Yona's Flight from Destiny

  • Rav David Nativ
VBM Torah Studies - Special Holiday Shiur

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Yona's Flight from Destiny

by David Nativ

Translated by Kaeren Fish

	Towards the climax of Yom Kippur, we are instructed by 
Chazal to focus our attention on the reading of the entire 
Book of Yona.  Why did our Sages see fit to choose this 
particular reading as the gates of mercy are about to close?  
There are those who suggest that the answer lies in the theme 
of the teshuva (repentance) of the city of Ninveh.  However, 
if this were the case, it would have been sufficient to 
stipulate the reading of only chapter 3; this reason alone 
does not justify the reading of the entire book.

	It would seem that the intention of our Sages was to 
place at the center of our attention Yona and his actions, 
rather than the teshuva of Ninveh, and for this reason the 
reading is not limited to the latter subject.  There seems to 
be something in the conflict between Yona and God which is 
worthy of the attention of the Jewish People immediately prior 
to the Ne'ila prayer.  Likewise, the intention seems to be an 
emphasis not on ideas which pertain to prophets and other 
lofty souls, but rather on basic issues which apply to all of 
us and are particularly significant on Yom Kippur.

	What, then, is this basic issue?  A cursory glance at the 
four chapters comprising Sefer Yona, with a view to finding 
the basic framework of the story, reveals the following 
sequence: Yona's escape from his destiny, his escape from God, 
and his escape from himself.  We may follow this sequence with 
the aid of the key words, "kum" (get up) and "red" (go down"), 
which are expressions of approaching the Divine mission and 
distancing oneself from it, respectively.  (It should be borne 
in mind that for a prophet, this approach or withdrawal is 
unequivocal, owing to the clarity of the mission as revealed 
in the prophecy.  The same is not the case for a regular 
individual, for whom the unequivocal mission appears complex 
and hidden.)

Get Up and Call / He Descended and Fell Asleep

	As the Sefer opens, the mission transmitted to the 
prophet is presented to us, in God's words: "Get up, go to 
Ninveh, the great city, and call out against it, for their 
evil has risen before Me" (1:2).

	"Get up" and "call" are the two verbs expressing 
awakening and movement towards the mission.  Indeed the 
narrative continues, "And Yona got up..." (1:3).  Here begins 
Yona's flight from God, from his destiny and from himself.  
God sends him eastward (to Ninveh), and he flees westward (via 
Yaffo, to Tarshish): "And he WENT DOWN to Yaffo and found a 
ship... and he DESCENDED INTO IT to go with it to Tarshish 
from before God" (1:3).

	The great wind and furious storm, the terror of the 
sailors and their shouts and desperate actions all leave Yona 
unaffected, and do not halt his descent: "And Yona DESCENDED 
into THE RECESSES of the ship, and he lay down and fell 
asleep" (1:5).  Descent after descent within descent.  The 
flight from God also involves physio-topographical descent, as 
well as isolation from the surrounding events, and the sleep 
of escape from reality.

	God sends many messengers, and when the powers of nature 
- the wind, the sea and all their activity - fail to intrude 
on Yona's isolation, God sends an additional messenger, the 
captain of the ship, who wakes Yona from his slumber and 
attempts to return him to his destined path: "Why are you 
sleeping?  GET UP AND CALL to your God" (1:6).  (The words of 
the captain of the ship are in marked contrast to Yona's 
actions in descending and falling asleep following God's 
command, "Get up, go to Ninveh ... and call to it.")  But even 
this dialogue fails to check Yona's slide, and it becomes 
apparent even to the sailors around him that "he was escaping 
from before God, for he had told them" (1:10).

	The flight continues: "And he said to them, 'Lift me up 
and lower me into the sea...'" (1:12).  And after serious 
deliberation, "They lifted up Yona and lowered him into the 
sea..." (1:15).  ["R. Natan said: It was Yona's intention to 
die in the sea.  Similarly, we find in the case of other 
forefathers and prophets, that they gave up their lives for 
Israel..." (Yalkut Shimoni, 550).]

	"And God appointed a great fish to swallow Yona, and Yona 
	was in the bowels of the fish for three days and three 
	nights.  And Yona prayed to the Lord his God from the 
	bowels of the fish, and he said, 'I have CALLED... TO 
	GOD...'" (2:1-3)  

	Here, from the depths of the sea, from the stomach of the 
fish, at the very climax of the escape, comes the turning 
point: Yona calls out to God.  "You have brought up my life 
from the abyss, O Lord my God" (2:7). 

	"And God spoke to the fish and it spat Yona onto dry 
land" (2:11).  Once again Yona stands with his two feet on the 
ground, at the same point where he started: "And God's word 
came to Yona a second time saying, 'Get up, go to Ninveh, the 
great city, and call to it...'" (3:1-2).  And indeed, this 
time, "And Yona got up and went to Ninveh as God had 
commanded, and Ninveh was a great city ... of three day's 
journeying.  And Yona began to enter the city one day's 
journey, and he called..." (3:3-4).

