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Sefer Yonah


There are many reasons offered why we read Sefer Yonah on Yom Kippur. One of the most famous reasons given is that of the Mishna Berurah who says that it is to demonstrate the concept of Teshuva and show that you cannot run away from the will of Hashem.  In other words, one of the main themes of Sefer Yonah is Teshuva.

Who is doing Teshuva? There are actually two different types of teshuva that we find laced through the Sefer. The first and most obvious is that of the wicked city of Ninveh.  Yonah’s divine mission is to bring them a prophecy of their imminent destruction if they do not repent and incredulously they turn themselves around immediately to the point that the pesukim tell us that they even put sackcloth on their animals to prove the intensity of the mourning over their actions! Their teshuva is instantaneous and intense and they are spared destruction.

 We then have the Teshuva of Yonah, which is a little less obvious because it is not that immediate, and possibly not even complete. The story that we have about Yonah is truly the story of the journey of a man trying to find himself  and trying to come to terms with fulfilling a mission that makes him  uncomfortable and with that, learning about his relationship with Hashem. Throughout the Sefer it is obvious that Yonah is struggling- emotionally, religiously and even at times physically. Perhaps that is why the first thing G-d sends at him is a storm- Maybe  it is an allusion to the “storm” that is raging inside him, a physical manifestation of the struggle he is feeling inside.

 As the sefer progresses we see the struggle even more. Yonah goes down to the bottom of the boat to escape from G-d and probably to escape from himself through sleep, yet he declares to the sailors that knows that the storm is his fault and that he is an “ivri” whose G-d created the heavens and seas. Yet even after that realization he asks to be thrown overboard to stop the storm rather than approach Hashem.  When he finds himself in the belly of the fish and he feels compelled to pray, his tefillah shows him to be confused, struggling, blaming himself but at the same time blaming Hashem. When he finally agrees to complete his mission, he seems to do so begrudgingly, going only a third of the way into the city, not directly to the king, throwing out five words and running out like a child forced to apologize against his will. This is how we find Yonah till the very end.

The Teshuva  of Ninveh stands in direct contrast to that of Yonah. Ninveh’s is clearly motivated by the fear of destruction and so theirs is immediate, instantaneous. But the problem with Teshuva like that is that it doesn’t involve thought process, it is instinctive and what can often happen is that once the threat subsides it is too easy to return to your old ways.  That is perhaps why we have the prophecy of Nachum against Ninveh later on- Ninveh eventually returns to their evil ways- their Teshuva is not long lasting.  The Teshuva of Yonah however is different. Yonah is obviously not afraid of Hashem- he runs away, speaks his mind, rebels against his mission, but all the while his heart is open to learning from what he sees and as he experiences Hashem’s revelations and the chessed that he bestows on him  he finally learns, and what he learns will never leave him. His teshuva is rock-solid. It is the kind of Teshuva that doesn’t fade with time, but remains deeply embedded within Yonah because it was a struggle and a process to get there.

It is the Teshuva of Yonah, not of Ninveh that I think we are supposed to Channel through the Yamim Noraim. It is easy to  be fearful of what your fate might hold and thus do Teshuva instantaneously.  That Teshuva is of course still Teshuva but it is hardly ever lasting. Instead we should be using this period of time before Yom Kippur to be like Yonah, to truly think about and define our relationship with Hashem even if that includes struggling , even if that includes questioning, because ultimately the Teshuva that will come from that will be one that endures.




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