Sefer Yona, which is read during mincha on Yom Kippur, tells the story of the citywide repentance performed by the people of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire. God sent the prophet Yona to Nineveh to implore them to repent and cure the moral ills of their society, but Yona initially refused to undertake the mission. He instead attempted to escape his assignment by boarding a ship to set sail to a distant land, but God brought a storm which resulted in his being cast into the sea. After he miraculously survived, he accepted the mission and succeeded in persuading the people of Nineveh to repent.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (cited by Tosafot, Sukka 50b) tells that Yona “was among the pilgrims” who visited the Beit Ha-mikdash on the festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot). He received the gift of prophecy, the Yerushalmi teaches, due to the experience of the simchat beit ha-sho’eiva – the festive celebration held in the Temple each night of Sukkot. The Yerushalmi comments that the simchat beit ha-sho’eiva is so named because divine inspiration was “drawn” (“sho’eiva”) from that experience. The special spiritual fervor experienced at this event had the ability to elevate a person to the level of prophecy.
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm boldly suggested that this background contributed not only to Yona’s prophetic capabilities, but also to the flaw which he had and ultimately corrected – escapism. Yona, Rabbi Lamm describes, was “a man who found himself unable to face life.” When he was commanded to confront the evil people of Nineveh, Yona escaped, because, in Rabbi Lamm’s words, he felt “unable to face evil and evildoers.” This weakness, Rabbi Lamm proposes, was caused by his spiritual character having been molded by the euphoric festivities of the simcha beit ha-sho’eiva. Rabbi Lamm writes:
Jonah witnessed the happiness in the courts of the Temple. He saw the beauty and majesty and grandeur and holiness of Jewish life, but he never saw treachery and corruption, he never saw destruction and catastrophe and ruination; he saw the Temple in its glory, but he did not see it in its moments of mourning and destitution. And a man, no matter how great, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, weaned on milk and honey and exposed only to the pleasant and the sweet, and never the wretched and the bitter, a man of that sort inevitably becomes an escapist and runs away from life.
Yona experienced religious life as one of pristine, unbridled joy and exhilaration. The experience of the simchat beit ha-sho’eiva is what elevated him to the stature of prophet, but it was not counterbalanced by the complexities and grueling challenges that accompany religious life. And he therefore could not bring himself to confront the wicked people of Nineveh, to go out into the trenches and work to effect change.
Religious life is experienced both in the joy and sanctity of the Beit Ha-mikdash, as well as in “Nineveh,” in the difficult realities of our very imperfect, complex world. We are, on the one hand, to exult in the joy and excitement of connecting to God through Torah observance, but we are also called upon to go to “Nineveh,” to confront, rather than escape, the harsh realities of the world in an effort to improve it. We mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that religious life is only about the “simchat beit ha-sho’eiva” – joy and exhilaration. While this is certainly an important component of the religious experience, we must also be prepared to undertake less pleasant tasks, to go to “Nineveh” when necessary to confront evil and try to make the world a better and holier place.