The following article is the second part of a series on Sefer Yonah, presented by Rabbi Chaim Jachter and Binyamin Jachter. See next week’s issue of Kol Torah on Parashiyot Acharei Mot & Kedoshim for Part III.
“In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed” proclaimed Yonah (3:4) throughout the streets of Nineveh. No mention, though, is made about doing Teshuvah and avoiding the pending calamity. How could Yonah have omitted such a critical point?! While one could suggest that Sefer Yonah presents only a highlight of Yonah’s speech and that in actuality Yonah said much more, the classic commentaries do not adopt this approach.
Malbim’s First Approach
Malbim (to Pasuk 4) argues that it is not necessary to state the Teshuvah option since it is implicit in the very fact that Yonah is delivering his speech. Had the decree of destruction been irrevocable there would have been no need for the Navi to announce the impending doom.
It is possible that Yonah sought to present his message in the most succinct manner possible and thus left the Teshuvah option implicit. Often, the shortest speeches make the most impact. The Gettysburg Address, for example, is recognized as one of the most influential speeches ever delivered by a country’s leader. It took President Lincoln only a little more than two minutes to deliver this message. In addition, it is possible that Yonah wanted as many people as possible to hear the message directly from him and therefore had to reduce the speech to a minimum.
Torah Academy of Bergen County Talmidim also noted the power of leaving things to be figured out on their own. This type of indirect communication can be most effective in achieving “buy-in” since the listeners participate in formulating the message instead of hammering it home directly.
An example of the effectiveness of indirect communication is the manner in which Natan HaNavi delivered Mussar to David HaMelech after the sin of Bat Sheva and Uriah HaChitti. Instead of launching a frontal assault, Natan told a parable of a rich man who stole the sole lamb belonging to a poor individual and then telling David HaMelech that he is that man (Shmuel II Perek 12).
A possible weakness with this approach is that it appears to be inconsistent with how Nevi’im usually deliver their speeches. There is almost always a "but you can change it" part that comes afterwards. Examples of offering the Teshuvah option include Yeshayahu 1:19, Hoshei’a 14:2-10 and Malachi 3:7-12. In addition, this seems inconsistent with Yonah’s personality. By the sailors in chapter one, he either said nothing or everything. This half in half out style is not his motif.
Malbim’s Second Approach
Malbim (ibid.) presents a most intriguing alternative understanding. He suggests that Yonah deliberately chose to omit a part of the speech he was supposed to deliver. He offers the possibility that Yonah omitted the option of Teshuvah since he was eager for Nineveh not to perform Teshuvah. Yonah wanted not to come at all but this was the best he was going to get.
Yonah’s omission of the Teshuvah option is an example of what is stated in Mishlei (19:21) “Rabot Machashavot B’Lev Ish VaAtzat Hashem Hi Takum”, while there are many thoughts in man’s heart, Hashem’s plan will ultimately prevail. Indeed, Moshe Rabbeinu states (Bemidbar 14:41) “Lamah Zeh Atem Overim Et Pi Hashem V’Hi Lo Titzlach”, why are you violating the word of Hashem, as your efforts will not succeed. Hoshei’a (14:2) also teaches “Shuvah Ad Hashem Elokecha, Ki Chashalta BaAvonecha”, return to God since you have failed in your sins.
Rashi vs. the Ibn Ezra
Rashi presents a most interesting approach which develops the idea that Teshuvah is implicit in Yonah’s five word speech to Nineveh. Rashi notes that the word “Nehepachet ” or overturned may be understood in one of two ways. Either it means destroyed as the word is used in the context of the destruction of Sedom. Alternatively, it could mean that it will turn over, as in the phrase “turn over a new leaf” or a complete reversal of behavior as in the phrase "VeNahaphoch Hu" from Megillat Esther (9:1).
In other words, by Yonah using the word “Nehepachet”, he communicates to Nineveh that they have the opportunity to create their own destiny. Their destiny is either to be destroyed or change. It is up to Nineveh as to which outcome they wish to occur.
Torah Academy students note the power of Rashi’s approach as it provides the people of Nineveh with a choice. This is similar to the sailors offering Yonah a choice (Yonah 1:11), saying to him “what should we do to you”? When one provides a choice one greatly increases the possibility of the listeners “buy in”.
Interestingly, the Ibn Ezra rejects Rashi’s approach. He insists that the word Nehepachet only means to be destroyed. Radak seems to agree with Ibn Ezra.
A Suggested Compromise between Rashi and Ibn Ezra
Together with the Talmidim at Torah Academy of Bergen County, we offered a compromise between Rashi and Ibn Ezra. We suggested that it is possible that Yonah intended the word Nehepachet to mean destroyed as Ibn Ezra and Radak understand, fitting with Malbim’s second approach that Yonah deliberately omitted the Teshuvah option since he wanted Nineveh to be destroyed.
However, the people of Nineveh chose to interpret Nehepachet in the manner presented by Rashi, leaving them a path open to Teshuvah and redemption. According to our approach, Nineveh sets a great example of the power of a positive interpretation creating its own momentum and resulting in a positive outcome. This would be an example of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motto “Tracht Gut Vet Zein Gut”, think good it will be good. It also fits with what we suggested earlier that no matter what you do, it will still end up as Hashem's will.
Yonah’s message resonates deeply to us as we listen to the message on Yom Kippur at Mincha. Yom Kippur is the culmination of a forty day period of Teshuvah beginning from Chodesh Elul. We are faced with a similar choice as the people of Nineveh and are given the opportunity to write our own destiny at this pivotal moment in the Jewish year.
Postscript - Why the Number Forty?
Why is the number forty chosen as the time for the people of Nineveh can perform Teshuvah? One may answer that it certainly evokes thoughts of the forty days of destruction during the time of the Mabul and the forty years in the Midbar when the older generation was eliminated. Thus, the number forty is associated with total destruction and elimination.
We may add to this the idea expressed by Rav Zvi Grumet in his work “Genesis” (pages 86-87) that the number forty in Torah literature expresses an opportunity for rebirth:
In both biblical and rabbinic literature, the number forty represents birth or rebirth. In the Bible, Moses is on the mountain for forty days and emerges as a man reborn with a radiant face. The spies enter the land as princes and forty days later return with the self-image of grasshoppers. The Israelite nation spends forty years in the desert and is transformed from a fractured nation of refugees into a unified nation of conquerors…..In rabbinic literature, there are forty minus one categories of prohibited (creative) work on Shabbat, a child is considered to be “alive” in the womb after forty days, and pregnancy lasts for forty weeks.
We may add to this list that grape juice ferments into wine, forty days after it is squeezed from the grape (Eiduyot 6:1). Malkot are also “forty minus one” as they are intended to spur the emergence of a new personality after the traumatic experience.
Accordingly, the number forty conveys a similar message as the word Nehepachet. It can refer to utter destruction or rebirth. The people of Nineveh and every Jew on Yom Kippur are faced with the same stark choice as to which path we will choose - falling into the abyss or redeeming ourselves and rebooting our lives.