A Prophet in His Own Country
Whether we are aware or not, Jews are a people on a mission— to lead humanity to the final correction—and pay heavily for any attempt to avoid that mission. If examine the story of Prophet Jonah, we will understand the essence of this mission
Many of us attend shul on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), but for some of us, it is our only exposure to the Temple that year.
Traditionally on Yom Kippur, we read the Book of Jonah. Yom Kippur is a very special day to Jews, perhaps the most important day of the year. Why, then, has it become customary to read a seemingly marginal story on such an important day? Is there a connection between the story of Prophet Jonah and his message to the people of Nineveh—who were not Jewish—and the Day of Atonement?
The hero of the story is Jonah, son of Amitai. The Creator instructed Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and tell its people that “their wickedness is come up before Me” (Jonah, 1:2). In an unusual step for prophets, Jonah avoided his mission and chose to leave Israel. He mounted a boat at Jaffa Port and escaped to Tarshish, an ancient city on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
In the Midst of a Whale
While at sea, “the Lord hurled a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken” (Jonah 1:4). The sailors fought the wind and the swirling waters, but, clearly losing the battle, were on the verge of despair. In their distress, they tried to learn who was responsible for their plight. The crew cast a lot to see who was to blame for the storm, and the lot fell on Jonah, the only Jew on board. He was thus found guilty for creating the storm.
In reply to their questions, Jonah told them he was a Hebrew and that he was trying to escape from God. The sailors then asked Jonah, “What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us” (1:11)? Jonah, in a burst of courage, told them to throw him off the boat into the sea. Although the sailors tried to find a less harsh manner to calm the storm, they finally despaired, and threw him off the deck.
At sea, Jonah was swallowed by a whale and remained inside it for three days and three nights. Inside the whale’s stomach, Jonah prayed to God with gratitude and pleaded forgiveness: “But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving; that which I have vowed I will pay” (2:10).
The Creator heard his plea and pardoned Jonah, let him out of the whale, and instructed him once more to go to Nineveh and warn its people. This time, Jonah obeyed the Creator and delivered a message to the people of Nineveh. He told them that forty days hence, their city would be ruined. The people and their king wisely heeded his warning and repented. Thus the city was saved.
Like Jonah, Like Israel
This is the Biblical story. To understand its deeper meaning, we went to Kabbalistic resources and learned about the profound meaning of this “picturesque” chronicle.
Jonah was a prophet, and according to Kabbalah, a prophet is one who has risen to such a high spiritual degree, he or she can “speak” to the Creator. Such a person discovers the Upper Force that operates in reality, and understands the overall design of Nature.
Jonah's story is an allegory of the mission of the people of Israel: to save humanity from the path of pain and bring it to a life of peace and happiness. As a prophet, Jonah was instructed to go to Nineveh to explain to its people how they could progress toward the purpose of Creation in the safest, simplest way.
However, instead of going to Nineveh as instructed, Jonah decided that this would be impossible. He examined the mission the Creator had assigned him with his own logic and decided that it was too difficult to accomplish; no one, he believed, would listen to him. Hence, he tried to escape.
But Jonah was a Jew and as such, he had a special task: to follow the mission he'd been given. He did not know it then, but it is impossible to escape from keeping the laws of the Upper Nature.
To force Jonah back to his mission, Nature's (the Creator’s) Forces assumed the form of a stormy sea that Jonah could not escape. The forces that were seemingly meant to help him—the sailors and the captain—failed to do so, and Jonah realized that nothing would help him. His physical drowning symbolized his spiritual decline.
In fact, the only thing that could save him was to carry out the mission he'd initially been given—to correct Nineveh. If he placed the importance of his mission above all else in his life, he would successfully accomplish his mission.
The story of Jonah is an allegory to the Jewish people still trying to avoid their duty and hence still suffering. This is precisely why, on Yom Kippur, a day of introspection, the people of Israel must understand and accept their mission. Regrettably, we, like Jonah, are sluggish in carrying out our mission. We are hopelessly trying to sail away to different “havens” on the planet, and we continue being rejected, just like Jonah.
On the Day of Atonement, we are judged by whether or not we have been carrying out our mission. This is why our sages said that on this day, we should read the story of Jonah. The people of Israel have yet to complete Prophet Jonah's mission, and just as it happened then among the sailors, many nations today are realizing that the Jews are responsible for all their troubles.
Our spiritual root is leading us to the troubles we are facing and to growing anti-Semitism. As it is written, "No calamity comes to the world but for Israel" (Yevamot, 63).
Eventually, we will realize that we have no alternative but to fulfill our mission. We must use the wisdom given to us by our fathers—the wisdom of Kabbalah—to achieve wholeness and peace, and to disseminate this wisdom among other nations so that they, too, can perform the same process. This is our vocation as a “chosen people,” our role in reality.