Editors’ note: The following article is excerpted from "The Depths of Yonah: Unleashing the Power of Your Yom Kippur", a new book published by Rabbi Chaim Jachter and Binyamin Jachter. Click here to purchase a copy.
It is unprecedented and unparalleled in any other situation in Tanach! Why would Yonah flee from Hashem? Why would a Navi refuse to go to Nineveh and comply with Hashem’s command? This is the central question of Sefer Yonah and resolving this problem will lead us to the essence of the message of this great Sefer.
Explanation Number One - Yonah is a Straightforward Sinner
None of the Mefarshim (commentators) (to the best of my knowledge) adopt the approach that Yonah is a simple and straightforward run of the mill sinner. However, the reader/listener to Sefer Yonah, who might not take the time to delve deeply into the meaning of the Sefer, might easily receive this erroneous impression. One might think the story of Yonah is simply the story of a sinner who is punished and performs Teshuvah and repents, serving as a role model for us especially as we read Sefer Yonah on Yom Kippur.
The reasons why none of the Mefarshim adopt such an approach are manifold. To begin, simply to reach the level of a Navi one must be of great spiritual character and stature. The Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 7:1) writes:
Nevuah (prophecy) rests only upon one with great knowledge and wisdom, heroic in his personal attributes, one whose Yetzer HaRa (evil inclination) never overcomes him and whose thinking is very wide and correct.
Moreover, why would Hashem make a series of extraordinary miracles such as Yonah surviving in the belly of a fish and then later with the Kikayon for a petty sinner? Finally, Yonah describes himself while in the throes of a ferociously intense conversation during a fierce storm as “Ivri Anochi VeEt Hashem Elokei HaShamayim Ani Yarei,” “I am a Hebrew and the God of the Heavens I fear” (Yonah 1:9).
Yirat Shamayim, Fear of Heaven [Hashem], fundamentally means respect of God. Yonah defines himself during an intensely existential moment as one who deeply reveres the Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe). If Yonah fears Hashem there must be something deeper, believe all the Mefarshim, motivating Yonah’s singular rebellion.
Explanation Number Two - Rashi (4:1) vs. Ibn Ezra
Rashi, following Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, raises the idea that Yonah fears to appear as a Navi Sheker (false prophet). Yonah anticipates that Nineveh will be receptive to his message and that they will repent, leading Hashem to forgive them. Thus, his warning that Nineveh will be destroyed in forty days (3:4) would go unfulfilled leading Yonah to fear that he would be regarded as a fraud.
Ibn Ezra (1:1) offers a scathing critique of this approach. He asks the obvious question - how could this concern justify rebellion against Hashem? Moreover, the people of Nineveh live so far away from Yonah’s residence in Eretz Yisrael why would he care about how he is regarded in Nineveh? Yonah could have presented his prophecy, left Nineveh, and never been heard from again in that region.
Finally, the people of Nineveh would not be foolish to the extent of calling Yonah a liar. After all, they readily understood that in order to be saved they needed to do Teshuvah. It was obvious to the people of Nineveh that Yonah issued a warning only because there was an opportunity to overturn the decree with Teshuvah. Accordingly, why would Nineveh regard Yonah as a Navi Sheker if they recognize they were saved because they did Teshuvah?
Therefore the Ibn Ezra utterly rejects the opinion of Rashi following the Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer. Indeed, none of the other Mefarshim adopt the approach of Rashi/Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer.
Understanding Rashi on a Deeper Level
Besides Ibn Ezra’s seemingly irrefutable arguments, as my Torah Academy of Bergen County students argued, Rashi’s approach, simply put, makes Yonah seem petty. Would Yonah prefer the more than one hundred and twenty thousand residents of Nineveh perish rather than he be accused of being a false prophet? This sort of attitude does not at all seem compatible with the Rambam’s aforementioned description of a Navi.
Instead, we suggested that Rashi does not mean that Yonah was merely concerned about preserving his reputation. Rather, he was concerned for Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying Hahsem), specifically about avoiding a Chillul Hashem (desecrating Hashem). Yonah was concerned, according to this approach, that the word of Hashem would never be taken seriously in the future if his warning to Nineveh would not materialize soon after he pronounced his prophecy.
