mercy and favor and give up our search for absolutes.  We simply ask for His love, His compassion and His favor.  Those are the only certainties.

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