	Yona's call works wonders.  "And God saw their actions 
... and God reconsidered the evil which He had spoken to 
perform against them, and He did not perform it" (3:10).

	Yona the prophet is not party to the joy over his 
success: "And the matter was very bad to Yona, and he was 
displeased.  And he prayed to God and said, '... For this 
reason I tried before to flee to Tarshish ... And now, take my 
soul from me, for I prefer to die than to live' ... And Yona 
went out of the city..." (4:1-5).

	Yona fulfills his mission and hurries away from the city.  
It is difficult for him to remain there; he is still haunted 
by profound doubts, as well as the experience of his recent 
flight from God.  And so he leaves. "And he made himself a 
sukka and sat beneath it in the shade, waiting to see what 
would become of the city" (4:5).

	The crux of the turbulent conflict still lies ahead of 
him, and this is where it takes place - to the east of Ninveh.

	Man's flight from his destiny and mission as defined by 
the needs of the generation and the nation is a common human 
phenomenon.  It involves descent after descent, and leads to 
escaping from reality.

	A graphic summary of this, describing Yona's geographic-
topographic descent, corresponding in this case also to his 
spiritual fluctuations, reveals the symmetry of the Sefer and 
represents a significant symbol which helps us to understand 
the process.  (The graph that arises is in the form of a bird 
- a dove [Yona] - in flight.  Yona first receives his call and 
rises; then he descends to the boat and keeps descending 
further and further; he proceeds to return to land and rise to 
his call; finally, he is dejected and sits outside the city.)

God's Messengers

	One of the most important and ubiquitous themes of the 
Yamim Nora'im, which also threads its way through the story of 
Yona, is that of Divine Providence.  We have already mentioned 
above that God sends many messengers, some revealed and others 
concealed.  Each speaks to man in its own language.  We need 
to ensure that our ears are open and ready to hear and absorb 
their message.

	In four places in Sefer Yona there is an emphasis on 
Divine intervention, with the use of the word "va-yema'en" 
(and He appointed).  A short review of these circumstances 
gives rise to some thoughts on the subject of Divine 
"And the Lord appointed a fish..." (2:1)
"And the Lord God appointed a plant..." (4:6)
"And God appointed a worm..." (4:7)
"And God appointed a strong east wind..." (4:8)

	The words "He appointed" indicate Divine intervention in 
a concealed fashion.  Each of these phenomena appear 
incidentally, as it were, in Yona's vicinity.

	There is a hierarchy of size and power amidst this 
collection of messengers: a great fish, a tree, a worm, a 
strong wind.  There is also a variety of types of creation, 
from the point of view of the relationship with man.  Their 
selection is not coincidental; their interrelationship points 
to a clear trend.  God recruits various different creatures 
and creations as His messengers to man with a view to 
returning him to his mission, to informing him of God's word: 
inanimate objects, vegetation and animals; from the sea, from 
the land and from the air.  All are fulfilling the will of 
their Creator.  Encountering this multi-faceted reality 
crammed with events, we need to ask ourselves - what is this 
showing us?  What is the significance of this?

	We have highlighted above some general themes of Divine 
Providence which would seem to arise from the text.  It would, 
moreover, appear that even the very choice of some or other 
specific creature to serve as a messenger of the Divine also 
has significance in the framework of the mission.  Let us 
attempt to explore this possibility with regard to one of the 
four messengers listed above - the fish.

	Our attention is drawn to the particular language used in 
describing Ninveh, where the text does not stop at mentioning 
the name of the offending city but takes the trouble to 
present it together with a description: "Ninveh - the great 
city."  Elsewhere, the text elaborates even further: "And 
Ninveh was a great city to the Lord, (measuring) three days' 
journey" (3:3).

	A similar description is to be found in the case of the 
fish: "And God appointed a GREAT FISH to swallow Yona, and 
Yona was in the bowels of the fish THREE DAYS AND THREE 
NIGHTS" (2:1-2).

	These two emphases, seemingly redundant, create a 
peculiar parallel: the great Ninveh, three days' journey = 
great fish, three days.

	An interesting solution to this parallel came to me via 
Eliakim ben-Menachem's commentary on Sefer Yona (cited in the 
Da'at Mikra commentary, 1:2 and footnote 7): Ninveh, which was 
situated on the banks of the Euphrates river, was signified in 
ancient Ashuric script by the symbol of a fish within a house.  
It may be that the historical source for this symbol was 
connected to the fact that Ninveh was a source and 'home' of 
fancy fish, and this was a well recognized symbol of its 
renown.  The name Ninveh may well have been chosen because of 
this symbol: "Neveh (home) shel Nun (fish, in Aramaic)".