Moreover, one may suggest, based on his name, that Yonah was deeply devoted to truth. Shemuel I (25:25) states “Ki Chishmo Kein Hu,” “a person’s essence is captured by his name.” Many have noted that Yonah is described in 1:1 as Yonah ben Amittai. His father’s name Ammitai derives from the word “Emet”, truth, which indicates this trait was a fundamental part of Yonah’s name.
Yonah, as stated in Melachim II (14:25), is from the town of Gat Chefeir, which is located in the portion of the tribe of Zevulun (whose borders are delineated in Yehoshua 19:14). This means that Yonah lived in the Northern Kingdom (during the reign of the less than excellent Yoravam ben Yoash), which was steeped in Avodah Zarah (idolatry). Indeed, Hashem reports (Melachim I 19:18) that only seven thousand of the residents of the Northern kingdom refrained from idolatry. For Yonah to emerge as a prophet in such an environment, a deep and even fanatic devotion to truth was necessary.
Human nature craves to follow the herd and not to differ from societal norms. It takes an enormous devotion to truth to have the courage to deviate from the societal norm. Moreover, Chazal (cited by Rashi to Melachim I 9:1) report that Yonah was a disciple of the prophet Elisha. It is clear from Melachim II (4:42-43, 5:21-26, and 6:1-7) that the students of Elisha lived in dire poverty. To be a devotee of Elisha required a deep devotion to truth no matter what the cost, a devotion Yonah took too far.
We suggest that Rashi and Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer view Yonah as someone who is single minded in his devotion to truth and that any deviation from truth is deeply disturbing and intolerable to him. For this reason, the mission to Nineveh was absolutely intolerable. Indeed, the Zohar (Shemot 193) writes that “Yonah emerges from the strength of Eliyahu [HaNavi]”. Chazal, in fact, believe that Yonah is the child that was revived by Eliyahu HaNavi in Melachim I 17:21-22. Eliyahu HaNavi along with Pinechas are the only characters in Tanach described as zealots (Bemidbar 25:11 and Melachim I 19:10and 14). One may speculate that according to this view Yonah spent time with Eliyahu HaNavi after the revival and Yonah thereby adopted Eliyahu’s zealous devotion to truth.
According to Rashi and Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, Yonah was Ben Amittai, a zealot for truth. A major theme of Sefer Yonah according to this approach is Hashem trying to temper and balance Yonah’s single minded devotion to truth with other Godly values.
One cannot focus exclusively only one Torah value. This is the import of the teaching of Shlomo HaMelech in Kohelet (7:16) that one should refrain from being too wise or too pious. Piety and wisdom constitute core Torah values. However, if one focuses exclusively on only one of these values, to the exclusion of all others, one has distorted the teachings and meaning of the Torah.
Yonah mistakenly focused exclusively on the value of truth to the exclusion of all of other values such as Chessed (kind deeds) and Teshuvah. According to Rashi and Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, through the experiences recorded in Sefer Yonah the prophet learns to balance out his profound devotion to truth with other Torah values as well.
Furthermore, notes Aryeh Krischer ‘14, Yonah’s fanatical devotion to truth and Din not only led him to ignore other Torah values, but also led him to actively disobey Hashem. The Gemara (Sotah 14a) learns proper values from Hashem by the principle of VeHalachta BeDrachav, and you shall walk in [Hashem’s] ways. More than simply having views lacking in nuance, Yonah’s flawed perception of proper values led to disregarding the ultimate value: to follow the will and ways of Hashem.
On Yom Kippur, we are summoned to take a hard-nosed and objective look at ourselves. We are called upon to discover not only that which we lack but also that to which we devote undue attention. This is the great balancing act that the Rambam teaches in Hilchot De’iot that constitutes the key to life: avoiding any extremes, with specific and very limited exceptions. Yonah’s misdirected emphasis on Din, justice, reminds us to remember this theme as the end of our Yom Kippur approaches. We must not only repent for the old, but adjust the new to ensure it too aligns with the will of Hashem.
We continue in our next issue (iyH and b”n) with more fascinating and insightful explanations of why Yonah disobeyed Hashem’s command to rebuke Nineveh.