top of page

Yonah and Avraham: Escapism, Obedience and Living with Uncertainty


The seeds of a Kikayon plant

Two narratives are read. One on Rosh Hashana, the other on Yom Kippur. They are seemingly unconnected, yet both are deeply disturbing: Akeidat Yitzchak and Sefer Yonah. There is an interconnectedness underscoring these two stories that I believe holds the key to a major theological truth that is particularly pertinent during these Days of Awe.  By exploring each text and highlighting the parallel themes that abound in them I hope to uncover this message.

The text of Yonah is obscure, almost belonging more to the genre of fables and fantasies than that of the Tanach. It recounts the story of a man who attempts to run away from a mission given to him by God, gets thrown overboard by God fearing pagans and then gets swallowed by a large fish, only to be spewed out and return to where he began.

The story of Yonah is a narrative that accompanies us from kindergarten but do we really understand its true significance? What is it that the Sages were trying to teach us by making it such an intrinsic element of the Day of Repentance?

There are those that suggest Ninveh’s teshuva is there to teach us how quickly a nation of pagans repented and so “al echat kama vekama – how much more so” we should run to the gates of repentance.  But if that were the case why is there such great emphasis of the prophet himself and his travails as opposed to his message and the people of Nineveh? I believe that the first and last chapters of the books provide the key to understanding Yonah’s attempt to flee God.

In the first chapter we are told as follows:

א וַיְהִי, דְּבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-יוֹנָה בֶן-אֲמִתַּי, לֵאמֹר.  ב קוּם לֵךְ אֶל-נִינְוֵה, הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה–וּקְרָא עָלֶיהָ:  כִּי-עָלְתָה רָעָתָם, לְפָנָי.  ג וַיָּקָם יוֹנָה לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה, מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה; וַיֵּרֶד יָפוֹ וַיִּמְצָא אֳנִיָּה בָּאָה תַרְשִׁישׁ, וַיִּתֵּן שְׂכָרָהּ וַיֵּרֶד בָּהּ לָבוֹא עִמָּהֶם תַּרְשִׁישָׁה, מִלִּפְנֵי, יְהוָה.  ד וַיהוָה, הֵטִיל רוּחַ-גְּדוֹלָה אֶל-הַיָּם, וַיְהִי סַעַר-גָּדוֹל, בַּיָּם; וְהָאֳנִיָּה, חִשְּׁבָה לְהִשָּׁבֵר.  ה וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים, וַיִּזְעֲקוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אֱלֹהָיו, וַיָּטִלוּ אֶת-הַכֵּלִים אֲשֶׁר בָּאֳנִיָּה אֶל-הַיָּם, לְהָקֵל מֵעֲלֵיהֶם; וְיוֹנָה, יָרַד אֶל-יַרְכְּתֵי הַסְּפִינָה, וַיִּשְׁכַּב, וַיֵּרָדַם.  ו וַיִּקְרַב אֵלָיו רַב הַחֹבֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מַה-לְּךָ נִרְדָּם; קוּם, קְרָא אֶל-אֱלֹהֶיךָ–אוּלַי יִתְעַשֵּׁת הָאֱלֹהִים לָנוּ, וְלֹא נֹאבֵד.  ז וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ, לְכוּ וְנַפִּילָה גוֹרָלוֹת, וְנֵדְעָה, בְּשֶׁלְּמִי הָרָעָה הַזֹּאת לָנוּ; וַיַּפִּלוּ, גּוֹרָלוֹת, וַיִּפֹּל הַגּוֹרָל, עַל-יוֹנָה.  ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו–הַגִּידָה-נָּא לָנוּ, בַּאֲשֶׁר לְמִי-הָרָעָה הַזֹּאת לָנוּ:  מַה-מְּלַאכְתְּךָ, וּמֵאַיִן תָּבוֹא–מָה אַרְצֶךָ, וְאֵי-מִזֶּה עַם אָתָּה.  ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם, עִבְרִי אָנֹכִי; וְאֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, אֲנִי יָרֵא, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה אֶת-הַיָּם, וְאֶת-הַיַּבָּשָׁה.  י וַיִּירְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים יִרְאָה גְדוֹלָה, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ:  כִּי-יָדְעוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, כִּי-מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה הוּא בֹרֵחַ–כִּי הִגִּיד, לָהֶם.  יא וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו מַה-נַּעֲשֶׂה לָּךְ, וְיִשְׁתֹּק הַיָּם מֵעָלֵינוּ:  כִּי הַיָּם, הוֹלֵךְ וְסֹעֵר.  יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם, שָׂאוּנִי וַהֲטִילֻנִי אֶל-הַיָּם, וְיִשְׁתֹּק הַיָּם, מֵעֲלֵיכֶם:  כִּי, יוֹדֵעַ אָנִי, כִּי בְשֶׁלִּי, הַסַּעַר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה עֲלֵיכֶם

