Why Did Yonah Flee? - Part II by Rabbi Chaim Jachter and Binyamin Jachter (‘17)


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. To view Part I, and other excerpts, visit koltorah.org and to order the book visit http://www.blurb.com/b/8870724-depths-of-yonah.

            Let us continue to peel back the layers as we endeavor to crack the mystery of why a great spiritual figure such as Yonah would disobey a direct order from Hashem.

Approach Number Three – Yonah Protecting Am Yisrael

According to the Midrash cited by Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak, Yonah was trying to protect the image of our people.  Yonah is concerned that if the people of Nineveh do Teshuvah, it will bring about a catastrophe to Am Yisrael.

            Rashi (1:3) presents this idea as follows:

What motivated Yonah to refuse to go to Nineveh?  He reasoned, ‘the non-Jews are easily led to Teshuvah.  If I address them and they do Teshuvah then I will be Mechayeiv (condemn) the Jewish People who do not heed the words of the Neviim’.

            Rashi’s formulation brings to mind the well-known Gemara[1] (Yoma 35b)

Our rabbis taught: A poor person, a rich person, and an evil person come before the heavenly court. They ask the poor person, “Why did you not study Torah?” If the poor person answers, “I was poor and worried about earning a living,” they will ask the poor person, “Were you poorer than Hillel?” For it was told of Hillel that every day he used to work and earn one tropaik [a small amount], half of which he would give as tuition to the doorkeeper at the House of Learning; the other half he would spend on his and his family’s needs. One day, he was unable to earn anything and the doorkeeper would not permit him to enter the House of Learning. So he climbed up to the roof and sat upon the window to hear the words of the Living God out of the mouths of Shmaya and Avtalion. That day was a Friday in the middle of winter, and snow fell on him from the sky. When the dawn rose, Shmaya said to Avtalion, “Brother Avtalion, every day, this house is light and today it is dark.” They looked up and saw the figure of a man in the window. They went up and found Hillel covered by four feet of snow. They brought him down, bathed and anointed him, and placed him in front of the fire…

They ask the rich person, “Why did you not study Torah?” If the rich person answers, “I was rich and preoccupied with my possessions,” they say to the rich person, “Do you mean to say you were richer than Rabi Elazar?” Of Rabi Eleazar ben Charsom, it is reported that his father left him an inheritance of one thousand cities on land and a thousand ships on sea. Yet every day he would take a sack of flour on his shoulder and go from city to city and province to province for the sole purpose of studying the Torah…

They ask the evil person, “Why did you not study Torah?” If the evil person says, “I was so good-looking that I was too busy just keeping my passions under control,” they will ask him, “Do you mean to say you were better-looking then Joseph?” It was told of Joseph the virtuous that every day Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him with words and actions. The dresses she put on for him in the morning, she did not wear in the evening; those she put on in the evening, she did not wear the next morning. She said to him, “Yield to me!” He said, “No.” She said, “I will have you imprisoned” [if you don’t]...Finally, she offered him a thousand pieces of silver if only he would lie with her, but he refused…

Thus, the poor who do not study Torah stand condemned by the examples set by Hillel. The rich who do not study Torah stand condemned by the example set by Rabbi Eleazar ben Charsom. And the evil who do not study Torah stand condemned by the example set by Joseph.

Similarly, the Teshuvah of Nineveh will condemn the Jewish people by raising the bar for Teshuvah in the same manner in which Hillel raised the bar for Torah study for the poor, Rabi Eleazar ben Charsom raised the bar for Torah study for the wealthy, and Yosef HaTzadik raised the bar for resisting the Yetzer HaRa even in the most challenging of circumstances.

Rav Ben Zion Shafier offered the following information to help understand this idea:  No one thought it was possible to run a mile in less than four minutes before 1954.  Many made the effort but no one was able to do so.  Many experts in human physiology claimed at that time that the human body is incapable of achieving this feat.  However, once it was first achieved in 1954 by Roger Bannister in 3:59.4 the "four-minute barrier" was subsequently broken by many male athletes, and is now the standard of all male professional middle distance runners.

This idea is called the Elephant Dilemma. A baby elephant does not possess sufficient strength to remove the peg holding it in captivity. As it grows up, the elephant is much stronger than necessary to remove the peg from the ground where it is stuck. Even so, fully grown elephants do not typically escape the circus. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the elephant has a psychological barrier telling it that it still is not strong enough to uproot the stake holding it down. But if the peg is accidentally pulled out of its spot, the elephant can never go back to its state of unknowing and inability. It will always be able to escape its pegged prison.

Similarly, once Nineveh would break the Teshuvah barrier it now sets the standard.  Nineveh’s Teshuvah shows we are all capable of repenting, and there is no excuse for not doing so.  Of course, where Yonah feared “breaking the Teshuvah barrier” we instead find a compelling reason to hear about the Teshuvah of the people of Nineveh on Yom Kippur.

