“And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which
there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people…?” (Jonah 4:11)
Jonah is unique among the Biblical prophets; only he gets an entire city to repent with one warning. It makes sense, then, for the rabbis to choose Jonah for the prophetic reading for the afternoon service on Yom Kippur (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 31a)
Dr. David Lieber (1925-2008; rabbi, scholar, and editor of the Etz Hayim chumash) claims repentance is not Jonah’s central message, though. If it were, the story would end with Nineveh’s repentance and God’s forgiveness in Chapter Three. Lieber says Jonah’s real message is revealed only in Chapter Four, when Jonah responds with dismay when God forgives the Ninevites. Jonah explains this is precisely why he ran away from God’s election to prophecy: “For I know you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.” (Jonah 4:2) Why should Jonah risk his personal comfort and safety prophesying to the Ninevites if he knows God isn’t going to punish them in the end?
Yom Kippur is called Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, and our image of God is influenced by years of exposure to a liturgy describing a stern accounting of our deeds. Yet, it is equally fitting to call Yom Kippur Yom Harachamim, the Day of Compassion, because God’s mercy always trumps God’s judgment. So the book of Jonah offers two messages, one explicit and one inferred. The explicit message is to be grateful for God’s compassion, which is the source of our existence (rather than our repentance). The inferred message is to emulate God’s generosity of spirit by offering more compassion and less judgment to those around us.
Gut Shabbos, Gut Yontif/Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach
G’mar Chatima Tova/A Good Closing Sealing (in the Book of Life)