  1. And the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying 2. Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and proclaim against it, for their evil has come before Me. 3. And Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from before the Lord, and he went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid its hire, and went down into it to come with them to Tarshish from before the Lord. 4. Now the Lord cast a mighty wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, and the ship threatened to be broken up.  5. And the sailors were frightened, and each one cried out to his god, and they cast the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them, and Jonah went down to the ship’s hold, lay down, and fell fast asleep. 

  2. And the captain approached him and said to him, “Why do you sleep? Get up, call out to your God, perhaps God will think about us, and we will not perish.”   7. And they said, each one to his fellow, “Come, let’s cast lots, so that we will know because of whom this evil has befallen us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. 8. And they said to him, “Tell us now, because of whom has this evil befallen us? What is your work and whence do you come? What is your land, and from what people are you?” 9. And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10. And the men were very frightened, and they said to him, “What is this that you have done?” for the men knew that he was fleeing from before the Lord, because he has told them.   11. And they said to him, “What shall we do with you, so that the sea subside from upon us, since the sea is becoming stormier?”  12. And he said to them, “Pick me up and cast me into the sea, so that the sea may subside from upon you, for I know that, because of me, this mighty tempest is upon you.”

(Yonah chapter 1)

The very first thing to note is the movement formed through the text. The entire narrative is one of descent.  Yonah continually descends both physically and metaphorically.  He travels to Tarshish which is south and then on to the boat, down to the bottom of the boat and eventually down to the bottom of the sea.  The physical descent is paralleled to a psychological descent as well.  The only active verb describing Yonah’s actions features in verse 3 וַיָּקָם יוֹנָה לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה – Yonah rose up to flee. From that moment on, he becomes a passive player – almost actively passive.  He escapes his reality by going into a subconscious state of inertia. The leitwort throughout the text is ירד – to go down. Yonah’s flight leads him into a downward spiral of apathy.  This inactiveness stands in stark contrast to the other players in the narrative where there is a flurry of activity. The sailors, in their desperate attempt to save the ship, throw things overboard, attempt to pray to their gods and search for the reason this terrible thing is happening.  The text even describes the boat as ‘ , חִשְּׁבָה לְהִשָּׁבֵר.- thought to break’.  Everyone, even an inanimate object is playing an active role, except Yonah.  This inactivity is Yonah’s attempt to ‘escape’ his destiny.  He no longer wants to play a role in God’s plans and therefore defies Him by escaping in any way possible.

The Malbim, a nineteenth century commentator, suggests that reason Yonah flees, is that he prophetically perceived that evil would befall Israel as a result of Ninveh’s repentance since later they would become ‘the rod of God’s anger’ in becoming God’s instrument in punishing Israel (Ninveh was part of the Assyrian dynasty that was to attack Israel and exile the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom).[1] Since he loved his nation he did not want to play a part in their downfall. Though this commentary succeeds in painting Yonah in a positive light, and helps us to understand his flight from the Divine mission, it still leaves us with many questions on the text.

In trying to digest the Malbim’s commentary I found myself still struggling with Yonah’s flight. There seems to be something almost manic in his calmness.  It is as if he is attempting not just to escape a mission that he feels is unjust, but rather escaping something deep within himself:  an escape from an uncertainty that permeates his entire ethos and being.

