Jonah: A Right to be Angry

October 5, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Jonah, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

Why do Jews read the book of Jonah near the end of Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”? Why is the story of this reluctant, heroic, angry, ridiculous prophet the last bit of Torah we study in a long day of  fasting and praying, a 25-hour day dedicated to acknowledging our own misdeeds, pleading for the ability to reform, and asking for forgiveness?

The immediate answer is that in the book of Jonah, God forgives even Nineveh, the capital of the dreaded Assyrian empire, as soon as its king and inhabitants repent of their evil deeds.  If even the Ninevites could repent and reform, a Jew might think, then I can.  And if God could forgive Nineveh, then God can forgive me.

Another encouraging thought is that Jonah himself disobeys God, but God keeps giving him more chances.

The book opens with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim against the wickedness of the city.  Instead, Jonah buys passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction, toward Tarshish—because, he explains later, he knew that if the people of Nineveh listened to his prophecy and repented, God would forgive them, and he could not bear for the Ninevites to go unpunished.

As he sails toward Tarshish, Jonah should be feeling guilt about both disobeying God, and failing to give people a chance to repent.  But he avoids guilt through denial, sleeping in the ship’s hold even when God sends a storm that threatens to break up the ship.  Yet when the sailors confront him, Jonah honestly admits he is running away from his god, and asks them to throw him overboard in order to end the storm.

God saves Jonah’s life, and after the prophet’s three days in the belly of the big fish, God gives him a chance to redeem himself.  Once again, God orders him to go prophesy in Nineveh. This time Jonah obeys—minimally, by walking into the city, uttering five words, and leaving.

The Ninevites immediately repent, and God forgives them.  This kindles Jonah’s anger, and he complains that God is too compassionate.  Jonah wants justice, not compassion—at least when it comes to Israel’s old enemy, Nineveh.  Jonah is so angry, he says:

So now, God, please take my life from me, because better I die than I live.  And God said:  Is it right that your anger is kindled?  (Jonah 4:3-4)

With that question hanging in the air, Jonah leaves Nineveh and builds himself a shelter (literally, a sukkah, the same kind of temporary shelter Jews make for the week of Sukkot that follows Yom Kippur).  He sits in the shade of his sukkah, waiting to see whether the Ninevites will stop repenting, and/or God will decide to punish them after all.

And God of gods provided a vine, and it grew up over his head, to be shade above his head, to rescue him from his perversity.  And Jonah rejoiced over the vine, a great rejoicing.  Then God provided a worm when dawn rose the next day, and it ate at the vine so it withered.  And at sunrise God provided a scorching east wind , and the sun attacked the head of Jonah, and he fainted, and he wanted to die, and he said:  Better I die than I live.  Then God said to Jonah:  Is it right that your anger is kindled?  And he said:  It is right that my anger is kindled, up to the point of death.  (Jonah 4:6-9)

kikayon = vine?  gourd? cucumber?  (Nobody knows what the plant was, because the word only appears in the book of Jonah.)

ra-ato = his perversity, his evil, his misery, his wickedness, his badness

What does the shade of the vine rescue Jonah from?  The Torah uses an all-purpose word similar to the English “bad”, leaving it ambiguous as to whether the shade is rescuing him from his own inner badness, or from a bad experience inflicted upon him.  In some other contexts, the Torah uses the word for badness  to mean “perversity”, i.e. doing the wrong thing on purpose.  I like this translation for Jonah 4:6, because the whole book of Jonah presents this prophet as a perverse fellow.

Jonah knows he ought to obey God’s call to prophesy in Nineveh.  He knows in his heart that God won’t put up with his running away, but he goes into denial as he goes down into the hold the ship and falls asleep.

Jonah also knows that if the Ninevites repent, God will forgive them.  But he builds his hut overlooking the city anyway, and waits in the hope that God will destroy the city after all.

Furthermore, Jonah can’t decide whether he wants to live or die.  He tells the sailors to throw him into the sea, but then inside the belly of the fish he expresses gratitude to God for saving his life.  He says that if God judges the Ninevites with compassion instead of strict justice, he’d rather die.  Then he rejoices in the vine that shades his head and improves his life.  When the vine dies, he reverse his position again and says that without the vine, he is so angry he wants to die.

The God in this story is remarkably patience with such a perverse character!  God has the last word:

And God said:  You, yourself, were concerned about the vine, which you did not exert yourself for, and you did not grow—which came up and perished between nights.  And I, myself, shall I not be concerned about Nineveh, the great city that has 120,000 humans in it who do not know the difference between their right and their left, and also much livestock?  (Jonah 4:10-11)

Clearly Jonah needs to change his priorities.  In this four-chapter book, he is so attached to seeing the enemies of Israel punished for their past sins that he tries twice to throw away his life over the issue.  Jonah is also so attached to the comfort and pleasure of the green vine that shades him, he despairs of his life yet again when the vine withers.

Out of all the insights to be found in the book of Jonah, the one that speaks to me this year is the warning against getting too attached to a principle of justice, to the way you believe things ought to be, or to whatever good things are in your life at the moment.  When our attachments are yanked away from us, is it right that our anger is kindled?

I think that first spark of anger is natural, and even useful; it alerts us to a source of friction.  The spark may die by itself, or it might kindle a flame.  When we feel a flame of anger inside, we have a choice:  we can fan the fire, or douse it.  W can get stuck in our anger, or take a deep breath and address the cause.  We may discover that the cause is an attachment like one of Jonah’s.

Part of the  work of atonement and reform is learning how to let our attachments go when we see they will not be realized.  You are convinced a certain thing must happen, or there is no justice in the world.  It doesn’t happen.  Is it right to hold onto your anger and refuse to live, refuse to go on, unless somebody in authority makes  justice happen after all?  No, it’s time to let go, sigh, and move on to the next thing in your life.

You are grateful for something good you did not expect—a shady vine, a satisfying job, a loving person.  Then suddenly, overnight, the good thing leaves you.  Is it right to entrench yourself in anger and refuse to live, refuse to go on, without it?  No, it’s time to let go, grieve, and move on … to whatever you must do next to make your own life a blessing to the world.


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