A Lesson From Jonah: We Cannot Hide From Our Calling


Despite its placement in the twilight hours of the Yom Kippur service, many of us are familiar with the Book of Jonah. Called on by God, Jonah is instructed to go to Nineveh and urge the people to repent their wicked ways.

We are never told what Jonah thinks when God calls on him to act, but we do know what he does. He runs the other way. This is no Abrahamic “Hineni / Here I am” moment. I imagine Jonah thinking: “God, you have got the wrong guy! Why should I care for the Ninevites — a people not only wicked, but a people of whom we Israelites live in fear?” So instead of going up to Nineveh, Jonah goes down to Jaffa and purchases a one-way off-peak ticket to Tarshish. He boards the ship, at which point things go from bad to worse; a hurricane comes, the storm intensifies, the ship is about to capsize and the sailors pray — each to his own God. 

What does Jonah do? He goes further down into the recesses of the ship and lies down, falling into a self-induced deep sleep. In the verses that follow, the sailors come to realize it is Jonah’s presence that is the root cause of their travail. Jonah offers to be thrown into the water, but the sailors refuse, seeking to bring the storm-tossed ship to shore until they come to understand they have no choice and reluctantly drop Jonah into the water, a final downward descent for our anti-hero who is swallowed up into the belly of the whale.

It was the famed American psychologist Abraham Maslow who coined the term the “Jonah complex,” a condition whereby an individual seeks to escape the vocation, mission or responsibilities that are his or hers to realize. Jonah’s flight, as Erica Brown (a Jewish Week columnist) explains in her fabulous new book “Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet,” is about far more than geography; his three-fold descent is not merely physical. Jonah’s flight was not just from Nineveh or from God; when Jonah sought to evade his Abrahamic patrimony, he was fleeing from himself. And it was there on the ocean floor, in the belly of the whale, that Jonah hit rock bottom. He could run no more and he cried out to God.

In all my years of High Holiday sermon writing, I cannot remember a summer as difficult to make sense of as this one. Natural disasters, conflicts in Israel, terror attacks in England and Spain, the Charlottesville fiasco, a nuclear showdown with North Korea and much, much more.

No different than Jonah, individually and collectively we have assembled a catalogue of tactics to flee, evade, ignore and escape the callings of the hour. “What can I do?” we soothe ourselves saying. “What concern is it of mine?” “Those people … they are no friends of the Jews.” “Why should I care?” Rather than do anything — Jonah-like — we declare ourselves helpless, run the other way and dive back under the safety blanket of our quotidian lives. The flight of Jonah is our flight; we sit in the belly of the whale, the self-induced flight from our Abrahamic obligations.

The call of the High Holy Days is to break out of the paralysis of analysis and begin the task of reclaiming our “Hineni/Here I am” birthright of moral citizenship that courses through our DNA. This is what it means to be a Jew — not to look at the world and be satisfied with what is — but to look at the world and ask what “ought” to be. The faith community has an obligation to speak out and respond to the issues of the day. Today we embrace our role as partners in God’s creation, to doing our part towards tikkun olam, mending this fractured world in which we live and finding hope in the darkness.

We know that we should do something, but the voice of Jonah remains a compelling one. What can I possibly do? And can I really make a difference? We are not the first ones to ask these questions. But here, too, the prayers of the holiday are our guide. “Who will live and who will die?” “Who by water and who by fire?” The operative word is “Who?” It is a question for which, we know, none of us have the answer. But in the face of the unknowing we refuse to throw up our hands. Rather, just the opposite — “Uteshuva, U’Tefilla, U’Tzedaka, Repentance, Prayer and Righteous Deeds — are our response.” We conduct a self-inventory, we meditate on the world as it is and as it “ought” to be and we commit to bridging that gap. Each of us has been granted a limited and indefinite time on this earth, and so we commit to making our presence and impact known. Inaction is not an option. 

And it is not one size fits all. Just as our world does not lack for small and large Ninevehs, pockets of brokenness in need of repair, neither does it lack interventions that you or I and all of us together can and must do to make a difference. Our principles are there to be acted on, and we dare not cede the public square to those with a louder and often toxic megaphone. It is not, as Rabbi Tarfon taught, incumbent upon us to finish the task at hand, but we cannot and dare not desist from engaging with it.

Judaism, to be clear, is neither conservative nor liberal. God is not a Republican or Democrat. The Torah does not offer political positions on health care, taxes or environmental policy. But it does offer values, principles and norms which must be affirmed and restated unflinchingly — always, and especially when they are in breach.

On the question of Israel’s security, American Jews have a critical role to play. In the public sphere, in private conversations, irrespective of one’s personal politics, we must be engaged. To be Jewish and not support Israel is an abdication of what it means to be a Jew today.

On the question of refugees, rabbis must be cautious before staking out specific political positions. But to be Jewish and not seek to know the heart of the stranger for you were once a stranger in a strange land — that is an abdication of what it means to be a Jew today.

On the question of environmental policy, to express our gratitude to God for the miracle of creation and not act on our responsibilities to protect and tend our earth — that is an abdication of what it means to be a Jew today.

The list goes on and on. Our responsibilities to the poor, to gender equality, to racial equality. Rabbinic leadership should never seek to be divisive or misrepresent our tradition in partisan terms. Rabbinic leadership should, however, cause one to reflect, make one think and sometime squirm. Sometimes as Jews we need to say that this is where we stand — here and not there. As Rabbi Israel Salanter once wrote, “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man.” 

‘The flight of Jonah is our flight; we sit in the belly of the whale, the self-induced flight from our Abrahamic obligations.’

The promise of community is not that everyone agrees. The promise is to model what it means to speak authentically and inclusively from our tradition, to have all voices heard and then leverage our communal muscle towards action. We must, in the words of political philosopher Michael Sandel, rediscover the lost art of democratic argument both for its own sake and to demonstrate how a robust exchange of ideas serves to strengthen the bonds of communal life.

Ours is a storm-tossed era in more ways than we can count. From the depths of the sea, from the belly of the whale, today we seek to heed God’s original call in order to arrive, Jonah-like, on dry land. We take that journey towards Nineveh, and there we take our stand. While there is no promise that we will succeed, the combination of our present conscience and the moral judgments of future generations demand that we leave it all out on the field of play. 

On this day may we be strengthened in reclaiming the “Hineni/Here I am” that is ours as descendants of Abraham. On this day may we model what it means to be a Jewish community seeking to actualize the authentic yet ever-elusive will of God. Most of all, on this day, may we, as partners in God’s creation, commit to doing our part to mend this world in such desperate need of repair.

is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.