	In light of the above, the appointment of the fish is 
especially significant in the attempt to return Yona to his 
mission.  God is saying, as it were, to Yona: You are fleeing 
from the 'home of the fish' (Ninveh), the great city of three 
days' journeying, but you will return there via a fish which 
will serve you as a house for three days.  And, indeed, from 
the midst of the great fish, after three days, Yona turns 
towards the great city of Ninveh, measuring three days' 

What is Evil?

	The theme of evil appears several times throughout the 
Sefer, in different contexts and with varying significance.  
At times the reference is to bad events - catastrophes; at 
other times the reference is to evil deeds.  Sometimes 'evil' 
appears as a punishment, other times it is a painful warning.  
God, Yona, the sailors and the text all use 'evil,' and an 
analysis of this aspect of the story will shed further light 
on its meaning.

	In explaining the reason for Yona's mission, the text 
teaches, "Go up to it for their evil has come up before Me" 
(1:2).  From this point onwards, the text turns on the actions 
of the people of Ninveh, and the chain of events which 
subsequently take place.  God, Yona and the people of Ninveh 
all play a part.

	The people of Ninveh, who hear Yona's call to teshuva, 
take a number of steps, all of which are aimed at the ultimate 
goal of repentance - "And let them return, each person from 
his evil path and from the violence which is in his hands."

	The text summarizes this process in the following words: 
"And the Lord saw their actions, that they had returned from 
their evil path, and the Lord reconsidered the evil which He 
had spoken to perform against them, and He did not perform it" 
(3:10).  The people of Ninveh apparently understand that their 
actions are evil and that they need to change their behavior.  
God accepts their teshuva and puts aside the evil which He had 
intended to unleash on them.  But how does Yona see these 

	"And the matter was very bad to Yona, and he was 
	displeased ... 'For this reason I previously fled to 
	Tarshish, for I knew that You are a kind and merciful 
	God, long suffering and full of compassion, and 
	reconsidering the evil.'" (4:1-2)

	Yona has a different view of what has taken place, and 
does not join God and the inhabitants of Ninveh in their 
evaluation of the process as having reached a successful 
conclusion.  He sees the teshuva of Ninveh and its acceptance 
by God as the opposite - a great evil; to the point where the 
actual events make him leave the city and ask to die.  There, 
outside the city, Yona sits under the shade of the plant which 
God appoints for him: "To be a shade over his head, to 
alleviate his suffering ('ra'ato' - literally, 'his evil')" 

	Earlier on, while in the ship, Yona participates in a 
similar exchange with the ship's personnel.  Among other 
measures adopted by the sailors in the face of the rising 
storm, the text records: "And they said each one to his 
neighbor, 'Let us go and draw lots, so that we may know 
because of whom this evil has come upon us'" (1:7).  When the 
lots indicate Yona, "They said to him, 'Tell us because of 
whom this evil has come upon us.'"  When the sailors use the 
word 'evil,' they mean the great storm which is threatening 
their lives.  Yona, in response to their questions, advises 
them: "Lift me up and lower me into the sea ... For I know 
that it is because of me that this great storm has come upon 
you" (1:12).  For him this is not an 'evil;' it is a natural 
phenomenon which is merely serving its purpose.

	This distinction may not be all that significant in its 
own right, but it takes on a more profound importance in the 
context of the central theme.  At the end of the Sefer, God's 
appointing the plant to alleviate Yona's suffering is 
juxtaposed to His reconsidering the evil which He had said 
that He would perform to the people of Ninveh.  This is 
dramatically expressed in the rhetorical question: "You had 
mercy on the plant ... Should I not have mercy on Ninveh, the 
great city, in which there are more than one hundred and 
twenty thousand people ... and many cattle?" (4:11).  This is 
reminiscent of the midrash's account of God's question to the 
angels while the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea: "My 
creatures are drowning, and you are reciting praise?!"

	In this way God wants to show Yona that his system of 
concepts - good and evil, reward and punishment - requires 
rethinking.  When man flees from his destiny, his basic moral 
conceptual system is corrupted, and he assumes a limited 
perception of reality, building himself a system of good and 
evil which is different from that of God and that which 
affects those around him.

	But it is not coincidental that the text leaves this 
central question open.  Throughout the Sefer we seek the 
answer: Why does Yona flee in the first place?  Why does he 
not want the people of Ninveh to repent?  The answer is not 
given.  A person is, by nature, full of doubts, internal 
battles, competing considerations and partial failures.  But 
correct decisions along the way, and his chances of ultimate 
success, always depend on a correct perception of the goal, 
the mission.  Someone who flees from his mission and destiny 
will find himself at a dead-end at every step of the way, and 
will discover himself having mercy on a plant while ignoring 
the good of fellow humans and animals.

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