The Book of Jonah is a book that hovers between fantasy and reality. Even if the string of events described within it are possible, it is still unrealistic to believe that the main message of the book is the actual storyline and the incidents it describes. A story about a fish that swallows a man and spits him out is easier to understand if we relate to it as an attempt to convey an abstract idea. Obviously, it would be a mistake to avoid the layer of symbolism and relate to things only as they appear to be.
The same is true of the exchange between Jonah and the other passengers on the boat. It isn’t very probable that a considered and moderate theological discussion such as this would take place during a storm that poses such an existential threat. Clearly, this conversation, like the rest of the events, can be understood not as reality, but rather literarily; the conversation and deliberation echoes of Jonah’s own internal soul-churning. There are more than a few literary and theatrical works whose turning points hinge on dialogue and not plot, where the conversations between characters reflect the development of their inner world. Similarly the conversation between Jonah and the sailors is an important element in the plot, driving Jonah’s journey towards repair. The event is internal, mental and spiritual.
Who is Really Asking the Questions?
Together the characters, actions and words in this exchange express the internal process that Jonah is going through. The contrasts act as a mirror that sharpens and elucidates where Jonah is at; his physical location and his actions emphasize his peculiarity. Jonah’s descent to the bowels of the ship and his subsequent slumber stand in stark contrast to the activity and vigilance of the other passengers on the boat’s deck. The character of the responsible, take charge shipmaster is so strikingly juxtaposed with the glaring apathy and indifference Jonah displays. The question the passengers pose to Jonah, “From whence do you come, what is your land and of what people are you?” is the same question running through Jonah’s mind, only here it is placed in the mouths of gentiles and people who worship other gods. With this question, posed by such a distant point of view, Jonah is confronted with the overwhelming paradox of his situation: he believes in the Lord, fears the God of the heavens, who made the sea and land, and yet he is unwilling to play the part that this demands. Instead he prefers to cast himself into the sea in a “work-to-rule” strike, rebellion sans heresy.
There is much that one can say about rebellion that stems from a conscious decision, about the frequency of sins that are spawned of ideals and sins that stem from the thought that God’s demands of man do not fit the reality in which man finds himself.
Nevertheless, I would like to relate specifically to the importance of the inner dialogue and verbal elucidation as part of Jonah’s evolution and healing.
Viktor Frankl, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” documents and describes the mental state of concentration camp inmates, based on his own personal experiences. Amongst other things, he describes that there was one day when his suffering overcame him, he was in pain because his shoes were wet and he was standing in a long line pondering what he would eat that night and how many portions would be distributed and if he should trade his cigarette for a ration of soup and how he should act to endear himself to those who held his life in their hands. At a certain point he rejects these thoughts which all deal with completely trivial matters, and in order to reinforce himself he casts his thoughts to another world and imagines himself in a pleasant, well lit lecture hall, lecturing about the psychology of a concentration camp. Suddenly all his troubles become objective, quantifiable and subject to scientific inquiry. In those moments the mental process he has just undergone has turned into the subject of academic discussion. The painful reality of his life has suddenly become a coldly dissected description that includes an examination of causes as well as interpretations and conclusions. He brings the words of Spinoza, “emotion which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” (pg. 95)
This is also true of the suffering we undergo as the result of sin. The sense of difficulty and descent into self-loathing may be appropriate in the initial moments of regret, but a person must pass from the stage where he wallows in sin and move into the stage of viduy (confession, acknowledgment), the stage of introspection when we flesh it all out, closely examine the situation, set the record straight and put things into a larger perspective. Perhaps this is just as every budding psychologist knows, even when we have ceased to talk about it, the experience lingers. We can freshly process the experience of sin while removing it from this probing and paralyzing facet so that we may extract understanding and insight. In order to do so a person must gather into himself like Jonah when he was in the belly of the fish, and immerse himself in honest introspection and calculated soul-searching.
In the center of Yom Kippur we have the viduy. A person faces himself, pounds himself for his sins and undergoes a process of atonement and purification. The universal text which is used for viduy provides us with an interesting benefit. This text, which is at times ridiculous, gives us a different perspective on our own laundry list of sins: it represents the plurality of breakdowns possible for us humans. It is as if someone is standing outside and telling us: I know all the sins, if you haven’t failed in this one, you’ve failed in that one. And if not that then this. It’s clear – each person has his or her own personal downfalls. There is nothing new in this world. We all acknowledge Him and yet we all rebel against Him.
When we have reached a place of internal cleansing, once we have removed the burden and transitioned to a conscious dialogue, we are free to move on to the next stage where we can think about practical repair and the ways of teshuva (return).
Rabbanit Dr. Michal Tikochinsky is the head of the Beit Midrash for Women’s Leadership at Beit Morasha, teaching Talmud and Halacha, and holds a doctorate in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. A popular public speaker, she has published many articles on Jewish scholarship, Biblical commentary, and Halacha. She is also a member of the Beit Hillel Executive Committee.
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