By Larry Gordon
The bidding will be high, as those with that kind of money have a profound desire for it. Some buy it every year and are hoping to do so again; others are going to pursue it for the first time. It is one of those signature purchases that must mean different things to different people. In a sense, it is at least one of the centerpieces of the Yom Kippur service that Jews around the world will observe over this Shabbos.
The bidding referred to above is for the privilege of the third aliyah at Minchah, as the day begins to wane and the clock counts its way down. This third aliyah also features the reading of Maftir Yonah, the riveting story of the prophet Jonah, his charge to warn the citizens of Ninveh of their impending destruction unless they repent, and his attempt to avoid the mission and “escape” from Gâ€‘d.
What an interesting escape this is. Once Hashem tells Jonah to get moving in the direction of Ninveh, he actually does get moving rather promptly–but in the opposite direction. His goal was to try to evade Gâ€‘d’s jurisdiction even though he surely knew that this was impossible to achieve.
And perhaps that is one of the important reasons that the story of Jonah has such a deep and intense impact on Yom Kippur. In the course of the year, we may imagine or even believe that there are circumstances under which we can evade His jurisdiction or notice, and we might even envision Hashem as being busy with other things and looking the other way as we prance our way through our daily routine.
But that is exactly the point of this haftarah–regardless of how well-thought-out or choreographed our planning or circumstances are, there is one certainty: there is no such thing as escaping from the dominion of the Alâ€‘mighty Gâ€‘d. And maybe that is why on the surface, the plan of Jonah was to escape to Tarshish, outside the jurisdiction of Eretz Yisrael, a place where he thought that a prophet would not be able to prophesy. Was this a prophet’s miscalculation or just some wishful thinking on Jonah’s behalf?
I believe that it is imperative, though, that we not just retell the story of Jonah and the whale but that we pause for a moment and delve a bit deeper into what took place here, who Jonah was, how he conducted himself, and the connection of this entire episode to Yom Kippur, amongst other intriguing aspects of this fascinating episode in our history.
The series of events recounted in this haftarah of Yom Kippur afternoon took place 2,665 years ago, in the year 3113 on the Jewish calendar, which makes that 640 BCE. It is important to stop for just a moment and come to the awe-inspiring realization how today, in these advanced and modern times, we are still connected to events that took place more than two and a half thousand years ago. It is a religious text that is timeless, but Jonah was also a person who lived in a city and was living his life–maybe it was simple, maybe not–just like we are living our lives today.
Jonah was a reluctant prophet, if not the most reluctant or even uncooperative man, who was charged with bringing a message from Hashem to the world. Some commentators draw a parallel between how Moshe Rabbeinu responded when Gâ€‘d appeared to him at first and directed him to tell the Jewish nation enslaved in Egypt that the time of their redemption had arrived and he was the redeemer.
You will recall from your study of Chumash that Moshe, too, was at first averse to the idea of representing Gâ€‘d to the people. Moshe protested vociferously, almost challenging Gâ€‘d on a multiplicity of levels, even arguing his case for why Hashem should be convinced that he, Moshe, was not the man for the job.
Moshe argued and even debated, but he did not run away to try avoiding the task or mission at hand. At the other end of the equation, we have Jonah, who did not debate Gâ€‘d per se–he was unexpressive and spoke very little–but just went about doing things the way he saw fit and ran away, hoping to be let off the hook, so to speak.
The scene on the boat that he ran to is an exciting one. As Sefer Yonah describes in detail, he boarded the boat and found a place for himself at the lowest level of the ship. He promptly went to sleep, oblivious to everything that was happening around him. As the stormy weather increased at sea, the other sailors, who apparently worshiped a series of other gods or idols, searched for who on the boat deserved this kind of treatment and was placing all their lives at risk.
The sleeping Jonah was a suspect for the cause of the raging seas by virtue of his cool disinterest in what was going on around him. He so does not want to be the messenger who convinces the pagan residents of Ninveh to repent that he readily admits that he is the cause of the distress and that he is a Jew who is attempting to escape from Gâ€‘d. Jonah pleads with the other sailors to save themselves by throwing him overboard in what might conceivably be a desire on his part to end his life so that he does not have to carry out this mission.
And what was his problem with following Hashem’s directive and warning the idol-worshippers of Ninveh to change their ways of debauchery and to repent? Jonah cared so deeply for the Jewish people that he was afraid that the people of Ninveh would readily do teshuvah while the people of Israel, who had been beseeched by a series of prophets to repent, seemed to always fall back to their rather unsavory ways of doing things–and therein was Jonah’s dilemma.
So why is this story the centerpiece of the Yom Kippur service? There are many other events that can be recounted at this time about the challenges and obstacles that Klal Yisrael has faced and overcome during all these thousands of years. Part of that answer is that at its core, Yonah is about change and reversals that run contrary to human emotions and instincts. And it is also about the extremes we will resort to in our lives in support of customs and habits that we may have learned from early childhood or adopted later that, intellectually, we know can stand some updating and correcting, but if for no other reason than just because we always did something a certain way, we continue to be committed to that way of life.
So on one level, if Jonah, who was so determined to avoid Hashem’s directive, can change and become a willing messenger of Gâ€‘d, and if the pagans in Ninveh can reverse course and repent, then perhaps we can, too. So while this is indeed a whale of a story, it is important to internalize and adopt its vital messages.
On the matter of the giant fish or whale (some say Moby Dick was inspired by Sefer Yonah), our sages tell us two things. One is that this big fish was one of the things created by Gâ€‘d on the Six Days of Creation and placed in the sea for this specific purpose 3,000 years down the road. The Midrash also recounts that at first Jonah was swallowed up by a male whale and that he was getting comfortable in there as there apparently was plenty of room for him in there–as unusual as that sounds. It was only after a short period that the male spat him out, if you will, into a female whale that was pregnant with multiple fetuses which crowded Jonah. This, according to the Midrash, helped him to come around and become a cooperating prophet.
And finally, there is the more practical matter of the modern-day practice of selling Maftir Yonah to the highest bidder because it is a segulah for good health and parnassah–probably a combination of the two, which is always useful. I came across a shul website that is offering the sale of Maftir Yonah with bidding beginning at $1,000. It says that you don’t have to daven in the shul and that you do not have to live in the same city. Here’s a quote from the website:
“Maftir Yonah is unquestionably a blessing for parnassah and we invite you to be a part of this tapestry of blessings in the year to come. May you and your loved ones benefit from this bounty in health and happiness! It is the real deal!”
And that’s no fish tale. G’mar chasimah tovah.
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