Thursday, January 27, 2011

Yonah's Change of Heart

The following is my article from this week's Toronto Torah. It's a piece from a shiur I presented this week, in a series on Yonah; the shiur audio is available here.

Yonah flees from before G-d, seeking to evade his prophetic mission, and ultimately attempts to surrender his life rather than fulfill the responsibility assigned to him. This wayward prophet is swallowed by a fish, and - during the course of a three-day stay in the depths - experiences a change of heart. He composes a poetic prayer, and pleads for another opportunity to serve. Where before this man had sought escape, now he expressed a longing to draw close to his Creator. What inspired Yonah to alter his path?

One might suggest that Yonah was motivated by fear of impending death, or by the pain of life in the Piscine Hotel. However, this would ignore the passion of his prayer, in which Yonah spoke of remembering G-d and gazing upon His sacred sanctuary. Also, such an explanation would call into question Yonah’s sincerity, and therefore it would raise doubts as to why G-d granted the former prophet his wish. Why, then, did Yonah decide to serve G-d after all?

One possibility emerges from a dialogue between Moshe and HaShem on Har Sinai. As described in the gemara (Sanhedrin 111a), Moshe ascended to Heaven and found HaShem describing His patience in the Torah. Moshe contended that HaShem should be patient only with the righteous – to which HaShem replied that he would eventually come to see the worth of patience for the wicked. That day came with the sin of the Meraglim, when Moshe found himself pleading for Divine mercy for the rebellious Jewish nation.

As Yonah personally declared (Yonah 4:1-3), he had fled from before G-d because of a Moshe-like objection to Divine mercy. Commentators differ in their explanations for that objection, but all agree that Yonah contended that G-d should not apply mercy to the wicked of Nineveh. Perhaps this explains Yonah’s metamorphosis in the fish; like Moshe after the sin of the Meraglim, Yonah came to see the value of Divine mercy when he needed to plead for it himself.

Alternatively, Yonah’s own choice of words offers us another explanation. Yonah waxed rhapsodic (2:5), “I was exiled [נגרשתי] from before Your eyes.” This calls to mind two other exile experiences: “And He exiled [ויגרש] the man [Adam and Chavah, from Eden],” and Kayin’s charge to G-d, “You have exiled me [גרשת].” Adam and Chavah sinned, and then they hid and dissembled when G-d called for them and questioned them. Kayin sinned, and he attempted to hide the truth when G-d questioned him. Both were punished with exile, giving them the distance they had actually sought by hiding, and at that point they repented.

Perhaps the same is true for Yonah. Yonah sought to escape HaShem’s presence, and with his entry into the sea he was granted success. At this point, he was distant, and the flow of prophecy was cut off; Yonah 1, G-d 0. But at this moment the former prophet understood what his success truly meant – that he had erased his connection to the Divine. Like Adam and Chavah, like Kayin, he was now exiled. This frightened him, and he instantly repented his hard-won distance and sought his own return.

As the Vilna Gaon wrote (Aderet Eliyahu to Yonah 1:1), the story of Yonah is the story of every soul. We come to this world with a mission, and, at times, we wander from that mission and stray from the presence of the G-d who directs us. Yonah’s renewed appreciation of Divine mercy through his own experience of forgiveness can teach us to recognize and appreciate Divine kindness in our own lives. Yonah’s appreciation for the value of proximity to G-d can remind us to be similarly motivated to draw closer to our Creator. May we learn the lessons of the man who was swallowed by a fish, and so draw closer to the G-d who has charged us with missions of our own.