If we study the text carefully there are a few significant details that begin to reveal Yonah’s inner world. In verse 12 he says to the sailors ‘I know that this great storm has come upon you because of me’. Avivah Zornberg in her book “The Murmuring Deep” reflects on Yonah’s desire to have absolute ‘knowledge’ of the world.  Yonah is a man of certainty. The world is an easier, better and less complicated place if we can attain absolute knowledge of its workings.  We have nothing to fear if we have knowledge.  It is easier to be a person who ‘knows’ God and the world than someone who lives with constant doubt and uncertainty.   The text subtly but purposely contrasts Yonah’s absolute ‘knowing’ with the ‘uncertainty’ of everyone else around him.  The captain of the ship beseeches Yonah to pray to his God saying  “אוּלַי יִתְעַשֵּׁת הָאֱלֹהִים לָנוּ, וְלֹא נֹאבֵד. – Perhaps God will think of us and we will not perish.” (verse 4)

Moreover there is an onslaught of questions by the sailors to Yonah (verse 8) reflecting the ability of these pagan worshippers to be open to uncertainty and change. Where there is certainty without questioning there can be no change. Yonah does not change, he cannot change, being a man of truth ((יונה בן אמיתי and knowledge closes the mind of the individual to a shift in perspective. The sailors at the end of Chapter one become worshippers of God. The maybes and questions have allowed them to make a paradigm shift in their beliefs.

Yonah is called ‘Yonah Ben Amittai’ the idea of ‘truth’ being the essence of his name. The Talmud tells us that he was a ‘true prophet’ [2], not in the sense of speaking truth, but rather explaining to us that truth depicts his weltanschauung – his entire world view.  Truth is absolute knowledge, it is the ability to understand contradictions and to be left without uncertainty – this is what Yonah desired.  He sought a world that was black and white, where evildoers get punished and the righteous prosper.  Hence when God sends him on a mission to beckon an evil nation to repent, knowing as the Malbim suggests that they would repent and then eventually destroy the people of Israel, Yonah has what we would term in modern dialect a ‘crisis of faith’. Everything he believed about God and His Justice, about truth and reality, has been usurped in one swift command from God.  His cognitive inflexibility leaves him no choice but to plumb the depths of the sea as he escapes God and himself in a deep existential crisis.

The last chapter in the book finally reveals the obscurity of Yonah’s flight. Having been swallowed by a large fish which provokes him to offer a heart wrenching prayer to God, Yonah finds himself swept to the shore.  He then begs God to take his life.  The uncertainty of his existence now leads to thoughts of death, for only in death can Truth exist. He prays to God saying:

ב וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אֶל-יְהֹוָה וַיֹּאמַר אָנָּה יְהֹוָה הֲלוֹא-זֶה דְבָרִי עַד-הֱיוֹתִי עַל-אַדְמָתִי עַל-כֵּן קִדַּמְתִּי לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה כִּי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אַתָּה אֵל-חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד וְנִחָם עַל-הָרָעָה: ג וְעַתָּה יְהֹוָה קַח-נָא אֶת-נַפְשִׁי מִמֶּנִּי כִּי טוֹב מוֹתִי מֵחַיָּי:

And he prayed unto the LORD, and said: ‘I pray Thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in mine own country? Therefore I fled beforehand unto Tarshish; for I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy, and repentest Thee of the evil. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live (Yonah 4)

For the first time we hear why Yonah fled. Because he ‘knew’ that God was a compassionate gracious God.  Note that only characteristic missing from the list of God’s thirteen attributes, is that of emet- Truth.  If until now we have guessed as to why Yonah fled, his message here states it clearly.  He cannot deal with the notion that God is compassionate.  His entire belief system in which Justice is strictly abided by and that Truth reigns supreme was cruelly shattered in God’s call to Yonah to go to Ninveh.  It is this inability to live in the dialectical tension between Truth and Compassion, black and white, good and evil that Yonah has to escape from.

Yonah then settles under shade and God makes for him a kikayon – some sort of plant (who seeds happen to be black and white! – see the picture) that provides shade for him.[3]  He is joyful at having it and then, just as quickly and in an extremity that replicates his radical theological stance, is devastated by its disappearance, so much so that he asks to die. In response, and as an end to the entire narrative God says as follows:

ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-יוֹנָה הַהֵיטֵב חָרָה-לְךָ עַל-הַקִּיקָיוֹן וַיֹּאמֶר הֵיטֵב חָרָה-לִי עַד-מָוֶת: י וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל-הַקִּיקָיוֹן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָמַלְתָּ בּוֹ וְלֹא גִדַּלְתּוֹ שֶׁבִּן-לַיְלָה הָיָה וּבִן-לַיְלָה אָבָד: יא וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל-נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ-בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה- מִשְׁתֵּים-עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע בֵּין-יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה:

9 And God said to Jonah: ‘Art thou greatly angry for the gourd?’ And he said: ‘I am greatly angry, even unto death.’ 10 And the LORD said: ‘Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night; 11 and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?(Yonah 4)‘

The last three verses of the book are highly enigmatic. They don’t leave the reader with any conclusions. There is uncertainty and an open ended question which concludes the book and perhaps that itself is the message.  When God says to Yonah that the people ‘do not know their right had from their left’, I believe he is teaching him a fundamental lesson, that even now Yonah fails to grasp: If I believe that I possess absolute knowledge I will never be able to grow.  Only an individual who is open, who allows himself to be challenged, who is not fixated with one idea and doesn’t live in a world dominated by the extremity of black and white thinking can be open to change and ultimately repentance.

