A Whale of a Story
By Nachum Mohl
When I was a boy, one of the highlights of each Yom Kippur was to listen to the auctioning off of the various "aliyot" (the going up to make the blessings for the Torah reading). In the synagogue in which I grew up, the most special auction was for the privilege of reading the Book of Yonah which is read in each synagogue on Yom Kippur at the conclusion of the Mincha (afternoon) Torah reading.
In our synagogue the reading of Yonah was sold for the highest price of all of the "aliyot". There was always excitement in the air who would buy it. Sometimes it would be a person who was wealthy, trying to impress us with his wealth. Other times it would be someone who was not wealthy, but was willing to spend a lot of money for this special honor on this the most holy of days.
In all cases, no one left the synagogue during the auction and those who were not present always would inquire as to who purchased Yonah and for what price.
As I grew older and continued to watch the bidding, I began to wonder what was so special about this book of the Prophets that it was chosen to be the centerpiece of such a holy day. The book of Yonah is actually quite small, only four chapters. It is written simply and is quite easy to understand.
The basic story of Yonah is well known to many, although the details are not. Yonah was a prophet who received prophecy that he should travel to the foreign city of Nineveh and prophesize their imminent destruction. Yonah ran away from G-d and boarded a ship destined for Tarshish. A gigantic storm came up which frightened the sailors. They suspected that someone's evil behavior had caused the storm and so they drew lots.
Yonah was identified by the lottery and he was thrown overboard after which the storm subsided. The whale subsequently swallowed Yonah (we all know the song). The whale spit him up onto dry land that he should continue his journey to Ninveh.
He prophesized to the inhabitants of Ninveh and they repented from their evil actions and the city was spared. Yonah strangely enough was disturbed by this turn of events. He went out from the city and sat down in a Succah and prayed to G-d that he should die. G-d made a "kikayon" flower or bush grow to give him shade. Then a worm came and attacked the "kikayon" causing it to wither and die. Yonah was left without his shade and he lamented this loss to which G-d reproved him saying that he mourns the loss of the "kikayon", how much more so should he realize had the inhabitants of Nineveh not been told of the prophecy they too would have died.
The reason that we read this book on Yom Kippur is two fold. One is to show us that we cannot run away from God. Yonah tried to escape from Him even to the point that he was willing to die, yet G-d brought the great whale to insure that Yonah would do G-d's will. G-d wanted Yonah to prophesize to the people of Nineveh. Yonah did not want to.
The reason Yonah did not want to prophesize was that he feared that they would indeed heed his words - which is exactly what happened. The people of Nineveh repented and stopped their evil ways and G-d spared the city. This made the Jews look extremely bad in comparison. Here a city of gentiles hear the word of G-d and they repent. The Jews are the chosen people of G-d who hear the prophet chastising them for their evil ways yet they refuse to repent!
Therefore the second thing that we learn is the importance of repentance. Especially on Yom Kippur, the holiest of days, when the divine decrees are sealed, we must learn from the gentile inhabitants of Nineveh, that any evil decree that may be made on this day can be averted through our repentance.
Those are the messages of the book of Yonah. One, we can never escape from God. Two, through proper repentance an evil decree can be mitigated. That is certainly two very good reasons to read Yonah. If I did not learn anything about Yom Kippur other than that, I have learnt a lot.
from the September-October 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine