What an overreaction! Yonah has just hunkered down outside of Nineveh and set up a Sukkah for shade. Hashem then provides a Kikayon2 for shade. It is understandable that Yonah would be pleased that Hashem has enhanced his shade, especially needed in the blistering Middle Eastern sun. However, the “Simchah Gedolah,” “Great happiness” (Yonah 4:6) experienced by Yonah appears to be overblown, especially since he already has a Sukkah for shade (Yonah 4:5). How are we to understand Yonah’s exaggerated emotional response?
Solutions from Abarbanel and the Metzudat David
Abarbanel surmises that the Sukkah built by Yonah had dried up, and that without the Kikayon, Yonah was suffering terribly. Thus, Yonah was rescued from death by the leafy Kikayon, explaining his great joy at its appearance. While an interesting approach, there seems to be little support in the text for Abarbanel’s understanding.
Metzudat David adopts a similar, but less ambitious, approach. He understands that the Sukkah could provide shade only temporarily before drying up in the blistering heat, but the Kikayon would last for a long time without drying out. Since the Kikayon was attached to the ground, it would retain its moisture.
These approaches do not explain why, at the moment the Kikayon appeared, Yonah was so happy. The Kikayon seems to present a potential good, useful only insofar as it lasts long enough to be useful. Seemingly, the advent of the Kikayon should not be enough to create the immediate internal feeling of Simchah Gedolah.
Background for the Approach of the Malbim - Detecting Hashem’s Intervention
Yoseif (Bereishit 45:8 and 50:20) makes the surprising claim that Hashem sent him to Egypt to provide food for his family during the famine. He makes this assertion twice: once when he reveals his identity to his brothers, and yet again when consoling his brothers after their father Ya’akov’s death. We are perplexed, though, as to how Yoseif became convinced that this indeed was Hashem's intention. After all, unlike the Avot, Yoseif never received a direct prophecy from Hashem; how was he privy to God's will?
This question has ramifications for us. For if Yoseif can discern God's will without the benefit of direct communication, then we also might be able to discover Hashem's will even in an age devoid of prophecy (or even the Bat Kol, the heavenly voice which constituted a lower degree of prophecy, that was sometimes heard in Talmudic times).
An answer to our query emerges from an analysis of an intriguing comment made by Rashi. The Torah records that the caravan that transported Yoseif to slavery in Egypt was carrying fragrant spices such as balsam and lotus. Chazal and Rashi wonder why the Torah records this seemingly trivial detail, which appears entirely irrelevant to the story. Why does Hashem feel it is important for us to know the contents of the caravan’s cargo?
Rashi (BeReishit 37:25 s.v. UGmaleihem), following Chazal (Bereishit Rabbah 84:17), explains that normally Arab caravans carried foul-smelling items such as resin and tar. Hashem arranged that the caravan transporting Yoseif would feature fragrant spices so that Yoseif need not suffer from the malodorous wares.
This teaching is quite puzzling. Yoseif is being transported to Egypt to live a miserable existence as a slave. Yoseif’s privileged life as Ya’akov’s favorite son was transformed instantly to a wretched reality. How would Hashem’s arranging for the caravan to carry sweet smells help Yoseif in any significant manner? Odoriferous cargo would have appeared to constitute the least of Yoseif’s newly-encountered problems. The situation would seem analogous to someone who, God forbid, was kidnapped by ISIS and Hashem arranged for the vehicle transporting the victim to be pleasant-smelling. What benefit does the victim in such horrific circumstances have from the pleasant smell?
One answer is that Yoseif was a highly intelligent person, as Onkelos (BeReshit 37:3) and Rashi (ibid. s.v. Ben Zekunim) point out. He therefore realized that it was unusual for an Ishmaelite caravan to be carrying sweet-smelling spices. Add in the fact that caravans tend to be terribly malodorous because they are filled with sweaty men and animals traveling through a scorching desert, and having a good smell in such circumstances becomes not just rare, but almost unheard of.
Yoseif, therefore, realized that this rare occurrence must have been a subtle message from Hashem that He is with him and that He orchestrated his sale to Egypt for a purpose.This message Yoseif eventually articulated confidently to his brothers. Yoseif did not need divine revelation to ascertain this information; he needed only logic and sensitivity to his surroundings to become conscious of Hashem’s involvement. The ongoing and eventually dramatic turn of events during Yoseif’s time in Mitzrayim encouraged the same train of thought and led Yoseif to detect and identify Hashem’s continued support and intervention.
Malbim presents a most compelling explanation of Yonah’s great joy. Malbim explains that the Kikayon’s miraculous sudden appearance clearly indicates divine intervention. Yonah, in turn, interprets the divine intervention as signaling divine approval of his hunkering down outside of Nineveh. The leafy plant will facilitate Yonah stationing himself long term there, causing Yonah to assume that Hashem is coming around to his way of thinking. Yonah surmises that just as Moshe Rabbeinu convinced Hashem to spare us after the Cheit HaEigel (Sin of the Golden Calf), he, Yonah, is well on his way to convincing Hashem that He has been far too lenient to Nineveh.
Malbim’s approach explains very well Yonah’s great joy at the appearance of the Kikayon. His joy emanates from far more than the shade it provides. Yonah is overjoyed at what he, incorrectly, perceives as divine approval. It also explains Yonah’s joy despite the fact that his Sukkah already provided shade. Finally, it explains the profound pain experienced by Yonah when the Kikayon shriveled up.
While Malbim’s explanation solves a range of problems, it does not explain why Hashem made Yonah experience such an intense psychological trauma. We shall soon return to explore and resolve this question.
Malbim’s explanation also helps explain why we read this Sefer on Yom Kippur at Minchah. As we are preparing for the final moments of the day, we see, according to Malbim, a stark example of how to perceive Hashem’s hand in the world. Yoseif saw Hashem’s direct intervention and took it for good, saving his family and the whole region. By following Hashem’s guidance and using it to execute Hashem’s will, Yoseif succeeded mightily. Yonah did the opposite, taking Hashem’s intervention and using it to directly oppose Hashem’s will, believing himself correct and Hashem wrong. The result: Yonah falls hard. Sefer Yonah reminds us to look at the past and present to see Hashem’s divine intervention the world. The Sefer also reminds us to make amends for interpreting Hashem’s hand against Hashem’s will and to resolve, as Yom Kippur draws to a close, to treat Hashem’s involvement in the world in the coming year with the respect and care it deserves.
2 The Gemara (Shabbat 21a) identifies the Kikayon as similar to the plant known in Aramaic as “Tzloliva”, which Da’at Mikra notes is the Latin equivalent of the Ricinus communis (from which castor oil is made). The Gemara states that the Kikayon is a very leafy plant, a fact which is readily apparent upon viewing a picture of the Ricinus communis. Ibn Ezra to Pasuk 6 (s.v. VeYeman) quotes sages of Spain who explain the Kikayon as a pumpkin, but he argues that the exact identity of the tree is not necessary to grasp the meaning of the text. One might object to Ibn Ezra’s assertion, especially since the Gemara’s identification of the Kikayon as a very leafy tree sheds light as to why Yonah was pleased at its sudden appearance despite having already built a Sukkah for shade.