According to this Midrash, Yonah sinned for a noble reason.  This type of behavior is referred to by Chazal (Nazir 23) as an Aveirah Lishmah, a sin for the sake of goodness.  This is certainly apparent in the manner in which Radak (1:1) presents this Midrash: Yonah advocated for the dignity of the son (i.e. our people, the Jews) and not for the dignity of the father (i.e. Hashem).

The well intentioned nature of Yonah’s flight makes Yonah’s rebellion worthy of inclusion in Tanach.  Sefer Yonah represents the noble struggle with which Yonah engaged Hashem.  As Yonah grows and learns during this struggle with Hashem, the discerning and thoughtful student of Sefer Yonah vicariously relives Yonah’s struggle and grows alongside him and from him.

Non-Jews Close to Teshuvah?

Rashi’s comment, though, that non-Jews are Kerovei Teshuvah (close to repentance), unlike the Jewish People, appears to be counterintuitive.  Hashem’s special people are not Kerovei Teshuvah but non-Jews are?!  This seems an utterly shocking statement to make.  Why would Hashem chose us as His nation if it is difficult for us to perform Teshuvah?

We can answer based on a Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 42:9).

R. Yakim said: Three are the undaunted: among beasts, it is the dog; among birds, it is the cock; and among the nations, it is Israel.  R. Isaac ben Redifa said in the name of R. Ammi: You think that this is said disparagingly, but it is really in their praise.  R. Abin said: To this very day Israelites in the Diaspora are called the stiff-necked people.

Similarly, the Gemara (Beitzah 25b) notes that Hashem specifically chose to give the Torah to us, the most Az (fierce) of all nations.  One could translate Az as “fierce,” but I suggest it be translated as “brazen” in the sense that we are opinionated and strong minded and not easily swayed.

The Jews who accepted the Torah were not a docile and gullible people who accepted everything that Moses told them at face value because of his seductive and persuasive oratory.  On the contrary, they constantly bickered with and disobeyed Moses, who was a very poor speaker.  Virtually the only time we were unified was at Mount Sinai, because the authenticity of the Sinai experience itself was profoundly compelling and unquestionably persuasive.

Similarly, we find in every generation that observant Jews are not passively trusting people who accept what they are told. Every significant Talmudic and halachic issue is carefully examined by both experts and laymen who rigorously analyze every opinion, new and old. Despite these many disputes, observant Jews agree upon core values and beliefs such as the divine authorship of the Torah.

The Israeli novelist Amos Oz noted[2]:

Judaism and Israel have always cultivated a culture of doubt and argument, an open-ended game of interpretations, counter-interpretations, reinterpretations, opposing interpretations.  From the beginning of the existence of Jewish civilization, it was recognized by its argumentativeness.

Shimon Peres[3], Israel’s former president, told an interviewer while still in office that “the greatest Jewish contribution to the world is dissatisfaction,” which he said “is bad for the country’s leaders, but very good for science and progress.” Nearly every page of Gemara is filled with arguments.  In the centuries after the finalization of the Talmud, the disputes persist with great vigor. Maimonides’ code and the Shulhan Aruch were surrounded by vigorous critical review and argumentation.  Excellent lectures and high-level yeshivas are distinguished by intense debate and argument.  The Gemara (Bava Metzia 84a) relates how Rav Yochanan experienced severe depression after the death of Reish Lakish because his students did not challenge him.  Rav Yochanan deeply missed Reish Lakish’s persistent questioning, which had helped him to refine his Torah thoughts.

Avraham Avinu began his spiritual path specifically by questioning the status quo of the civilization around him. This Jewish trait persists until today. Science, as shown by the incredibly disproportionate percentage of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes, has been improved by Jews who push past current bounds of science to make new innovation. It’s written into our blood that we don’t sit with what we are told but rather mold the prevailing wisdom into our new creation.

Perhaps it is for this reason Hashem chose the Jewish people – the notoriously stiff-necked nation – to serve as His witnesses.   If such an argumentative and contentious people confirm the veracity of the Sinai revelation despite the extensive demands it makes upon its adherents, then it most certainly is true.


Rashi apparently understands that Yonah was a spectacularly charismatic and mesmerizing speaker.  The best proof of this is the incredible response of Nineveh to Yonah’s very brief speech recorded in Perek 3.  Non-Jews are, relatively speaking, able to be easily swayed to this type of personality (the German people’s being swayed after Hitler’s mesmerizing oratory is an example).  Jews, however, as we explained are not.  This is precisely the fear that Yonah has when called upon to address Nineveh and bring them to Teshuvah.

The reader of Sefer Yonah on Yom Kippur should realize that the status quo is not something with which to be content and remain idle. Rather, we have to push past what we are being told about who we are into someone who is much better. Sefer Yonah impels us to mold our nature and grow into our new selves that are coming to be this year.

[1] Translation adapted from http://www.on1foot.org/text/babyloniam-talmud-yoma-35b.

[2] Quoted in Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011), 51.

[3] Quoted in Seth M. Siegel, Let There be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 235.

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Why Did Yonah Flee? - Part I by Rabbi Chaim Jachter and Binyamin Jachter (‘17)