In the second reading that we encounter during Rosh Hashanah, we find an almost uncanny parallel to the story of Yonah. The narrative of Akeidat Yitzchak haunts us all. We read it and short of finding any answers the questions and challenges multiply and abound. Akeidat Yitzchak and Sefer Yonah are some of the texts that I believe are there to challenge and make us ask.  They are there to confront our fear of ‘not knowing’, and despite it continue forward, asking, answering, asking and answering and then asking again.

It is beyond our scope to delve into the dilemmas of the Akeida narrative or even to address the contentious and deeply disturbing issues that proliferate the text. I want instead to offer a narrow reading of the story that will simply act as a contrast to the story of Yonah. [4]

The story is surprising on many levels. Obviously the request of God itself is difficult to understand, but perhaps more surprising is the response of Avraham.  Just a few chapters earlier we meet a dynamic, strong, argumentative character, who though wholly God fearing, has no qualms in beseeching God to reconsider his decree to destroy the evil nation of Sodom.  Here however we encounter a different, submissive, obedient and passive character, whose assertiveness has totally disappeared. Avraham seems to adhere in a very dutiful and almost blind manner, to the shocking command that contradicts everything Avraham believes about God and humanity.

Yet his silence screams out something different. The feel of the text is not one of passivity but activity. The many verbs employed in the first two verses (he woke , he saddled, he took, he prepared, he got up, he went) hints to the reader that the Avraham of Sodom is still there. Though he may be engulfed by doubt, crisis and uncertainty, his active, assertive self still exists.  In the face of ambiguity and uncertainty, Avraham does not allow himself to sink into the depths of despair.

He continues to climb the mountain. The narrative’s strong emphasis on the root עלה to go up acts as a subliminal message throughout. It is not that he is not suffering. The overwhelming sound of the silence coupled with his painful almost pitiful continued response of ‘הנני – I am here’ to every question suggests that Avraham is suffering extreme inner turmoil. It is impossible for him to even express the extent to which everything he has believed until now has been suspended, broken, fragmented. It is perhaps because he understands from his argument earlier with God about Sodom that there are certain things we do not understand about God’s workings in the world, that sometimes we have to ‘teleologically suspend the ethical’[5] and act despite all our uncertainties and doubts.

Whilst Yonah cannot conceive of a world run by Mercy, Avraham cannot conceive of a world run without it.  Both men are called upon to fulfill a command that stands in contradistinction to their theological philosophies.  Avraham, the paradigm of chesed (mercy and kindness), is called upon to commit a cruel, but arguably just act.[6]  Yonah, the son of Amitai – Emet, can only imagine a world of strict Din – Justice.  Truth is not found in compassion, and kindness, Truth is found in justice. And so he is called upon to deliver compassion to a nation of sinners.

The response of each of the actors is the telling part. Yonah’s failure and hence his need to run away from the divine mission lies in the fact that he could not let go of his existing understandings of the world. To him the world was a world where evil deserves punishment, where bad people should cease to exist and good people should prosper. It is a world of justice and order.  It is a world of God’s ‘greatness’ and man’s ‘submission’.  For God to allow the people of Nineveh to live departs radically from his preconceptions.

Where Avraham ‘succeeded’ at the akeida (perhaps because he had already learnt this concept during the incident with Sodom) was that, in Kierkegaard’s words, he had to teleogically suspend his ethical preconceptions. Avraham manages to let go of all previous notions of a good God and everything attached to that and simply listen to the command whilst climbing heavenwards. Here I depart from Kierkegaard’s and other interpretations of Avraham as simply listening to the command. I do not believe that he was not fraught with doubt and uncertainly – if he were not, we would have nothing to learn from him, he would be the antithesis of a religious person, he would have lost everything that makes him human – his compassion for the other.  But in the act of moving forward, in the unbearable silence of his ‘hinnei’ call and in the treacherous existential journey to the summit, he lives in his pain and fulfillment of the Divine call, the life of every religious Jew.[7]

I think this idea of acting and listening to the ‘command’ i.e. God’s voice despite our doubts, despite our uncertainties is especially real and poignant in a post Holocaust world, when as a nation our image of a caring, protective God must have surely been shattered. Yet we must still learn to re-imagine ourselves and our relationship to the Divine and continue to listen to, obey and take heed of his Voice and yet just as passionately question, search and challenge.  It is therefore no surprise that the ‘answer’ to the akeida lies entangled in a thicket.  No answers are clear, black and white or easily attained.  Answers will often require painful encounters with others and ourselves, they are realized thorough process and time, patience, perseverance and a never ending climb up a steep mountain.   The world is a complex place, and our mission in the world is even more complex, our relationship to God cannot always be seen through black and white, sometimes we have to untangle the ram from the thicket, we have to face up to God even though we feel deep down like sinking to the depths of the ocean.

Yonah understands in the end that the flight from God and from his mission will not succeed. He learns what Avraham seemingly learnt through his dialogue with God at Sodom that sometimes reality is not as we expect and that the world does not provide us with absolute knowledge. He learns that reality is fragmented and that in spite of all this we have to accept our destiny in all its complexity and leave ourselves open to new horizons and ideas even if that means engaging in a total paradigm shift.  In my mind this is the cornerstone of the Teshuva process, to be able to re-imagine ourselves totally. Like the sailors on Yonah’s ship, change can only occur if we search, ask and embrace uncertainty.  For as Elie Wiesel famously said:

 Favour the question, always question. Do not accept answers as definitive. Answers change. Questions don’t. Always question those who are certain of what they are saying. Always favour the person who is tolerant enough to understand that there are no absolute answers, but there are absolute questions.[8]

Wishing you and all of Am Yisrael a Gemar Chatima Tova

Yonah and Avraham. A parallel:

Avraham                                                                                                                                                         Yonah          

3 days journeying to mission                                                                                                             3 days stagnant in a whale

Motif of ‘rising’                                                                                                                                         Motif of ‘descent’

Active                                                                                                                                                            Passive

God as Elokim (Din/Justice)                                                                                                               God as Hashem (rachamin/mercy)       

Learns Justice                                                                                                                                           Learns mercy/compassion

Confronting uncertainty                                                                                                                       Escaping uncertainty                                           

[1] Malbim 1:2

[2] Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 11:

[3] It is fascinating that at exactly this point in the book the moment when Yonah reveals the motive behind his slight, God is described as ה אלוקים. Hashem and Elokim together is a paradox, its incongruous, it’s almost cognitively impossible to understand. Yonah, the prophet of truth, logic and rationale cannot comprehend the duality of these characteristics.  God says to him – to be a creator, to be the Master of the Universe, to give and take life, requires both compassion and justice, truth and hidden elements of truth.

[4] I have not bought the entire text but it is highly recommended to read it through to get a feel for the themes and language evident in it. (Bereshit 22:1-19)

[5] I use Soren Kierkegaard terminology here to describe the act of having to ‘rethink’ one’s theological position with regards to ethics and God.

[6] The Malbim on the Akeida argues that since Yitzchak’s birth was itself miraculous and against nature, his existence was one of chesed by God. In a world of strict Din and Emet Yitzchak could not and would not exist.  Hence God’s command was teaching Avraham the mida of Din.

[7] There is a beautiful midrash in Bereshit Raba56:8 that depicts this exact dialectic of a shift in perspectives: Said R. Abba: Abraham addressed God, Let me spread before you my complaint. Yesterday You told me ‘In Isaac your seed shall be named.’, Then you said, ‘Take your son….and offer him as a burnt offering….’. And now you tell me ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy!’ God answered him: I shall not profane My covenant and the utterance of My lips I shall not change. When I said to you ‘take your son….’ I did not say ‘Slaughter him’ but ‘Bring him up’.  You have bought him up. Now bring him down.

What the Rabbi’s are imparting is that to Avraham’s eyes everything has changed, but in God’s mind everything has remained the same.   Because our view is limited, something will look different to us today than the way we conceived of it yesterday. Therefore I must remain constantly open to shifts and changes in the way I perceive reality and my relationship to God.

[8] From a 1996 interview with Elie Wiesel

2 views0 comments


bottom of page